2004 Labels Belong On Clothing
Chananya Weissman

Author’s note: This article originally appeared in the Jewish Press in 2004.  Since that time the Orthodox world has continued to be divided based on arbitrary superficial signs of religiosity and ideology, and the shidduch world has become an even greater disaster.  Israeli politics is further complicated and stratified as well, and we all suffer from this needless divisiveness.

I refrain from using labels, except to mock them, and have no trouble expressing myself — I simply reference a specific ideology or behavior, instead of using a label and hoping the listener understands it exactly as I want him to.  I also get along with people based on how they think and behave, not based on their head-covering of choice.  Hopefully more people will now be willing to try this approach.  It’s not as hard as you think, and it’s well worth it.

The Gemara in Shabbos relates an amusing anecdote about two of our Sages that probably would be suppressed if it occurred today. R` Avya once visited Rava`s home while wearing muddy shoes. He sat on one of the beds while still wearing the shoes, and dirtied the bed. Annoyed by this breach of etiquette, Rava posed a complex question to R` Avya about the laws of Shabbos. The latter successfully reconciled the difficulty, and avoided being put to shame.

Of course, if Rava really wished to flummox his colleague, he could have asked a much simpler question: What’s your hashkafa?

We can only speculate as to the witty retort this would have engendered in Talmudic times. Nowadays, however, this question is asked with the greatest of seriousness, and numerous judgments about a person, both major and minor, are determined based on the reply. Indeed, if a potential shidduch survives this question, the prospect of a first date jumps from inconceivable all the way up to highly unlikely. With so much hanging in the balance, it is no wonder that many of us dread the inevitable demand to label ourselves. To wear an unfashionable label is to ride next to trouble on a one-lane highway. In today’s world of sound bites, snap judgments, and instant gratification, it can be a mistake beyond repair.

To help alleviate the fear and confusion regarding this matter, I submit, as a public service, this elucidation of some of the more common labels, stereotypes, and generalizations. I reserve judgment on the accuracy and fairness of these perceptions, and assure the more sensitive readers that I mean to offend no one.

The three most common labels among Jews who claim to observe the Torah (both Written and Oral) are Modern Orthodox, yeshivish, and chassidish. In the olden days (fifteen years ago or so), it was fairly simple. Modern Orthodox Jews saw themselves as synthesizing the spirituality of a Torah lifestyle with active participation in the world at large. Yeshivish Jews saw themselves as exclusively dedicated to Torah study and observance, with involvement in the world at large to be minimized, if not entirely shunned. Yeshivish Jews viewed Modern Orthodox Jews as hedonists who did not value a true Torah lifestyle. Modern Orthodox Jews viewed yeshivish Jews as unsophisticated hypocrites who were overly stringent about what butter they ingested, among other things. Obviously, marriage between the two was impossible.

Then things became complicated. The Modern Orthodox took exception to the charges that they scorned halacha. We do not go to mixed dances, they claimed. We keep kosher in all its details, they claimed. We study Torah on the highest levels, they claimed. And just like that, a new label was born: Modern Orthodox Machmir or Right (as opposed to Meikil or Left). These Jews suffer from a rare form of schizophrenia, for to be Modern Orthodox is to be lax, and to be machmir is to be unduly strict. It really can be hard to be a Jew!

Before the dust settled, a new hashkafa emerged: Black Hat Type! This is an interesting hashkafa. It used to be that one wore a hat to accentuate the person beneath. Nowadays the hat is often viewed as the defining feature, and the person an interchangeable part. Therefore, many people wear a black hat to demonstrate that they believe in all the things that one who wears a black hat is supposed to believe in. But if one believes in all these things to the extent that he is a Black Hat Type, why does he not wear the black hat? How else can we know that he is truly a Black Hat Type if he does not wear the black hat, and why would he want to leave room for doubt? The statement is thus self-contradictory. Those who wear black hats can marry anyone who wishes to marry someone who wears a black hat. Those who are merely Black Hat Types can marry virtually no one. But they have only themselves to blame.

The Modern Orthodox further factionalized, and some began calling themselves Centrists. They believed themselves to be balanced between the Leftists who shun Torah and the Rightists who fanaticize it. But like any high wire act, this one could not last long. The directions are always moving, and the center moves along with them. Today the center is said to be close to the right, and the Modern Orthodox are said to be disappearing. A pity.

Carlebachians emerged after the death of their hero. They are an interesting blend of chassidish and Modern Orthodox. When it comes to shidduchim this is not a label one should find himself wearing.

Chassidim evolve more slowly than the other groups, for better or for worse, but this turmoil has reached them as well. Nowadays some chassidim align themselves with enemies of Israel, yet retain their stringencies with butter. Other chassidim distinguish themselves from brethren whose ancestors lived in different towns in Europe by adhering to such immediate external indicators as hat styles, brim styles and sock styles, to name a few. It is vitally important that they distinguish among themselves in this fashion, lest they not immediately be identified with their particular group. Should that happen they might discover that they have more important things in common than hats and socks, and their children might wish to marry one another. Heaven forbid!

Still other chassidim refer to themselves as With It. They can presumably marry all those who are not Without It.

Then there are charedim, who are more yeshivish than the yeshivish. Many of them blaspheme the outside world, but gratefully accept donations from it for their Torah study. They see themselves as preservers of the Torah. Some of the Modern Orthodox agree, and greatly admire them. But it is no longer clear which Modern Orthodox Jews admire the charedim and which scorn them.

Other charedim are so sophisticated and worldly as to be nearly indistinguishable from Modern Orthodox Machmir Types, though they would never admit to such a thing. Some charedim abhor the state of Israel almost as much as the chassidim who are Without It. Other charedim call themselves Chardal, which is like Modern Orthodox Knitted Yarmulke Type – but with the black hat.

I would go on, but this is making me dizzy. I have therefore decided that from now on I will avoid all labels and stereotypes, and try to take longer than five seconds to decide whether or not a particular Jew is my “type.” I see only a human being – in most cases a nice one – who loves our beautiful religion and desires to faithfully serve Hashem. Sometimes he fails and sometimes he succeeds. Just like the rest of us.

Labels belong on clothing, not human beings. If I wish to know what type of hat or shirt a person is wearing, I shall examine the label. If I wish to know what type of person is wearing it, I shall examine the person. There are, after all, only two types of observant Jews: those who seek conformity to various idealized stereotypes, and those who seek conformity to what Hashem wants of them as unique human beings. The only way to distinguish between these two types of Jews – to truly determine their values, character, personality, commitment to Judaism, political views, and so very much more – is to get to know them.

It’s nice to meet you. Perhaps one day our children will be able to marry.