2006 Tearing Off the Labels
Chananya Weissman
November 8, 2006, The Jewish Press

It seems that more people are now willing to express the view that labels do not accurately portray Jewish individuals, and often lead to false assumptions. Instead of defending labeling as an ideal system of classification, people are rationalizing it as an imperfect system that is still worth using.

This is definitely progress, but perhaps we can now take the next step and demonstrate once and for all that any trifling conveniences of labeling are dwarfed by the detriments; that labeling is a destructive force in the community; that the perceived benefits of labeling are in fact illusory; that we would be far better off as individuals and as a nation if we eliminated labels from our collective vocabulary cold turkey.

Let us give thought to some of the more popular labels. The term “Modern Orthodox” is either a badge of honor or among the worst of insults, depending on whom you survey. Referring to someone as “more modern” is often a euphemism for “less serious about halacha”. This is a way of looking down on people while feigning respect for them. (Additionally, there is nothing modern about not following halacha — Jews have been breaking halacha for thousands of years.)

On the other hand, those who proudly refer to themselves as “Modern Orthodox” interpret the label as referring to complete allegiance to Torah while incorporating the best the modern world has to offer. Lost in the shuffle is the concept that true allegiance to tradition necessitates advancing with the times, that integrating the advances in the world around us is part and parcel of Judaism — not something that needs to be noted with an additional adjective.

As a result of the obvious potential for misunderstanding, derivative labels have been introduced. Some people refer to the former class as MODERN Orthodox and the latter class as Modern ORTHODOX, implying that an emphasis on modernity reflects a deviation from tradition, while an emphasis on “Orthodoxy” reflects a minimalist approach to modernity. The former label defines “modern” as “compromiser of halacha to suit modern society”, while the latter label defines “modern” as “up with the times”. As this sub-group of labels is both cumbersome and confusing, it never really caught on.

A more trendy approach is to refer to the “religious” class as “Modern Orthodox Machmir” and the compromisers as “Modern Orthodox Liberal”. “Machmir” presumably implies “strict adherence to halacha” — but isn’t that what “Orthodox” is supposed to mean? Is “Machmir” merely balancing out “Modern”, or is it there to demonstrate that “Modern” should be interpreted as “up with the times” and not “compromiser of halacha” (in other words, the good kind of “modern”)?

Furthermore, “Machmir” has traditionally meant not that one is strict about halacha, but either that one is stricter than other legitimate opinions or beyond the letter of the law. Was Bais Shammai machmir? Did Bais Shammai consider themselves machmir? Did they consider Beis Hillel “modern”? What about the various times that Beis Shammai took the more lenient approach?

Do those who refer to themselves as “Machmir” mean to say that they always follow the strictest halachic opinion? That would be odd indeed, as no one universally follows the strictest halachic opinion, nor is such an approach necessary or even desirable. Perhaps that is the true meaning of “Modern Orthodox Machmir”, that this is an overly strict approach to halacha that is uniquely modern.

As for “Modern Orthodox Liberal”, how could any self-respecting Jew admit to preferring a strictly liberal approach, a strictly strict approach, or anything other than an intellectually honest approach that strives for objective truth, however subjectively “lenient” or “strict” it may seem? How could Orthodoxy, which implies strict fidelity to halacha, at the same time be liberal?

It seems to me that all these labels imply is that one is intellectually and religiously confused.

Another popular label is “Yeshivish”. This label is a direct contrast to “Modern Orthodox”, and is meant to imply a higher level of Torah knowledge and observance (even the “Machmir” variety, if this can be possible). Strangely enough, not all people who spend a great deal of time in yeshivos earn the label “Yeshivish”; there are distinctly “Yeshivish” yeshivos and “Modern” yeshivos. (The former are sometimes referred to as “real” yeshivos.) The distinction between the two seems to coincide with whether or not all the Rebbeim have beards and have never set foot in a college, but even this can’t always be taken for granted.

“Yeshivish” is usually meant in a positive way, but sometimes it is used derogatorily, as in “too Yeshivish”. Hence we have the derivative labels “Modern Yeshivish” and “Black Hat Yeshivish”. The former would seem to be a contradiction in terms, while the latter implies authentic “Yeshivishness” due to the ever-meaningful black hat. The black hat is a true symbol of real Yeshivishness, often irrespective of a carefully formulated philosophy or even halachic behavior.

Since some people wish to be included in the good type of “Yeshivish” without wearing a black hat, the label “Black Hat Type” has evolved (despite the fact that black hats are a relatively “modern” accessory.)

A related label is “Frum”, which can also be used positively (“more Frum”) or negatively (“too Frum”). The level of Frumkeit is determined similarly to the level of Yeshivishness; in other words, it has little to do with actual religious observance.

We also have YU Yeshivish and Lakewood Yeshivish. The former seems to refer to someone who attends college but doesn’t take it too seriously (quite a line to have to toe), while the latter implies “real” Yeshivish. These labels speak nothing of whether or not the individual has inculcated substantial knowledge or character development through his time in yeshiva — but these seem to be relatively unimportant details in the world of labels.

There is plain old “YU Type”, which doesn’t take into account the fact that you can find Jews of nearly any type and stripe at YU. This label is, nevertheless, presumed to be very meaningful.

Then there is “Charedi” or “Ultra Orthodox”. Charedim presume themselves to be the authentic standard bearers of observant Jewry, and often look at everyone else with disdain. Charedim are also presumed to be against secular studies and even working for a living. Then again, there are many self-proclaimed Charedim who have secular knowledge and serious jobs. What distinguishes them from Modern Orthodox Machmir types? Maybe the black hat — if even that. As difficult as it can be to tell between them, everyone will agree that they are miles apart.

“Ultra Orthodox” is a label of choice particularly in the non-Jewish media to refer to people who are unmistakably Jewish by virtue of the fact that no one in his right mind would dress like them if not for some deep religious reason. Because they appear “more Jewish” to the naked eye, they are presumed to be the most authentic religious Jews, to the extent that their actual knowledge and behavior are often afterthoughts. Hence the newspaper headlines that an “Ultra Orthodox” Jew was involved in some sordid behavior that even a plain Orthodox Jew would find revolting. The conundrum of how one can be more Orthodox than Orthodox, assuming Orthodox means strict adherence to Jewish tradition, has never been explained.

“Chassidish” has evolved to mean “in a completely different world”, mostly because Chassidim tend to place a major emphasis on beards, unusual attire, and musical preference. Chassidim who have an education and jobs are qualified as “With It” or “Chassidish But Normal”. Nevertheless, it is understood that Chassidim are still in a completely different world, no matter how normal they may seem. And most of them wouldn’t have it any other way. Those who pretend well are referred to as “Heimish”.

Jews who don’t fall into any of the above categories are in serious trouble. After all, there’s not much left aside from lepers and Moabite converts. A “Traditional Jew” is one who has abandoned tradition, a “Torah Jew” is using a noun as an adjective, and a “Shomer Mitzvos” Jew needs to explain which Mitzvos he is observing and why we would assume that he isn’t observing Mitzvos. (Maybe he needs to learn about black hats.) Anyone who is a little offbeat but not off the derech can call himself “Carlebachian” and hope for the best.

If you think all these labels are a lot to handle, it’s even more confusing in Israel, where religion, nationalism, and politics collide every which way. This has produced an even greater multitude of labels and factions (Dati, Dati Le’umi, Charedi Dati Le’umi, and Hiloni, to name a few). The reader can decide if this has been to our overall benefit.

What has been collectively forgotten is that even the term “Orthodox” was coined by none other than Reform Jews in the 1800’s, as a derogatory reference to Jews who clung too closely to tradition. Although the term has since been accepted and widely used, perhaps we would do well to consider the fact that before the Reformers, there were just Jews. Some were more observant, some were less observant, and some weren’t observant at all. Somehow we were able to tell the difference, and we didn’t need silly labels to do it. (Even terms like Reform and Conservative don’t mean as much as they used to, as the ideologies of these “movements” are no longer clear to those who identify with them.)

What should be obvious by now is that labels do a poor job of defining individuals or communities. The creation of derivative labels both highlights this problem and perpetuates it. But like an addict whose source of comfort is also the source of his troubles, we continue to produce new and better labels to try to solve the ineffectiveness of labels.

Fine, you might say, labels are imperfect, but they are a necessary evil. Personally, I don’t believe any evil is necessary, nor does this concept spring from the Torah.

Ah, but labels are still “helpful” in at least giving a partial description, or narrowing things down a bit. For example, we wouldn’t expect a Modern Orthodox Liberal to study at a kollel in Bnei Brak, nor would we expect a Black Hat Yeshivish type to teach a course in college.

Well bravo. Do we really need labels to exclude the absurd for us? Is there no better way to achieve the same transfer of information without relying on stereotypes and hopelessly ambiguous phrases, without categorizing Jews in ways that highlight superficialities and ultimately drive people apart for dubious reasons? Are these labels really describing anything about a person’s values, beliefs, or behavior, or providing a mere illusion of doing so for the convenience of the label-user?

The bottom line is that labels are subject to so many interpretations that using them only further necessitates the need for a detailed explanation. If the detailed explanation is not forthcoming, and the labels are merely a shortcut or a crutch, then misconceptions and misinformation are inevitable. If, however, the detailed explanation is forthcoming, then why bother with the label? Who needs it?

There is no way to avoid the fact that labels will mean too many things to too many people to really mean much of anything. Throughout Jewish history we were labeled only by virtue of halachic fidelity in a wide sense or a serious break from tradition. Communication was unenhanced by labels — and unencumbered by them.

Are we better off today? Has this “modern” invention brought the Jewish people closer together, facilitated communication, deepened understanding of ourselves and others, and brought us closer to authentic observance of the Torah? Or have labels drawn artificial lines in the sand, complicated communication, exaggerated the importance of superficialities, and camouflaged deviations from authentic observance of the Torah?

Most importantly, does anyone — should anyone — neatly fit into any label? Or should every individual be a world unto himself within the acceptable bounds of halacha and Jewish tradition? Shouldn’t we live in a world where everyone fashions his own unique label that fits him and only him, where the number of permutations of “Jew” equals the number of Jews in the world?

At the end of his life, Moshe beseeched Hashem to appoint a leader for the Jews who would be conducive to the divergent spirits and personalities of each individual. The Midrash elaborates that just as no two people look exactly alike, no two people think exactly alike. The lesson for our generation is that no single label can fit any two people, and we do no one a service by trying to circumvent this deep truth.

If one uses a label to describe others then he does not really know them, and if one uses a label to describe himself then he does not really know himself. The ramifications in terms of assessing people for shidduch purposes or their standing as a Jew who serves Hashem are nothing short of devastating.

It may be difficult and inconvenient for people to try to express themselves without resorting to labels. It may require a complete rethinking of what is important about people and what is important in Judaism. It may so much as require that people relearn how to speak almost like newborns.

But we cannot allow the difficulty of the task and the allure of inertia to rationalize the continued dependence on labels. The long-term rewards of greater unity, deeper interpersonal understanding, enhanced communication, and a focus on substance over image are far worthier than a bowl of red lentils.

At least give it a try. Drop the labels for an entire week, no exceptions. I bet you’ll never want to go back.

Chananya Weissman hasn’t used labels for years and doesn’t miss them. He is the founder of EndTheMadness (www.endthemadness.org), and can be contacted at admin@endthemadness.org.