Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Care and Feeding of Labels--Part #2

In part #1 I established the idea that labels are about sub-groups of a larger named whole. We have a "species" named Jews. (Let's keep in mind that there is a lot of discussion going on today about the requirements for belonging to that "species" and the "Who is a Jew" question is being debated.) And there are a lot of labels that are attached to sub-groups of Jews. But what do those labels actually signify? What are the requirements for being in one of those sub-groups? And what about the sub-groups of sub-groups of sub-groups?

We've attached a lot of labels to the sub-groups of Judaism, labels that mean many different things to many different people. Two people having a conversation about someone labeled "MO" may not be discussing the same thing at all. Go ahead, give me a definitive definition of MO. Keep in mind that to be a label it must apply to all members of a sub-group at all times. MO has itself spawned many sub-group labels precisely because MO is too nebulous a term and too broad to be useful. So, tell me what an MO Machmir is? What is a right-wing MO Machmir as compared to a left-wing MO Machmir? What does it mean if you are heimish? What constitutes being traditional? What does it mean to be a Chareidi? And is it different if you are a Litvish Chareidi? What about being Yeshivish? If all it takes to be Yeshivish is having your boys in yeshiva then YU boys are yeshivish aren't they? Nor do the labels Ashkenazic and Sefardic work out too well. As one Moroccan woman complained to me many years ago: "We are not Syrians! People hear Sefardi in NY and right away they think Syrian."

Is it clothing that is a basic requirement for a label to fit? Is it practices? Which practices and when? Is it beliefs? Which beliefs applied to what? Is it where you live? Is it how you live?

So many of the bitter divisions in Klal fall along the line of which "label" you belong to. Some labels are given more cachet than others, usually by those who claim to be adherents of the requirements of their own label. The "other" side thinks they are the better label. I remember once reading a column in Women's Wear Daily in which two reporters were arguing about who was the better designer--Chanel or Yves St. Laurent. I remember thinking that you can't have that argument--it's a question of taste, and you can't argue taste--De Gustibus non Disputandum est. A lot of the label arguments in Klal are also about taste, although some will say that it is about halacha, yet another war of the labels.

So, what are the labels of Klal? Some are: Traditional, Heimish, Litvish, Yeshivish, Misnagdish, Chasidish, Ashkenazic, Sefardic, MO, MO Machmir, Orthodox, Frum, Modern, Religious, Right-Wing, Left-Wing, Shomer Torah uMitzvos, BT, Long-term BT, Learner, Earner, Learner-Earners,Young Israel-ish, Agudaniks, OU-niks, Out-of-Town-ish, Lakewoodites, Brooklyners, Williamsburgers, Chabadniks, Shtibble-people, etc. etc. If you have any other labels to contribute, by all means do so. Let's get them all out in the open and let's finally have some intelligent discussion about why we have so many labels, about what those labels could/should/do mean to all members of Klal. Why do we find it so necessary to divide and classify ourselves into ever smaller and smaller sub-groupings? In what way is Klal served by doing this?

In part #1 I made the point that "If you've seen one Yew, you've seen them all." We surely cannot say "If you've seen one Jew, you've seen them all."

Post-Script: Ask yourself how much of that vaunted "Shidduch Crisis" might be due to the plethora of nebulous labels. Gee, you match two people up according to their label's hashkafa and discover that they don't believe the same things at all. The shadchan at fault? The singles at fault? Or perhaps the labels at fault.


Anonymous said...

When the first thing a shadchan does is to ask me to label myself I know I'm in trouble. So my dad wears a srugi and my mom wears pants and I went to a bais yaakov school (only one in our neighborhood) but I want a boy who will work and he has to learn and a yes for the Internet but I don't go to movies. Touro undergrad but NYU for grad school. Go ahead, you try and find a label that fits.

Anonymous said...

Tehila -

Don't worry too much, I think there are some possibilities, such as

Resists labeling

Doesn't fit the mold


Anonymous said...

I think sometimes the labels that we throw at each other are just a more polite way of calling each other names. it's not about really classifying anything for some real purpose, some helpful purpose. An awful lot of Jews out there who don't like the Jews who aren't just like them so they yell MO or some other label at them instead of calling them a s**t head.

Anonymous said...

Nobody wants to discuss what the labels really mean. They might find out. And they might find out that a lot of what they think belongs only to their label belongs to somebody elses label too. And each group would have to be open with lots of transparency so that we could get a clear label. And nobody wants to expose the less admirable parts. When someone asks me what I am I will answer female or maybe human and nothing else.

Anonymous said...

Fairly new to NY and I still can't figure out what people mean when they use the labels. At home you are either religious or you're not religious. Had a funny experience with a shadchan when I arrived here. She asked me what I was so I said Shomer Torah U'mitzvos. I noticed her putting down MO on her sheet. I asked her why she did that if I didn't answer MO. She told me that people who refuse to pick one of the "well understood" labels usually do so because they are very MO but don't want people to think of them that way. A really lousy intro to how shidduchim are done here in NY.