Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cut It Out!!!

Dodgson seems to have gotten it right when he wrote the following:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

Through the Looking Glass

I have, on various occasions, mentioned that I am sick and tired of the labeling that goes on in Klal. Why does this labeling make me go ballistic? Because basically those labels have no meaning, none whatsoever. They mean whatever someone wants them to mean at the time they are using the label, and it matters not a whit if the person to whom the label is being attached doesn't quite understand what that label means or doesn't feel they belong under that label. And give it a day or two or a week or two or a month or two and that label will miraculously expand and contract, adding new elements to its meaning and subtracting some that have been there before, or it might disappear altogether.

Dr. Mark Skousen has written extensively on the dangers of economic and political labels. Let me paraphrase his words to apply to religious matters. "The three main reasons why labels are best avoided in religious discussions/usage are: (1) Labels are often an inaccurate description of a person's or group's views. (2) Labels often become pejorative terms used in character assassination (3) Labels put people into religious boxes and keep them there, preventing individuals from objectively considering alternative opinions and changing their minds....Categorizing someone's ideas using labels is often used to avoid real thinking about actual issues....[Using labels] it is a method for throwing someone into a convenient ideological box."

Labels are a type of stereotyping, and like other stereotypes, they may have no truth to them or only some truth to them. They may not apply to all in a group being stereotypically labeled or they may actually apply to none in that group. Stereotype does not equal truth, and neither does a label. At best a stereotype is "A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image; a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning."

There is intention when a label is used, and that intention is not always or only rarely neutral. The way religious labels are used today it should be clear that their intent is not just strictly for the purpose of naming something so that it's easier to discuss that something. For the most part the intent is to invest the something being discussed with a type of value judgement, and for the most part when someone flying under the flag of one particular label applies a different label to someone outside of his/her own designated group, that value judgement is rarely a positive one..

If you want to see some examples of how truly ridiculous labeling has become among Jews, look at a standardized shidduch questionaire from the various shidduch groups. The number of labels available to categorize the single according to their "religion" has gone well beyond ludicrous. Other examples of ludicrous labeling vis a vis religion? Plug into any discussion about major issues confronting yiddishkeit or of concern to yiddishkeit and watch the labels multiply like rabbits. Watch how certain segments of Klal refer to other segments of Klal.

Pray tell, just what "religion" is MO Light? Or how about MO Machmir? Pray tell of what use labels may be when someone who sits and learns in Chaim Berlin or Torah VoDaas or yeshivas of that type and style will be labeled Yeshivish, but someone who sits and learns in a YU kollel is not considered Yeshivish?

Of late a new label has been floating around: Chareidi Light. Sounds to me more like a description of a mild Asian horseradish than a religious designation. We'd probably all be better off if it did apply to that horseradish. At least then there would be some actual referent the term pointed to, some neutral object.

I'm going to answer to exactly one name if someone asks me my religion: Jewish. If someone really pushes and I'm feeling benign I might tack on "religious/observant." Beyond that it's all labeling, and you realllllly don't want to take me there.


Tuvi said...

I mostly agree that the people who throw those labels around aren't doing so to be helpful in just naming something. But here's the problem. People use names when they talk about everything else in the world. We don't just call things 'it'. It's pretty obvious that there are some real differences between the different groups of Klal. What words would be more acceptable than the labels that bother you to name these various groups?

Avi said...

The names reformed, conservative and orthodox were once the terms used to distinguish the branches of Judaism. Maybe some also used chassidus to describe one major branch of the orthodox that was very different across the board from orthodox as most people understood it. Today the word orthodox has lost any meaning it maybe once had. Instead of just using a sliding scale and comparison words like less and more all those points on the scale want an official name. And those official names, what you call labels, don't really mean much of anything.

Anonymous said...

If you follow those labels to their logical conclusion (and logic doesn't really play a big part in the labeling) then I guess I would be called centrist mo machmir light with leftist yeshivish leanings and a sprinkling of chassidism, and that's just for my habits in davening. I wear a gartel for davening--family minhag--and sometimes a kipah srugah and sometimes a hat. Drives people nuts because they can't pin the right label on me.

Anonymous said...

Are you saying that the labels are all untruthful? Because that isn't correct. They do serve a purpose and it isn't just about showing someone to be inferior. There is a real difference between a lot of the groups who you would call only observant. Someone who is MO does not act or believe in the same way as someone who is yeshivish. If you are looking for a shidduch where that person doesn't watch tv or that person wants to learn after marriage you sure can't call that person just observant and expect that the right shidduch will be brought.

Dave said...

While it is true that the map is not the territory, that does not mean that the map is meaningless.

((As a side note, can anyone in charge of all these labels get the "Haskoleh Machmir" category added))

Rae said...

Dave, your statement is true on the face of it, but you are assuming that the labels being applied to various groups are an accurate map, an objective one. In so many cases the "maps" of the frum world are literally making mountains out of molehills and the reverse. They are putting in features that aren't part of the natural landscape, that sometimes don't exist or exist in a dfferent form then the map shows. They are redrawing the locale to suit their own notions, no matter what is really on the ground.