Thursday, July 1, 2010

What Use the Labels of Klal

In my posting listing the labels that are applied to various segments of the Jewish population, someone asked why I would be gathering the list. Of what use are the various labels? Forthwith some thoughts on that.

In a most basic sense, we use labeling as an organizing tool. Let's take fruit as an example. A general labeling would give us apples, bananas, cantaloupes, grapes, oranges, watermelons, pears etc.. The labels help us to identify fruits that are sufficiently uniquely different one from the other that they cannot be substituted one for the other in most cases. Try baking an apple pie substituting bananas or watermelon for the apples--it can't be done. The unique quality of apples is not present in the other fruits and viceversa. There is a good reason for applying the labels to the fruits. The labels show us distinct, unique differences between one fruit and another.

We also use labels within labeled categories. Use the fruit example again. Let's take apples, the general label. Within that label are many varieties of apples--world-wide there are 7500 varieties of apples grown; in the US 2500 varieties of apples are grown. You could eat a different apple every day for more than 19 years, and never eat the same kind twice. Yet, with all the different varieties grown and available, the "Delicious" apple variety is the most widely grown variety in the United States. And even here we have to add more labels--not all Delicious apples are exactly identical; there are some 50 cultivars of this type. In some cases the differences are only skin deep--the outside peel is of different colors or color combinations while the inside is basically the same, both taste and texture. In other cases the outside peel may look the same but the inside taste and texture differs,--some sweet, some sour, some mealier some juicier. In some cases the size of the mature fruit is different--some huge, some large, some medium sized, some small. But for all their differences, both in the Delicious family and the other apple families, consumers know they are all apples. There is no variety that we can objectively call a better variety of apple or the best variety of apple because it is all a matter of personal taste and what we have become accustomed to. And, in truth, if we are looking to buy apples in the store, and there are only red Delicious apples available, most of us will buy them. If only gala apples were available when we needed apples, we'd buy them. If you are looking to make apple juice any juice apple will do, not just one out of those 7500 varieties.

Now let's look at those labels we apply to Klal. The list in the posting is hardly all inclusive. And, as was pointed out by a commenter, there are other labels that are applied to members of Klal living in places outside of the US, labels that aren't exactly equivalent to Jews living in the US. But for some--many--who use those labels for Klal, they would benefit from looking at those fruit labels.

First, all members of Klal are "fruits." There is a general shared characteristic that puts us all in this category. Second, there are different varieties of fruits, and they can't all be used for the same purpose, nor do they taste identically. Okay so far. Now is when things start to break down. For arguments sake let's call those of Reformed Judaism grapes, those who are of Conservative Judaism oranges and those of Religious/Orthodox Judaism apples. All three are fruits, yet I don't think anyone would argue that they don't have real differences.

Now let's look at those "Orthodox" apples. Here is where the labeling we apply to Klal gets sticky. Yes, there are some differences among Orthodox groups--some are juicier, some are mealier, some are sweeter, some are more sour, some are larger, some are smaller in size. Some have different colored peels, ranging from a red so deep it looks black to a yellow so pale it looks white. But in the end most of these differences are a matter of personal taste, not real category distinctions. They may not like it, but they are all apples. In too many cases those labels have no meaning of importance outside of marketing and market positioning. Is a Washington State Red Delicious apple really any different from a New York State Red Delicious apple? Those trying to sell apples to the public would have you believe they are different, but scientific analysis would show you there is no real difference between them, except for their labels.

Yes, granted, there are some apples that are better for baking than other apples, and some apples that are better for making applesauce than other apples, and some apples that are better for juicing than other apples. But what unites these types of apples is greater and of more importance than what divides them--they are all apples.

Let me end off with this. Too many of the labels that are applied to Klal are attempting to market the groups so labeled as uniquely different fruits rather than just garden varieties of the same fruit. You have a personal preference? Fine, but don't kid yourself into thinking that those varieties of apples are anything other than just that--varieties of apples. They aren't cantaloupes, they aren't carambolas, they aren't persimmons--they're apples.


Devora said...

You are assuming that all the labeled frum groups agree that they are all apples. Some of those groups don't believe that way. They may not generally hold with the theory of evolution but when it comes to themselves they believe they have evolved into a different, better fruit then the other fruits. Or maybe they believe that the other groups have evolved into a different, poorer fruit.

And some of these groups don't believe that Reform and Conservative are fruits at all but something else. They don't care if these groups disappear altogether because they don't see them as close relatives.

Anonymous said...

How true Devorah. While ProfK wants to label some jews as grapes or oranges, some OJ's would also label ProfK as a non-apple. The problem with labeling is that it is subjective. Unlike fruits, which are largely placed into categories based on objective, physical criteria, most labelling of people is based on subjective or non-physical criteria such as beliefs and practices. When people do try to apply physical characteristics to people, they usually are meaningless ones -- like skin color or ancestry. When it comes to humans, most labelling is done to divide people.

Anonymous said...

All I know is that my empire apples, granny smiths, and macs all happily co-exist in the fruit bin in my fridge, along with some oranges, grapefruits, grapes and kiwis. I also really enjoy a fruit salad with lots of different fruits mixed in ranging from apple to cantalope to kiwi to some orange juice and a squeeze of leomon. As much as I like apples, some variety is wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Anon 9:04. It's shocking to blithely categorize other Jews as outside the Apple fold. Why does a Chasid who cheats on his taxes get to be an exclusive Apple (even a rotten one), while a law-abiding, good-deed-doing, practicing Reform Jew get stuck as an Orange?

And non-Jews? Are they vegetables like broccoli or brussels sprouts? Give me a break.

Ruth said...

Take a deep breath Anon 10:25. You think it's only chasidim that cheat on their taxes? Right. No Reform Jew, no Conservative Jew, no Mormon, no Presbyterian, No Catholic, no anybody else ever cheated? Get real! You're still a member of your group even if you aren't the best example. Bruised apples aren't called by a different name.

Re Reform Jews as oranges. Oranges and apples are both fruits--in the same general class. But you don't think there is a real difference? Try baking oranges into a pie--can't be done. You think the differences aren't major between the orthodox and the Reform or even the Conservative? Which part of being shomer Torah u'mitzvos should we look at? Want to talk about fully keeping Shabbos? Or Kashrut? How about Mikveh?

As to non-Jews, what's the big deal if they aren't apples and are a different fruit or even vegetables? God made them all and He assigned differences so what are you complaining about? And stop picking on broccoli and brussel sprouts--some of us like both of them.

Anonymous said...

Ruth. I like cruciferous vegatables too. The problem is that most people who label someone as cruciferous don't do so to extol the health benefits, but rather do so to focus on the negative -- i.e. the flatulence. People never merely say that apples are different than oranges, they label others as oranges to say they are inferior.

Toba said...

Oranges are inferior?! Have you priced citrus fruits lately? Far more expensive then apples are. Besides, fruits aren't inferior to each other--they are just different from each other. As to the flavor or texture being very different, so? That's personal taste, not any kind of ranking where one is higher then the other.

Anonymous said...

Oh please. I'm Anon 10:25 and I like those vegetables - but they get a bad rap, sort of like the way many frum Jews (not you of course) think about non-Jews.

As for the apples and oranges, I really don't make that distinction between myself and non-Orthodox Jews. Just as Anon 9:04 says, there are people who are labeling you an Orange or a Clementine when you think you are a proud card carrying Apple.

ProfK said...

Okay, I give--no more apples and oranges as separate. Instead let's consider klal as a fruit salad. Better yet, let's consider it as a fruitcake--all those fruits baked together in one cake although individual bites might contain only one kind or another. And to carry out that analogy a bit further, let's remember that every fruitcake recipe contains some nuts--why should Klal be different? There's a reason that idiom says "nuttier than a fruitcake" in reference to someone, and they aren't paying that person a compliment.

Mike S. said...

Yes, but the problem is that apple cultivars are really distinct. There is no such continuum of apples between a granny Smith and a Fuji. The various labels for (let's just stick to them for a moment) Orthodox Jews do not really represent separate entities but particular points out of a continuous range. How do you a classify a Zionist kollel learner who runs a business for 3 hours a day and is willing to live on the limited proceeds of same, is fairly liberal when it comes to women's roles, very machmir on kashrue, and grew up in a frum home but whose widowed mother married a Gentile as a second husband. (Yes, this is a real person)