Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Are Labels Inherently Bad?

Over at the Coffeeroom, someone began a discussion about the practice of labeling that goes on in the Orthodox Jewish community. The OP began with a very reasonable question:

I was always wondering... if we are supposed to have ahavas chinam, why do people constantly label different people? Labels mean different things to different people, so there really is no point, is there?

The majority opinion seems to be that labels are a bad thing. I, on the other hand, seem to be not so convinced.

I agree with the idea that labeling is bad when people use it to form rejectionist attitudes. And perhaps, in practice, it's bad because those attitudes inevitably form as a result of the labels. But what if we could somehow eliminate that? Are labels, in and of themselves, a bad thing?

I don't think so. Labels do serve for identification purposes. Since our nation's founding, people have used labels for identification -- this one's from Yehudah, this one's from Z'vulun, etc - and there is no inherent disadvantage to being from one shevet or another. Likewise, there should be no inherent disadvantage to being MO, Chabad, Chareidi, Breslov or whatever. As long as you are Shomer Torah U'Mitzvos, it shouldn't make a difference. The label simply shows that you identify with one particular hashkafah. But as long as no one is putting you down because of it, why is it bad?

Who knows? Maybe I'm totally off the mark on this. But I'd like to hear what you have to say.

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

I agree that labels are not inherently bad. However, in the Coffee Room they are often used as an insult or to discount the opinions of certain posters. If someone who has self-identified as Modern Orthodox expresses an opinion about an unrelated issue, the opinion is often discounted as being tainted by her "MO views". So I think you need to consider the context in this case.

tesyaa said...

Labeling is not productive because it pigeonholes people who should not be pigeonholed. Why do you think there are so many sublabels, e.g. Modern Orthodox Machmir, LWMO, Chareidi-Lite, etc? Because people are not so easy to label.

mlevin said...

I have the same problem with labels. I consider myself MO, but I think that I follow all hallochas to the best of my ability/knowledge. There are other MO people who knowingly don't follow what they think are hallochas because they label themselves as MO. Here's an example, this woman does not filter her water because she is modern. That's her exact words. (Before anyone attacks me I know there are many opinions that one does not need to filter, but this woman did not care about it.) Another example I overheard two women talking, "Rabbis say that warming draw is assur on Shabbos, but I use it anyway".

Ezzie said...

Since I'm lazy...

Jewish Atheist said...

It has nothing to do with labels. People will always find some way to prejudge and stereotype.

(Oh, and "Shomer Torah U'Mitzvos" is itself a label. Because you don't mean someone who follows 100% of the mitzvos 100% of the time, do you. No such person exists. You probably include people who, for example, speak lashon hora on occasion. You're purposely attempting to draw a line between those who are at least in theory Shomer Torah U'Mitzvos and those of us who aren't. Why?)