Friday, December 19, 2008

Labeling Jews

An astute poster who truly believes in unity of the Jewish people asked the following question with respect to my post on YCT: Why perpetuate the misguided notion that we as Jews need labels?

I wish we didn’t. It would be nice if we could all just be called religious Jews and leave it at that.

Unfortunately in the world of Orthodoxy there are far too many people who reject other groups of religious Jews because of their Hashkafos. In order to counter that notion it is useful to know how to refer to that group with an identifier. That is called also be called a label. If one can not identify that group - i.e. not label them - how can we counter these rejectionists? How can any group describe itself as a unified body with its own philosophy? And defend itself as a group?

Labels are useful in many other ways without any pejorative connotation. For example, labels are useful when describing specific group behavior. Studying group trends and their spheres of influence can be a diagnostic tool which can be used to predict group behavior. And how that impacts on other groups - and how each group might react. Sometimes labels are used for purely informational purposes. For example it is useful to know if someone is a Sefardi and eats Kitniyos on Pesach.

And that is just labeling within Orthodoxy. There are other more important labels that are very important – denominational labels.

It would also be nice to break down denominational barriers. Why must there be Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews? Let us just eliminate these labels and accept people for who they are. Some Conservative Jews are indeed more ‘religious’ than some Orthodox Jews! Why not just look at the character and not worry about how religious one’s fellow Jew is? It is certainly true that some Reform Jews are more ethical than some Orthodox Jews.

But there is no continuum between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. It isn’t only that Orthodox Jews are more ritually observant; Reform Jews are not observant; and Conservative Jews are somewhere in between. They are separate and distinct groups with clear and important dividing lines. And they need to be- labeled! We have to know whether an entire group’s lifestyles and belief system is acceptable or not.

It isn’t only about keeping rituals or ethical character. One cannot accept as religious someone who does not believe that the Torah was not given to us by God on Mount Sinai. Even if he is the most ethical person on the planet. And even if he keeps Chalav Yisroel and eats only Yoshon.

Heretical beliefs trump ritual observance every time. The Conservative movement accepts an allegorical interpretation of the entire Torah. They accept various versions of Documentary Hypothesis which maintains that the 5 books of Moses were written by four different people at different times in history; later redacted and presented by Babylonian scholars post Churban Bayis as a single ancient book of law perpetuating the ‘myth’ that God gave us the law at Sinai so as to keep people in the fold. This is their ‘Emes’.

And this applies to ethics as well. It is not enough to be an ethical Reform Jew who does not believe in God - or if he does - does not believe in the requirement to keep Mitzvos. Because as important as ethics are, especially in light of recent news about frauds and scandals, ethics are not enough in the eyes of God. To be a righteous Jew is to encompass it all; beliefs, ritual behavior, and ethics. And that leaves out groups who either reject the Mitzvos or have heretical beliefs. They need to be identified.