One of the things I wanted to do by starting Sasson Magazine was to try to shift the dialogue within the Jewish world away from labels, and more onto contents.
Sure, on the one hand it’s so much easier for us all to try to get a handle on the person or people we’re interacting with in our daily life if we can somehow ‘label’ them as being this or that, ‘pro’ or ‘anti’, broken of fixed, failing or succeeding – at Yiddishkeit, at serving God, at making money, at being mentally healthy, or eating right.
The list goes on and on.
I get that labels have a place in the world, I really do. My spice cupboard would probably be a more challenging place if I didn’t have the little plastic pot clearly labelled ‘cumin’, or the other pots clearly labelled ‘basil’ and ‘paprika’. (I’m not an adventurous cook ;-))
But even there, the argument can be made that if I really got to know what the cumin looked like and smelled like, if I made a mental note that paprika is red and more sticky, and that the basil is green and smells completely different – i.e., if I actually became thoroughly acquainted with the character of the spices themselves, labels would be completely unnecessary.
So we could say this: labels are for beginners, for the uninformed or the unpracticed, or for people who don’t have the time or inclination to really interact with and get to know the properties and contents of the thing – the person – the subject – they are dealing with.
When it comes to spices, this is really not such a big deal.
But when it comes to people, it’s a complete and utter disaster.
In the mad rush to ‘fit the label’ or ‘avoid the label’, we’re losing the ability to get to grips with the real contents of the box, the pot, the person that the label is meant to be describing.
You see this all over the non-Jewish, secular world where labels are eagerly embraced, fought for and also shunned and fought against (when they’re the ‘wrong’ label, for some reason.)
Superficial people love trying to boil the enormously complicated essence of a human being down into a ridiculously over-simplistic label.
It matters not who that person really is, what matters is are they left-wing, or right-wing? Pro-guns or anti-guns? Liberal, or conservative? ‘Open’ or ‘closed’? (Whatever that’s supposed to mean. The more you analyze labels, the more you come to realize that they’re rarely describing anything that’s actually real or meaningful.)
In our social interactions, the labels also increasingly hold sway. People label themselves as ‘ADHD’, ‘co-dependent’, ‘bi-polar’, ‘borderline’ – the list goes on and on. Ditto in the arena of physical health, where the person behind the label is increasingly receding into the mists, completely subsumed by their medical monikers.
And let’s not talk about the disaster area that is modern schooling and the education of our children.
So where does this leave us, the Jewish community, the frum Jewish community? How are we being affected by this plague of superficial labels that tries to pretend you can sum up the contents of a whole soul in a word or two?
That’s a question that each of us needs to think about, and to grapple with on our own terms.
But what’s become increasingly clear to me is that more and more people are focusing so much on the label, they’re completely forgetting about the contents. Can someone really call themselves an orthodox Jew if they’re regularly speaking against the primacy of the Torah? Or if they treat other people with scorn and disdain? Or if they don’t really believe in Hashem, or at least, not in the Rambam’s first principle of faith that Hashem did, does and will do every single thing in the world?
By the same token, if someone believes that Hashem is the only mover in the world, but is still finding it hard to keep Shabbat, should they be labelled ‘unreligious’ or secular?
None of us, not even the most pious amongst us, can claim to keep every single mitzvah all of the time. To claim otherwise suggests a certain lack of self-awareness and arrogance (and as we know, God Himself states that He can’t be ‘together’ with an arrogant person. Arrogance is the fastest way to disconnect ourselves from the Almighty.)
So that’s why labels are not really welcome at Sasson. Sometimes, there’s no choice but to fall back on superficial, one-dimensional descriptions of things, because as described above, labels can be helpful for beginners.
But as deep, soul-full, thoughtful Jews created in God’s image, we need to be so careful to avoid thinking like the shallow, materialistic and thoughtless world around us, and to avoid believing that the dimensions of a person can be fully captured and defined by a label.
Because they can’t.