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There are a surprising number of labels that a Jewish person can use to describe their Jewish identity. It can range anywhere from the typical “Orthodox,” “Conservative,” and “Reform” denominations, to “Jewish Science” observances.
The practice of affixing labels to Jews has become so pervasive that the concept of separating those labels from Jewish identity seems impossible. In reality, however, the heavy emphasis on Jewish denominational factions is relatively new. Moreover, although Jewish denominational stereotyping might seem intuitive or automatic, it often involves a far greater cost than benefit, both to those labeled and to our communities at large.
A quick Google search of the term “Jewish denominations” can shed light on the inherent confusion present in identifying the different sectors of the Jewish community. Google suggests the search terms “three sects of Judaism” or “four branches of Judaism” — these being “Orthodox,” “Conservative,” “Reform” and “other.” It is within the denomination of “other” that I found at least 15 labels with which a Jew can choose to identify.
This simple, three-tiered denominational understanding of Judaism is so pervasive that it can be found in Jewish dating apps like JSwipe. However, a relatively novel idea to many Jewish communities, also co-opted by JSwipe, is the denomination label of “Just Jewish.” This simplified categorical title, which falls within the “other” section I explored online, begs the questions: why isn’t there a clear consensus on Jewish denomination or intra-Jewish identity?
The short answer: Because these labels are arbitrary and have no real religious application.
Denomination labels are harmful because they encourage stereotypes, marginalization and division within our community. The Jewish community needs to rid itself of the rigidity these labels have demanded and take a note from JSwipe’s “Just Jewish” option. If we can accomplish this, we could build a more nuanced, inclusive and true Judaism.
People change over time, and so do their views, thoughts and goals. When we associate ourselves with a label, we categorically default our lives to the certain parameters of the label. To say that at every one point in time we feel, act, and believe in one way or in accordance with one ideology is ridiculous. I urge you to look for one word that can summarize completely any one aspect of your life. Let the challenge of doing so remind you that we are more than our denomination, a truth very often forgotten or ignored.
The subjectivity of our labels further exacerbates the issue. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform denominations all mean different things to the people who identify with each camp, and understanding varies even more for Jews who do not identify with a given denomination looking at the Jews who do. Rocky Klein, a freshman at UCLA, said, “I consider myself a very Reform Jew, but I also know that being a Reform Jew is not the same thing as not being religious because I keep Shomer Shabbos and I go to morning minyan sometimes.” To most of the Jewish community, adhering to traditional Jewish law is generally not associated with the Reform movement, and according to Klein, the term “very Reform” too often is taken as just the opposite. So if we do not have quality words to describe ourselves, how and why do we allow others to label us?
Another issue is that these labels limit the interactions we have, and consequently the diversity we encounter, on a daily basis. When we separate ourselves based on these arbitrary labels, it leads to a division. Divisions, like a barrier, ultimately limit our access to knowledge and growth. If we stay within our confines and never get real exposure to a different community, we reach a point of stagnation that is toxic for any person.
Even more devastating is an entire community that only accepts or considers works from one perspective or one pool of authors. Imagine if the knowledge of scholars from all denominations would engage in discourse, if various leaders in fields of science, math and humanities united to share their perspective on Judaism’s message, and if all Jews, regardless of denomination, could access, learn, and grow through these works. The long-term effects would be profound.
Lifting these labels would de-monopolize Judaism’s wellspring of knowledge, allowing all Jews of all backgrounds to partake in the Jewish narrative. This offers one positive step toward a solution to the problem of assimilation, discussed frequently in the greater Jewish community. It may be the rigid borders of denominations that keep Jews uninterested and away.
Despite the harms, one reason the practice of denominational labeling continues is because it is so ingrained in our communal conscience as normal—as if it were given as a part of the Torah on Mount Sinai. In reality, the first denominations emerged only during the Enlightenment in the 19th century. Compared to a tradition that is thousands of years old, this trend is relatively new (for more information, I recommend Section IV of The Jew in the Modern World, edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Judah Reinharz).
Labelling creates a connection between the members of the group and separates those who are outside of it. It can build a sense of community with those within the group, providing clear boundaries that ultimately offer a clear sense of identity —even if it is a clarity based on arbitrary beliefs. This form of thought is in a sense automatic – it makes life easier to understand; it is the short-cut our minds take to glide through life easily. In a community that preaches the transcendence of the human experience to prejudice, the nullification of injustice, and social equality, there is no place for this easy separation.
In reality, we don’t need to make artificial groups to cause division and feel special, we can use our power as the greater Jewish community to build and create a culture and community that is truly special. Abraham is called an “Ivri” — a term that can mean both “a Jew” and “one who stands against” or “one on the other side” — because he stood up against the norm. It is figures like Abraham who remind us of the most powerful label we have, and that is: Jew. Let us aim for a post-denominational Jewish community where Jews of all levels of observance, affiliation and connection can live a Jewish life of meaning. Let us lead lives that are not squared in by arbitrary man-made labels, but that are guided by the wisdom of our patriarch Abraham. Let us live our lives by the truest label of all: Jew.