Using Jewish Labels: A Response to Teldon’s “I Am Not Orthodox”

In a recent Op-Ed for the Jewish Week, Rabbi Mendel Teldon explained that although he may look and act like an Orthodox Jew, he is not Orthodox.  No, this isn’t a case of him having the appearance of an Orthodox Jew but actually being Conservative or Reform.  It’s a case of him deciding he no longer wants to use Jewish labels.

He explains:

I am not Orthodox since there is no such thing as an Orthodox Jew. As there is no such thing as a Reform Jew or Conservative Jew. These terms are artificial lines dividing Jews into classes and sub-classes ignoring the most important thing about us all. We share one and the same Torah given by the One and same God. […] These labels are more about tearing us apart than furthering Judaism.
(Full source here)

I’ve seen several people comment on how weird this sounds coming from a Chabbad rabbi.  I understand their point.  What does it really mean for a Chabbad rabbi to say he’s not Orthodox?  He’s still the rabbi of a Chabbad.  Does saying he’s not Orthodox change the way anyone views him?  Does saying he’s not Orthodox really make him any more connected with some other Jew who also says he’s not Orthodox, but for very different reasons?

Putting that issue aside, he raises some intriguing questions that  resonate with a lot of people.  Are Jewish labels artificial lines that divide Jews and ignore the most important thing about us?  Are these labels more about tearing us apart than furthering Judaism?  Would we be better off without using labels?

To start with, I’d like to point out that there are a lot of positive things about Jewish labels.  Jewish labels help us identify synagogues, schools, and communities in which we’re likely to be comfortable.  They help us find rabbis to whom we’re comfortable asking our Jewish questions.  They help us understand where people are coming from when they say, do, or write things with which we may not agree.  In short, they give us a lot of useful information.

At the same time, there are of course limits to what we can learn from Jewish labels.  Most labels don’t have rigid definitions that everyone agrees on, and often people have different Jewish practices and beliefs and still use the same label.  But each label does have several basic qualities that it identifies about people and organizations that use it.

That being said, I agree with Rabbi Teldon that it often feels like we Jews are a divided people.  I’ve known many Jews across the spectrum who have disliked fellow Jews and been quick to assume the worst of them, just because they identify with a different denomination.  This is a sad reality of the contemporary Jewish world.  But are labels really the problem?  If we all dropped our labels tomorrow and just identified as Jews, would we all of a sudden be more united?  No.

Labels aren’t what tear us apart.  What tears us apart is that as individuals we’re very different, and we have trouble dealing with it.  Although we’re all Jewish, we have different beliefs, different values, and different lifestyles.  Labels don’t create those differences; they just identify them.  But having differences and disagreements is not the problem, and identifying those differences and disagreements is not the problem.  The problem is that we have trouble disagreeing respectfully.  That’s what needs to change.  Dropping our labels and pretending we’re all the same isn’t the answer.  The answer is to respect each other despite our differences.

We need to remember that we’re one people, one extended Jewish family.  The Torah teaches us: “and you shall love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  That means we’re obligated to love all fellow Jews, and not just the ones similar to us.  We don’t need to agree with them or even like them necessarily (heck, some of us may at times disagree with or dislike members of our immediate families).  However we must care about them, respect them, and treat them the way we would want to be treated.  Maybe in some ways labels can even help with that.  If labels help us understand where people are coming from, maybe labels can give us a better understanding of how we’d want to be treated if we were in their shoes.  There are probably lots of tools we can use to help us be more respectful of each other.  But one way or another that’s what we need to do.

Unlike Rabbi Teldon, I am Orthodox.  One thing that means is that there are differences between Conservative or Reform Jews and myself.  There are issues on which we disagree.  If I didn’t use the Orthodox label those differences would still exist.  But neither the label nor the differences stop me from being able to respect other Jews.  I use the Orthodox label because many positives come with it, and any perceived negatives aren’t really due to the label.

I don’t think most of us are going to drop our labels and pretend we’re all the same, and we shouldn’t need to.  We just need to respect each other and remember that regardless of any differences or disagreements we may have, we’re one Jewish family.

About the Author
Noah Aronin is a Modern Orthodox Jew who lives in Riverdale, NY with his wife and two sons. He earned MA degrees in Jewish Education and Jewish Communal Service from Towson University and has been serving the Jewish community professionally in both fields for more than ten years. Currently, Noah is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Rabbinic Intern at Hofstra Hillel.