Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Oh, what's in a name?

I'm being troubled lately by the huge imposition which the label of "Orthodox" implies. It's true that I've typically used it on my blog to refer to the standard (little c) conservative system of belief, but that actually may be unfair to the rather sizeable portion of people who may identify as Orthodox but do not hold to that system.

And then practically the issue is what ought I call myself. I don't like labels since they only serve to restrict your thinking, but I know I don't fit into any of the categories currently out there in the Jewish world. And I've never really had to worry about this for myself since I don't tend to publicize my views - but as time goes on, more and more curious people play the role of the clever detective and figure me out. So anyway, sure, I take some inspiration from R' Kaplan, but I'm no Reconstructionist. I take some from R' Heschel, but I doubt I would be comfortable in his shul. I take some from R' Soloveitchik and R' Feinstein, but surely with some reservations. I even take plenty from the likes of the Ramchal and the Rambam - but obviously not everything. So what am I?

Sometimes I (half) jest and call myself Post-Denominational. But that's next to meaningless. I also jest sometimes and call myself "Modern orthodox" (big M, small o). But truly speaking, I do suspect that the most accurate label for me might just be where I started from all that time ago, in those years before blogs. A grand Hegelian cycle. And that is Modern Orthodox. Sure, not in the same half-understood sense that I thought back then, but in the truer sense of what Modern Orthodoxy theoretically holds itself to be - a no-holds barred engagement with modernity while maintaining our regular Halacha and traditions. (Though I am sympathetic to Yehudi Hilchati's notions on this topic.)

See, I believe, like so many others in the program of Judaism and the system of Halacha. True, I do take issue with a number of figures who hold positions of authority and some Halachic conclusions they've reached, but at the same time the system has proven the test of time and I'm in no position to buck it.

Now, is it a great label? No. And is there great contestation of what it means? Sure. But like all labels imposed on humankind, the true humans can only approximate into which groups they believe they sit.


Jewish Atheist said...

You know what would be nice? "Jewish." There's a movement in the U.S. for Christians to simply call themselves "Christians" and I think it would be great for Jews to do the same.

B. Spinoza said...

If I was you i would go with either observant, traditional or halachic

Yehudi Hilchati said...

Nice to be referenced :-)

What you're suggesting is somewhat similar what Edah tried to do. They felt that the term Modern Orthodox had been co-opted and needed to be taken back.

Orthoprax said...


"You know what would be nice? "Jewish.""

I don't have a problem with that, but it ignores the very real truth that Jews have many different religious and political views about their Judaism and they band together under different labels to promote them. Even if you take away all the current names, new ones will pop up.


"If I was you i would go with either observant, traditional or halachic"

Yes, I'm partial to "observant" myself, but that's kind of a mega-category.


"They felt that the term Modern Orthodox had been co-opted and needed to be taken back."

Well, that's actually true. The MOs of yesteryear are not the MOs of today - assuming they'd even refer to themselves with such an unfavorable term in the current religio-political landscape.

XGH said...

I'm pretty sure I said all this multiple times already. But it's nice to see someone saying the exact same things.

Orthodoxy is an incorrect label anyway, I had a post about it recently.

'Hilchati' and such labels are cute, but they don't work too well in the real world. Recently I've been using 'Traditional', but only to goyim or secular Jews. To people in the know I say LW MO, and to people who are clueless I just say MO. The MOs don't care and the Chareidim think MO is treif anyway, so it's not worth getting any more detailed than that.

XGH said...

But I do like JA's suggestion (it won't work though), and I also like 'observant', which is much nicer sounding than 'Orthoprax' (nothing personal)

Orthoprax said...

No, you're right. It is kind of an ugly word.

Miri said...

I find it fascinating that the conversation in this comments section is entirely about what to label ourselves. I can understand where it's coming from of course, but the fact of the matter is, it's conversations like these that lead to the issues you're discussing - i.e. if Jews didn't care so very much about being labeled in very exactingly specific ways, there would be no need for conversations about how exactly to label ourselves. It's a vicious self-perpetuating kind of thing. Vaguely reminiscent of Monty Python's "Life of Brian."

Nice Jewish Guy said...

There's also Avi Weiss' "Open Orthodox" (which leaves too much too the imagination) and another term I'd recently heard, "Progressive Orthodox". Based on your description of your influences, I could also suggest "Eclectic Orthodox" ( I actually like that one- more descriptive in that it allows for multiple views and sources while still hewing to the 'Orthodox' umbrella).

But these labels are still incomplete, in that to most people they are taken to represent a culture and a lifestyle rather than a philosophy. If I tell someone I'm Modern Orthodox machmir, that will probably produce an image of a kippah srugah and davening in a Young Israel. If I say MO-liberal, add to the above a wife who wears pants and doesn't cover her hair. If I say Yeshivish-Black Hat, well, that's pretty self explanatory- white shirts and dark jaket and pants with a Borsalino. Yeshivish Modern, and it means I wear the hat only on Shabbos and to weekday mincha, and I drive a fancier car and have the latest cellphone.

Yikes. I just read all the above descriptions and realized I've been spending too much time on Frumster for too long.

Kylopod said...

And what picture does Shomer Mitzvot conjure up?