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Labels are for Suits

Labels are for Suits


Did you ever take a close look at Kol Nidrei, widely considered the most important prayer of Judaism? Read the translation and you might be quite puzzled as to why such a big deal is made out this particular piece of liturgy. It is a simple—albeit strong—statement of annulling vows. Is that the foremost thought on our minds as we enter the synagogue on the eve of the holiest day of the year?

Two Jews on an Airplane

After completing his morning prayers aboard the El Al flight en route to Tel Aviv, the elderly European Chassid turned to the American Jew sitting next to him and offered the use of his prayer shawl and tefillin. The problem was that a strong language barrier separated the two. The Chassid spoke only Yiddish and Russian, while our modern Jew was only able to converse in English. Even sign language didn't help facilitate communication between these two very different individuals. Finally, in frustration the Chassid blurted out the following—probably the extent of his English vocabulary: "I Jew—you Jew; I tefillin--you tefillin." There was no need to say another word. The man understood. Sure he'd put on tefillin aboard his first flight to Israel.

I love this story because it speaks volumes about the common Jewish spark that each of us possess, regardless of who we are and the extent of our Jewish observance. These two Jews had very little in common; they stemmed from different parts of the world, and didn't even share a common language. Yet, when it came to the Jew within, they connected seamlessly; they were one and the same. Suddenly they understood each other perfectly. In truth, there was no barrier at all. Because after all--"I Jew, You Jew."

Another one of my favorites is the story of the poor, jobless man who came to the circus looking for work. The only available position was to fill in for a missing tiger. They gave him a tiger's costume and put him in the cage. All was well until Mr. Lion began strolling in his direction. Petrified, the tiger said what a Jew says when faced with imminent death: Shma Yisrael Ado-noi Elo-henu Ado-noi Echad ("Hear O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is one"). To which the lion answered: Baruch shem kevod malchuto leolam va'ed ("Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever"--the second verse of the Shema).

That's the story of the Jews: On the surface we might look very different from one another. Underneath, we're all the same.

Brand Name Judaism

The problem is the labels. Every Jew has a label!

Orthodox. Conservative. Reform. Reconstructionist. Modern. Traditional. Secular. Religious. The list goes on. Where did all these labels come from? Do you think for a moment that Moses organized the people of Israel around Mt Sinai in accordance with their denominational affiliations? Of course not. These labels are not rooted anywhere in Torah or classical Jewish literature. They are recent inventions that serve absolutely no purpose other than to divide our people. And this, at a time when we need each other more than ever. I think all agree more unity is what we need. As for division amongst our people, we've got plenty of that...

When it comes to clothing I'd be the first to agree: labels serve an important purpose in helping us choose our preferred selections in terms of style, quality, etc. But who ever heard of labels for Jews?

Think about it. What use are these labels to the Jewish people other than to create partitions along denominational lines? Why can't we all just be "Jewish"? Why the need to label ourselves based on our level of observance?

It's true some of us are more religiously observant than others. Is that reason to categorically divide us into splintering groups? Let us each observe Judaism and its precepts to the best of our knowledge and ability, without the need of a name tag proclaiming ourselves a particular brand.

In addition to dividing us, the labels also limit our growth as Jews. Once we've been labeled, we no longer feel the need to learn more about our heritage than is typical for members of our particular group. Remove the label, and Judaism is yours to explore, completely and freely, without fear you might cross the line and observe some tradition that's not for your type. See my point?

If I'm not Religious—Am I a Bad Jew?

Perhaps we subconsciously use labels to lower the bar so we can still feel good about ourselves as Jews even if we're not growing Jewishly. The truth is there's no need for that accommodation. G‑d loves us just the same—even if we're not "perfect" Jews.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe would always emphasize the value of performing even one single mitzvah (Jewish observance). He repeatedly proclaimed that Judaism is not an all-or-nothing religion as some might have you think ("Either observe all of Torah or don't bother with any of it 'cause you're a 'bad' Jew anyway"). This would be the case if G‑d were a tyrannical dictator whom we needed to placate. In truth, G‑d is a loving father. He asked us to fulfill the mitzvahs, not in quest of power or control, but out of His deep love for each of us—His precious children. With children, it's not perfection you look for. A good parent wants each child to reach their best potential. It's not "all-or-nothing." It's "do-your-best!"

A man from the Lubavitch community in Brooklyn once complained to the Rebbe about one of his children who had "left the path" of Torah observance. "I raised all of my children exactly the same way. I can't understand why this one veered away." Replied the Rebbe: "Therein lies the problem. You raised all of your children the same way. But they're not the same. Each child is unique and requires direction and guidance in accordance with his or her individual personality."

G‑d is a loving, wise parent who has a personal and unique relationship with each of us. Sure, He'd like us all to "reach for the stars" and try to observe Judaism fully in all of its beauty and depth. But that's for long term. For right now what is most important to G‑d is that we do our best and continue to grow. If we observe one more mitzvah this year than we did last year—we are making G‑d proud!

Annulling the Labels

So why the whole fuss around Kol Nidrei? On a deeper, mystical level it is much more than just the annulment of vows and promises. It is a powerful declaration of annulling and invalidating any and all labels, restrictions, demarcations, shackles, barriers and name tags that tend to obscure our sparkling inherent Jewish essence. All of us share one single designer label: JEW! We are one very special, indivisible people; the family of G‑d's chosen nation. Sure, like any good family we have our share of sibling rivalry. But that doesn't change the fact that "I Jew—You Jew."

Rabbi Shalom M. Paltiel is executive director of Chabad of Port Washington.
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Anonymous COOPERSTOWN October 11, 2016

Beautiful Reply

Dr. Manuel Martinez Texas April 10, 2016

To Rabbi Shmary Brownstein. Interesting reply, but unfortunately does not change the fact that the universe is billions of years old, no matter how much any rhetoric might attempt to stretch that. The universe is old not according to how the Torah sees it, that is a warped opinion that distorts the facts and throws anyone who follows that line of thought into a "black hole" (pun intended) of ignorance. It is not matter of secular humanism, it is a matter of scientific facts. Thanks for your reply though. Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein For April 10, 2016

To Dr. Manuel Martinez Scientific advances and theories raise interesting questions regarding how they might be reconciled with the Torah. See an article about this here: "How Old is the Universe According to Judaism"
However, this does not affect the way Jewish law is decided. The primary dispute between Reform and traditional Judaism has to do with this question, and more generally with issues raised by secular humanism, rather than with attitudes toward science. Reply

Dr. Manuel Martinez United States March 29, 2016

To Shmary Brownstein ". If someone is converted by those who tell him/her that they can be Jewish without the entire Torah, they cannot have entered into the inheritance of the entire Torah, and therefore cannot have become true members of the Jewish people."

Let me ask you a simple question: How old is the universe? If you believe it is aprox. 6,000 yrs old as the Torah states, while at the same time you stare at she night sky and see brilliant galaxies 9 or 10 billion light years from us, meaning what you see now is an even that happened 9 or 10 billion years ago and right now it is more probable than not in that same form, then dispense with the ignorance and adapt. In essence that is what Reform and Conservatives have done, more likely than not, thanks to that beautiful knowledge that G-d gave us through the knowledge of science which helps us understand the world and universe and how they really work, not simply in a dogmatic belief that the world and universe are more or less 6,000 years old. Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein August 6, 2013

To Louis Feldman One of the drawbacks of applying labels to different kinds of Jews is the creation of the notion that the Torah applies to and belongs to different Jews in different ways and to different degrees. The Torah however teaches that it is the heritage of all Jews, so that it belongs in its entirety to all Jews and every Jew is privileged to be required to fulfill it to the best of his or her ability. If someone is converted by those who tell him/her that they can be Jewish without the entire Torah, they cannot have entered into the inheritance of the entire Torah, and therefore cannot have become true members of the Jewish people. They should be given the opportunity to join the Jewish people as full heirs of the Torah heritage. Reply

Louis Feldman UK August 1, 2013

Sounds great! So does that mean you accept people who have converted to Judaism via the Reform movement and if not why not? Reply

Anonymous Toronto January 15, 2013

Label or No Label Who Is a Jew? Take away the labels, but ask, what then defines a Jew? If I am born of a Jewess, but is atheistic, converted but monotheistic and observe most practices, is the product of a gentile mother and Jewish father but proudly observe Jewish traditions, is born of generations of undefiled Jews, but observe no custom, attend no synagogue, accepts acts that are clearly defined as unholy, date gentiles, live an alternate lifestyle, etc... Where does it start and stop? I am a Jew simple because I choose to be when it is convenient or is it truly in the genetic make up and nothing more? Is Torah observance a necessary part of my identity? Why then did Moshe climb Mt. Sinai in the first place, if the Torah would amount only to a lifeless symbol? How Jewish am I who has denounced the Torah, perform zero mitzvah, support abortion (death of G_d given life), advocate euthanasia (assisted suicide), engage in homosexuality (man lying with man as with a female), and focus on self and money? Reply

Rochelle Grossman Tampa, fl September 15, 2012

together we are strong I agree with the author.
As any Jew may know, if we were on an airplane, taken by terrorists,, they pick out the Jews,........they are not going to ask how well you know the Torah or how you observe, how often you attend services, no matter what label, the Jews will be together as one, and treated thus, that is the fact.
I will always be treated as a Jew.
Together we are strong, divided we are weak.
We must be strong that is why we are chosen.
Shalom, Reply

Anonymous Israel, Israel October 7, 2011

Thank you for this gorgeous truth so beautifully written and so true.

Gmar hatima tova : ) Reply

Irene Alhanati Cardillo Rio de Janeiro, Brazil September 16, 2010

Kol Nidrei This message made feel much better. Thank you very much. Shalom! Reply

Nuchem Highland Park, IL, USA September 27, 2009

Labels This is a very beautiful, well-crafted essay.
I would suggest that there is a reason for experimenting with different approaches to G-d. In the 2,000 years since Torah was written-down in Babylon our Kin have contributed to changing the World in remarkable ways.
What would the conversations between Moses and G_D be, if they were conducted today? Have not the past 2,000 years contained changes of such massive significance that the blood of those who gave their lives to write those events cry out for them to be recorded as continuations of G_D's teachings?

Is there not a vast difference between cultures that have evolved under (at least in part) the guidance of G_D's Laws, and those that have refused to change their ancient primitive ways?
Is this not leading to a more massive conflict than any recorded in Torah? Can we not see G_D's hand in this gargantuan Kider-Shpiel? Is the difference observable between good and evil not now clear enough? Reply

Anonymous September 24, 2009

denomonations whilst i agree with the general sense of this sermonette i feel that the "who is a Jew" issue which is at the core of all the division was avoided.

if reform convert in such a way that another group cant accept than

your thesis of I Jew- you jew is flawed

given that most of the people reading this article are acutely aware of the issue what do you say? Reply

Anonymous Caledon September 11, 2009

On a grand scheme you could say we are all human, why the need to distinguish ourselves as Jews, Christians, or Muslims. Are we not all G-ds children. Once we've been labeled, we no longer feel the need to learn more about others than is typical for members of our particular group. Remove the label, and belief and faith are yours to explore, completely and freely, without fear you might cross the line and observe some tradition that's not for your type. See my point? Reply

Max Kantor Batavia, OH October 9, 2008

I Jew Too I enjoyed and truly felt your article. No matter that I declare myself, Ortho, Conservative, or Reformed, and at different times ive been self declared each and in no particular order, no one can take away my essence. Reply

j.J KRIEGER MANDEVILLE, LA via October 4, 2008

labels I was raised as a child in an orthodox home. After serving in the army during wwII I joined an orthodox schul. i was not happy I then joined a reform congregation and have been affiliated with a reform congregation for over 50 years. although I do not observe some of the many rules of the orthodox congregants, I still believe that i am as good a Jew as most orthodox Jews in that I believe that my way of life and my conduct and my high moral standards and way of life, plus charitable giving to jewish and non jewish causes makes me proud to be a so called reform jew. Reply

Ralph Meyer Calgary, Canada October 8, 2007

Labels/shmabels pro/against I believe we all need to be in one file cabinet. That of Jews or non Jews. On Rhosh Hashonah we pray for attonement/forgiveness and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, as we make our final appeal to the highest court. G_D does not say you are pro abortion, pro euthanasia? He asks us are you Jewish? Are you truly asking for forgiveness or just making an appearance here? We as Jews whether reform, conservative or orthodox all face the one, the almighty. We do not want to be sheperded like cattle, your under 900, your 900-1000, or your over 1000 and therefore categorized.
I will stand together with all three grouped labelled and say I AM JEWISH and what are you?
I defend your right to your beliefs, but I say we are all still Jewish. About Abortion, my wife is anti, but is still reform. Does that make her bad? nope. I am pro euthanasia in certain circumstances, does that make me A BAD ORTHODOX? NO. Reply

Eli Thornhill, Canada October 7, 2007

"do my best" I had one little problem with the article. In it, you say, "Sure, He'd (G-d) like us all to "reach for the stars" and try to observe Judaism fully in all of its beauty and depth. But that's for long term."
I am a proud Conservative Jew. I consider myself observant, as I observe every law and custom of Judaism, in the manner interpreted by Conservative rabbis, and I believe in them. Your article implies that I am only trying to be small-o orthodox, and that in the "long term", I should eventually get that way. Conservative Judaism has just as much "beauty and depth" as orthodox Judaism. Your article shows orthodox Judaism as the climax of Judaism; this is not so. Reply

Ralph Calgary, Ab. September 22, 2007

Labels and Jews I agree with the story and was deeply moved. My father taught me many years ago that we were Jewish but reform and other groups were really not. Today with my Wife whom has chosen to be Jewish, I have learned to accept even reformers as Jewish. Our reform synagogue runs an Inn from The Cold night weekly to help the homeless. It would be nice if the conservative and Orthodox would do the same. I believe in Conservative-Orthodox, but support the Chabad and the Reform Synagogues. Reply

Thomas Karp October 16, 2005

What to do then? The thing is that just 'removing the labels' between Jews is like the emperor from the Hans Anderson story proclaiming that he's wearing a new suit of clothes when in fact he is still naked. O' Bnai Israel, does just 'removing the labels' change anything in reality? Yes, it is true that the 'labels' between you are stopping Jews from interacting with each other when you do need more unity; BUT (big but here)-you cannot just 'remove the labels' and then all pretend that you've got a 'new suit of clothes'; that's not going to cut it, either. The undenial fact is since the end of Shoah officially, Bnai Israel has lost almost as many since then as it did then, and most of the loss was through the so-called 'reform-secular-liberal branch' of Judaism. Just removing the label 'reform' is not only not going to fix the problem, it will continue into the next toledoth for sure. What to do then? A good question to start the new year, for this can't go on. It's got to change soon. Reply

Michele New City, NY October 14, 2005

labels I loved your article on removing labels. It is true that the labels that define us often limit our interaction with Jews of a different label and therefore opportunities to grow from one another. In defense of Reform or Secualr Jews, it is quite a generalization to believe that although a Jew does not practice all mitzvohs, that they are also liberal minded across the board.
I a Jew and you a Jew. I look forward to a new year, learning and participating in new mitzvoh. Reply

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