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Silly Semantics

As an English major, I have been instructed to be very careful about my words. Words carry immense significance and power, whether political, ideological, or religious. What I recently learned, however, is the power of words at Yeshiva University - apparently, we are all about our words. In last week's Town Hall Meeting, the question of Rabbi Ethan Tucker and his infamous off-campus shiur was raised yet again. President Joel remarked that he did not take issue with Tucker's coming to speak; however, giving this event the title of "shiur" was inappropriate because the ideological values that Tucker preaches are distinct from those of Yeshiva University. It seems that the President's implication was that if the event were given a different term, such as "lecture," then Tucker would have been welcomed to campus with open arms. There would have been no actual change to the event, but just one word deemed Tucker treif. In closing this conversation, the President addressed the lecture of Bible scholar, James Kugel, which took place two years ago on the Beren Campus. The "non-existent" Censorship Committee did not bar Kugel, even though his presence was contested by certain students at the University. Because the event was not given the title of "shiur," it was permissible. This type of semantic superficiality does not only invade the larger issues in our lives, rather, it filters down into our everyday conversations and exchanges.

Often, when I meet a new person, I am met with three cardinal questions, before I am even asked my name, or how I am doing: What are you majoring in? Where did you go in Israel? and Where are you from? It seems that my personal answer: English, MMY, and Los Angeles, immediately delivers all of the pertinent details, and no further information is necessary. I am, undoubtedly, in the mind of my newly acquired conversation-buddy, tied to every paradigm that these three words evoke: a writer, a "fruMMY," and a JAP, respectively. At times, I am even met with a follow-up statement, whose purpose is to confirm my position within the bounds of these stereotypes. "So, you must, like, be a good writer," or "Whoa, MMY - shtark." It must be that all that I am is encapsulated within these three questions and their answers. I wonder what would happen, however, if one day I said that I am majoring in Psychology, went to Michlala, and am from Monsey. Would someone lean in a bit closer, and wonder why my aesthetic packaging didn't match my label?

In a recent conversation I had at a Shabbat meal in Stern, I was asked about the nature of Modern Orthodoxy: is it not hypocritical for those who call themselves "Modern Orthodox" to live a lifestyle that disregards certain tenants of Halakha? Perhaps not everyone feels comfortable labeling him/herself, I responded. Halakha, and its place in one's life, is not the same for each Jew. I was then regaled with an Evangelical speech about how each Jew signed a covenant with Hashem at Har Sinai to accept what she called "kolhatorahkula," the complete Torah in its entirety. We agreed to disagree. I found it odd that she was so concerned with the labels people place on themselves, as opposed to the individual people and their genuine sentiments toward religion. It appears that the legitimacy of a Modern Orthodoxy that differed from what she had been taught was simply illogical in her mind. I ended our conversation by telling her one of my favorite jokes: On the totem pole of religion, everyone below you: not really a Jew. Every above you: cra-azy.

I won't say that labels are not in some way beneficial. Like George Clooney's character says in "Up in the Air" "I'm like my mother. I stereotype. It's faster." But are we breeding a culture of individuals who do not read books, but assume that they can glean all the contents from the cover? Interestingly, the externalities that are used to define an individual's character may be rooted in a complex that I like to think of as "frummer than thou." The level of one's religious zealotry is often (incorrectly) determined by the type of clothing one wears, the style of kippah, how much the length of one's skirt exceeds the halakhic requirement, and other similarly erroneous factors. In Talia Kaufman's (SCW '12) 2009 article, "Shtark at Heart: How the Frumshanista Goes Searching for Love," which appeared in the "Style" section of the Stern Observer, Kaufman explains the culture at Stern as one whose labeling system works right as you walk through the door: "Welcome to Stern College Orientation: Where there is no need for nametags, for you are categorized with our infamous one-over. Upon arrival to this great institution, students on the Beren Campus divide themselves not by interests or personalities, but by outfits." Although a "Frumshanista" may find more shidduch dates if she dons an argyle sweater to conceal her elbows, it seems that the source of many of these labels is merely arbitrary.

More than just defining the individual, labels have now been elevated in status to box in not only the individual being labeled, but also the people with whom they consort. A married friend of mine, who is not an alumnua of Stern, explained to me how her externalities serve not only to define her own, but also her husband's religious status. When she and her husband walk into a restaurant or social setting and she is wearing jeans, has her hair uncovered, or simply does not fit in with the general tenets of what one considers a good, old-fashioned, aidel maidel, her husband is labeled as well. "Wow, you have really changed since Yeshiva," his friends remark to him while giving his wife a judgmental, sideways glance. Because this boy went to a particular school in Israel, it seems that his free will has been stripped away - certainly he will act in accordance with a particular set of rules, because that is what his label suggests.

Undeniably, labels make it easier to assess a situation and navigate certain decisions. However, many times people choose to label themselves because of the ease involved in containing oneself in a certain box or framework. It is significantly easier to be a stereotype, conforming to the realities and mindless nature of certain decisions because they relate to what your label says, rather than enduring the difficult reality of paving a path toward individuality.In fact, many times a label suggests that all of your thoughts are forwarded to you by someone else - be it a rabbi, a political leader, or any form of social ideology. Is a boy who wears jeans really incapable of learning as much Torah as a boy in black pants? Is a girl who wears sweatpants, and tows around a gemara, less interested in chessed, tefillah, or a real relationship with God? The moment one is able to strip away labels, can we really answer these questions with a "yes"?

So my charge is not to stop labeling, for that would be a waste of space and ink; but rather, a charge to think. Inevitably, labels will remain; we all need to deem ourselves part of one community or another. But in the process of putting on that "Hello my name is" sticker, perhaps fill in the name with something other than "Modern Orthodox," "YU Boy," or "Frummest girl on the block." Maybe, instead, you can fill in, "thinking individual." Silly semantics, real words are for thinkers.