This past Shabbos, I went (with Pobody) to my friend's house for lunch (we'll call her TG). Afterwards, Pobody and I went back to my house to get games to bring back to TG. As we walked in the door upon our return, TG asked me,
"Erachet, how would you classify me?"The funny thing is, as much as I'm against labeling, I've also felt the frustration of not belonging to any particular "group." The closest thing I can label myself as is having a Modern Orthodox background. Except that I'm not exactly that, even though I am somewhat. It's confusing, see?
I gave her a somewhat blank stare.
"What do you mean? In what context?"
"...Oh. You mean you want me to label you?"
I paused for a moment, thinking.
"You're...somewhere in between Modern Orthodox and Yeshivish."
"But you're not either," Pobody added.
"Right," I said.
That was when TG insisted that she just didn't fit into any "group."
"You're normal," I told her. "You keep halacha."
In some ways, labeling has always existed and always will exist. Any time anyone is associated with any particular school of thought, even outside of Judaism, they get labeled as that thing and it's a good way to sort of know in advance how a person will hold on certain issues, what their mindset will probably be like, etc. But the danger is that no one is ever that black and white. There are always grays. There are always isues on which a person deviates from the school of thought they categorize themselves as. And that's why it's so horrible to assume to know everything about a person solely based on their 'label.'
Labels definitely serve a purpose, but to say a person is "A" should not exclude that person from also being somewhat like "B." To attempt to define who a person is also sets major limits on who they are not - and making that sort of decision for someone is dangerous.
To really bring this outside of Judaism for a minute - I used to feel a small bit of anxiety over the kinds of stories that I wrote (and still write). I love creative writing and I love most forms of it - fiction, nonfiction, kids' stories, poetry, etc. But I used to think that I would have to establish myself as one particular kind of writer and that was it. I'd never really heard of anyone who wrote many different genres or who wrote both books for adults and for little kids (I'm sure many such authors exist, but I wasn't super familiar with any).
One day, in a children's book writing class last year, a kids' author came in and talked about her work. She mentioned how she wrote books for YA (young adults), even though she also had little kid books. I don't remember if she also wrote for adults, but just the fact that someone was writing for different age groups really made me understand that it was possible. It was a huge eye-opener for me. Why should I have to define myself as one particular thing? I want to be a writer of stories - all kinds of stories. I don't want to limit myself to only writing one kind of book.
I think that's the point I'm trying to make. Labels are useful but they're also limiting. I think it's a really good thing to be comfortable with who you are as a Jew (and as a person) and not feel like you must stamp a label on yourself in order to fit in. Not having a label means you're actually thinking about what you're practicing and you're doing what makes sense to you - not what you feel like you have to do because of societal pressure (I'm talking about non-halachik things, such as chumras you don't really agree with, etc. Obviously you have to keep halacha - I'm not talking about having a free-for-all, here). And even though it's somewhat confusing not to just slip neatly into a particular label, I really, truly believe it's better in the long run.