Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Is Matisyahu Still Chasidic?

"All my life I've been waiting for... I've been praying for... The chance to shave off all this scraggly facial hair."

Those aren't the lyrics to a Matisyahu song, but they could be. Only a few hours after the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) published my story about Matisyahu's unimpressive appearance on a reality TV cooking show, they issued a breaking news alert. As Daniel Sieradski commented in Heeb, it was the type of breaking news alert that is usually reserved for a terrorist attack. Only this was no terrorist attack. It was just Matisyahu shaving off his signature Chasidic-looking beard and transitioning from his Hasidic lifestyle as a religious Jew.

Has Matisyahu Gone "Off the Derech" by Shaving Away His Hasidic Identity?

I don't think his decision to put his wife and mother-in-law in front of the camera with him on the "Chef Roble and Co" TV show was a very wise PR decision for Matisyahu and I think his current decision to shave the beard and drop his Chasidic identity could be the result of mismanagement.

In a blog post, Matisyahu wrote:
This morning I posted a photo of myself on Twitter. No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias. When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality—not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.  
Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth. And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry…you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.
I met Matisyahu for the first time at the Hillel International Staff Conference in a hotel in Connecticut back in December 2004. I remembered watching him perform on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" earlier that August. For most of the Jewish professional leaders gathered in that hotel ballroom, the show was more about a Hasidic reggae singer than it was about the music. It was a novelty. He certainly wouldn't have gotten that gig had he not been an overtly Jewish performer.

So now the question is what does Matisyahu become without the Hasidic identity? Will he return to Matthew Miller? It sounds like he will, but that can't be a very wise decision since his name has become his brand. But what does this mean for the Jewish community? Matthew Miller is a ba'al teshuva meaning he came to religious Judaism as an adult. Will this call the long-term devotion of other ba'alei teshuva into question? What will this mean for Matisyahu's wife Tahlia and their children? Will they remain as Orthodox Jews, committed to the Hasidic lifestyle?

Many musicians are secular but spiritual. It looks to me as if Matthew Miller doesn't realize that his cache is in his Hasidic identity more than in his music. He will quickly become just another performer. Matisyahu will certainly not be the first frum (religious) Jew to "go off the derech" (journey from a religious life to a secular one), but he might be the most famous to so this publicly.

As Sieradski writes in Heeb, "One can’t but help but wonder if this is a bellwether for the rest of the ba’al teshuvah community. Few people have benefitted so richly from their Orthodox identity than Matisyahu, whose iconic hasidically-garbed appearance was oft stated to have had more to do with his rise to stardom than his talent alone. If Miller, whose feverish religiosity inspired so many others on the road to Jewish observance, couldn’t hack it as a frum yid, how can others be expected to maintain the illusion when the benefits are far less tangible?

I'm hoping Matisyah (or Matthew Miller) will find future success in his endeavors, but I'm pessimistic that his music alone will keep him at the top of the charts. He got famous by being "that Hasidic reggae singer," but he will likely fade from fame as "that Hasidic reggae singer who shaved his beard and disappeared into secular life."

20 comments:

Benji Lovitt said...

Do we even know yet if he's going to be "secular"? Might he just be "turning" Modern Orthodox, for example? Like every breaking news story hot off Twitter these days, we probably need more info.

Gil Student said...

He tweeted a clarification that he went to the shul and mikvah today, so I doubt he is becoming secular. Just a clean-shaven face.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Gil: Someone posted that on my Facebook link to this blog post. I think it was a confusing statement that he made because it sounds like he got into Chasidut as part of his spiritual path and because he need rules to govern his life and keep him on the straight path. He makes it sound like now he will be a spiritual soul without the organized religion. We'll see if he reinvents himself or not. I'm guessing that within the coming year he's off the derech. We'll see.

Anonymous said...

The 'modern orthodox' don't shave their sideburns off completely.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

From Rambam: Negative Mitzvah 43: You shall not cut your sideburns so that they no longer appear Leviticus 19:27 "You shall not round the corners of your heads".

Anonymous said...

Please see http://www.kosherhaircut.com/downloads/standard.pdf

Anonymous said...

@ R'Jason - I have to disagree with you on guessing that he will be OTD 'Off the Derech' (no longer strickly adhear to mitzvot)

This could just be a bit to re-invent his brand or give him new energy.

As a 32 year old man with a wife and kids, and many years in his life style - he has a lot of inertia to be 'Frum'.

Michael said...

This absolutely does NOT call long-term devotion of other ba'alei teshuva into question. Mattisyahu has a lot of temptations (money for performing on shabbos, drugs and sex that are standard on music tours) that are not typical to regular ba'alei teshuva. He also became religous via lubavitch, which is not the case for all ba'alei teshuva. Hopefully he keeps with the main things like shabbos and kosher, even if he shaves his beard and/or moves away from lubavitch. But even if he ends up "off the derech", it in no way says anything about the typical ba'al teshuva.

But, because of the fact the he was so strongly associated with lubavitch, this may (right or wrong) further call into question lubavitch, and their methodology and style, among other charedi jews.

(For those not in the know, lubavitch is a subset of chasiddus, which is a subset of charedi judaism, which is a subset of orthodoxy. It is not necessarily considered typical or mainstream among other orthodox jews.)

Ephraim said...

Michael - He has not been Lubavitch for a year or two already. He was Karliner for a while, after leaving Chabad.

Andrew Sklover said...

if that is his choice so be it... doesn't change his music talent... just his unique look!

Barbara Bressler Salzbank said...

not sure what to think of it..I sort of understand that he wants to be known for his musical talent, and not just because he's Chasidic, but still...

Robby Cicco said...

I hope he is not abandoning Orthodox Judaism because he gave us all something to be proud of and someone with whom to identify, since for so much of the time we are outside of society.

Lois Sarrel said...

He can continue being Orthodox and practice his music without his beard.

Paul Jeser said...

Like this is a REALLY important subject!

Jacob Metcalf said...

You know if shaving is beard is the worst scandal Matisyahu can get into he is still one heck of a roll-model. still think Matisyahu is a mench.

Anonymous said...

Why is removing your beard considered "going off the derech"?

Be very careful rabbi, Our Torah obligates us to "Don LeKafschut."

B.T. Is grossly misunderstood to mean Ba'al Teshuva. Wrong! it stands for Ben Torah! But how would you know if your too busy trying to understand the heart of someone you could never be, nor according to the torah--Be allowed to stand--even if you are (become) a Tzaddik!
Matisyahu removed his beard to find his identity. Just as many jews use their Hebrew names to find theirs!
Our only question, without pointing fingers or getting into the area of Loshon Horah and Richilus, because this very blog might represent just such that, is when will we start to use ours in order to find our own identity.

Anonymous said...

Why is removing your beard considered "going off the derech"?

Be very careful rabbi, Our Torah obligates us to "Don LeKafschut."

B.T. Is grossly misunderstood to mean Ba'al Teshuva. Wrong! it stands for Ben Torah! But how would you know if your too busy trying to understand the heart of someone you could never be, nor according to the torah--Be allowed to stand--even if you are (become) a Tzaddik!
Matisyahu removed his beard to find his identity. Just as many jews use their Hebrew names to find theirs!
Our only question, without pointing fingers or getting into the area of Loshon Horah and Richilus, because this very blog might represent just such that, is when will we start to use ours in order to find our own identity.

Malak'Yahu BenYisrael said...

None of you Euro Jews are Chasidic, and Matisyahu knows it. the Chasidim were of color.

Nosson Tzvi Abrams said...

RE: Matisyahu's Transformation Isn't Unique (posted on Huffington Post on 8/16/2012), you ended your article by stating; "I have tremendous respect for Matisyahu's courage in making these changes. He's proving that being religious isn't about a long beard, dangling tzitzit, and a black hat and suit. It's what's inside that matters most." I know that I'm a little late in commenting about this article, my apologies. I read your article twice and I think I still may have missed something. How did Matisyahu's changes prove that religious isn't about a long beard, dangling tzitzit and a black hat and suit and that it's inside what matters most, etc.? Don't get me wrong, I don't believe being a religious Jew can be summed up with merely dressing like that. I don't think Matisyahu ever believed that either while he did dress that way. Moreover, how does anything in your article about his current life inform us that he is religious even though he does not dress that way any more. In fact, you stated that he is lax about Shabbat observance, observance of which is fundamental to Judaism. There is a huge leap from singing with religious influence and actually being religious. Now, you might disagree on that point, but reasonable minds can at least agree singing with religious influence certainly does not prove that one is religious. I am present to the notion that Judaism is not a religion like Christianity where creed trumps deed, our wonderful religion requires action along with its tenets. I do not know you and you may disagree, but how do you know that someone is religious at heart, just because they say they are? Or merely because they sing with religious influences? Now, you can turn this around on me and ask, "how do I know that a religiously dressed Jew is in fact religious?" Honestly, I would reply that I don't but I do know one thing - at least he's wearing the uniform. It's a start. Can the wearer abuse the uniform? Unfortunately, yes. My personal experience tells me, it's the exception, not the rule. However, on the flip side, when someone stops wearing the uniform and stops being as observant, s/he may think about religion here or there, but s/he certainly is not as engaged as s/he used to be. I will end with the following; in my humble opinion, Judaism is not a religion, it's a relationship. Just like a serious relationship must be constantly maintained by action for it to be called that, Judaism requires that as well. I may love someone in my heart but if I do little to nothing to act on that love, it's not real.

Anonymous said...

From David:

While I completely agree on the one hand that without the chasidic reggae star image, Matisyahu's popularity will likely diminish quickly, I do not agree that his leaving orthodoxy will have much effect on another bal chuva. First, the preassure on him in the secular world as a rock star would be more difficult to deal with then for most others because he has a whole different set of temptations to deal with. Secondly, his leaving orthodoxy/chasidism was likely, at least in part a quest to find out whether, as you suggested, it was the image or his actual music that got him where he was in the first place. Thirdly, lets give more credit to the bal chuva whose return, hopefully, has nothing to do with Matisyahu.