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Matisyahu in 2006 with his beard on Manhattan’s upper west side.
Rumor and speculation are running rampant in light of the fact that Jewish reggae star, Matisyahu, tweeted a picture of himself minus his trademark Hasidic beard. The singer included the following words in his twitter post: “no more Chassidic reggae superstar.” Sounds to me like the next chapter in an entirely consistent and inspiring story.
Matisyahu didn’t grow up Hasidic, he chose it. Now he is choosing something else, and it’s not even clear that it really is something “else” — something truly different from the path he has been following all along. But whether he is leaving that branch of Judaism or he isn’t, the spirit of trying hard to make meaningful choices has been moving through his story all along, which is the inspiring part.
Matisyahu chose Hasidic life because, in his own words, “at a certain point (he) felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity … to move away from (his) intuition and to accept an ultimate truth.” Of course, that choice to submit and accept an ultimate truth was also his intuition. Nobody forced him to go that way, and he certainly wasn’t raised that way. I hope he knows that.
Matisyahu, chose to stop choosing. As one with a similar story, I have come to appreciate that one does not have to submit oneself blindly to one way of life or the other. This embrace of his own free will is a position thousands of years old in Jewish thought, and seen in countless ways in both the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature.
Abraham is called, but must freely respond in order for the covenant to unfold. And as the sages imagined the revelation at Mount Sinai, they teach that if the Jewish people felt coerced into accepting God’s law, then the covenant would actually be invalid. No context of freedom, then spiritual submission becomes religious coercion and it all breaks down.
There will certainly be those who bemoan Matisyahu’s decision to move from what they see as his “progression” from a “lesser” form of Jewishness to a “greater” form of Jewishness, and now perhaps back toward “lesser.” As a traditional Jew, I am not unsympathetic to the feeling of loss when someone stops loving what I happen to love. But when performing a ritual becomes oppressive rather than spiritual, religion then is just narcissism dressed up in some ancient garb.
In his message, Matisyahu continued, “I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.” If there is anything sad about this story, it is that Matisyahu feels that he was less himself before, or that he must choose between being himself and being something else.
The artist’s challenge now will be the same as it was before — how to be the Matisyahu that most fulfills his divine mission. It’s the same challenge for all of us and it’s always a balance between trusting ourselves, and trusting people and things beyond ourselves. Unless this hugely talented singer figures this out, he will simply be swapping one side of the teeter-totter for the other, and with nobody on the other side, that’s always a hard landing.
I hope Matisyahu gets the help and support he deserves in crafting the next chapter in his story, and I hope that should he see this, he knows that there is at least one rabbi who would love to help him.