Matisyahu, the self-proclaimed chasidic reggae pop-star, has always identified as an orthodox, chasidic Jew since his rise to stardom almost a decade ago. His signature look was that of a chasidic man. He had an untrimmed beard, long side locks and wore the chasidic garb. All of this while singing songs that made it on the pop charts.
Matisyahu explained his sudden departure from religiously inspired hirsute facial hair maintenance:
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. – Matisyahu
Many people interpreted this as a departure from orthodox Judaism. They felt that this meant that Matisyahu was reverting to his pre-orthodox Jewish lifestyle and would no longer identify as an orthodox Jew. Heeb Magazine made this point in the most cynical way possible.
After an Internet firestorm, Matisyahu clarified his newfound religious freedom with a more careful statement:
For all of those who are being awesome, you are awesome. For all those who are confused: today I went to the Mikva and Shul just like yesterday.
So, it seems that all the bellyaching and nervous twitching over losing the one and only orthodox Jewish pop star and the first since my friend Evan from Evan and Jaron paved the way for Matisyahu, was premature and overly judgmental.
This leads me to two less than obvious thoughts. (I’ll save the obvious thoughts for the obvobloggers. You know who you are.)
First, Matisyahu must think that non-chasidic orthodox Judaism (NCOJ) has less rules than chasidic orthodox Judaism (COJ). This is not necessarily the truth. What is true is that COJ has more rules about appearance and external practices than NCOJ. Further, NCOJ is adopting more and more of the COJ appearances and rules on appearance.
By and large, I think this is a fair distinction. COJ glamorizes a certain mode of dress and appearance as holy. NCOJ also glamorizes a certain mode of dress and appearance as holy but it is less distinctive and less sharply enforced. So I hope Matisyahu is not too disappointed with NCOJ when it comes to appearances. That is, unless he will be self-identifying as Modern Orthodox or a Yekke. Those two groups are the least concerned with external appearances within the orthodox Jewish spectrum.
Second, the beard. To some, especially those in the COJ community, the beard is holy. It has religious significance. It is not to be touched by human hand, scissor, shaver, razor or garden shears. This idea is based on mystical teachings and kabbalah. This religiously inspired love for man-hair contributed to the shocking, but brief image of a religiously shattered Matisyahu. One blogger announced that he was “off the derech” because he had shaved.
When Matisyahu announced he had shaved, I was actually proud of him. To me, it meant that he was thinking critically about his Judaism and felt a beard was not necessary or integral to his love and service of God. I agree.
Beards in orthodox Judaism are a funny thing. They mean a lot to some people. But really they mean nothing at all. A beard does not make someone holy. A holy person does not need a beard to be complete. Let’s not forget that a beard is simply just that, a beard. The Torah prohibits destroying one’s facial hair. This law is similar to the law prohibiting cutting one’s self or getting a tattoo. Using a scissor or similar mechanism to trim or shave one’s beard is not a violation of law or the spirit of the law.
The emphasis placed on things of lesser importance is common in all forms of orthodox Judaism. It can be a harmful force if it causes us to lose sight of what truly is important. If Matisyahu can show non-Jews that being an orthodox Jew is a beautiful life let us hope he can also show orthodox Jews that even a beardless man can live a beautiful life as well.