A Barely Recognizable Matisyahu
Remember the brouhaha from few months back when Matisyahu shaved his beard? We talked about it extensively on this blog over here: The Shave Heard ‘Round the World. In that post we noted two primary things (in reverse order). 1) A beard is no big deal and 2) Orthodox Judaism is structured by definition and leaving chasidic Judaism might not save him the existential angst of being directed by religious constructs for most of one’s life.
That incident was directly addressed by Matisyahu and he tried to allay the fears of his orthodox Jewish supporters by letting them know he was still committed to orthodox Judaism.
This week, Matisayahu seems to have taken more drastic steps in his relationship with orthodox Judaism. Photographs of a bare-headed Matisyahu are circulating the Internet and an article on Ynet indicates that he has abandoned external displays of orthodox Jewish observance. At this moment, no public statement has been issued by Matisyahu to address these developments.
First of all, how interesting is it that shaving his beard was “The Shave Heard ‘Round the World” and this next step has barely registered a peep on the orthodox Jewish richter scale. I can think of three reasons this is the case. 1) A chasid shaving his beard is a bigger deal than a clean shaven orthodox Jew taking off his yarmulka. 2) Once he shaved his beard dropping orthodox Judaism was to be expected (by superficial people) so no one is surprised by this. 3) His public statement helped fuel the discussion last time and this time he has been silent.
More importantly, what are we to make of this story?
Let’s begin by saying how difficult it must be to live in the music industry and the orthodox Jewish community. Indeed, it seems impossible. Not just because of the challenges inherent in living in two worlds with vastly different priorities, but because of the orthodox community’s reluctance to accept the compromises that are inevitable in a situation like this one. What I mean is that the orthodox Jewish community has standards that it expects of the people associated with orthodox Judaism. Some of these standards are arbitrary. For example, in some places tznius is more important than honesty in business. Improper dress will invite negative attention but a trial for fraud will not.
Nevertheless, these standards exist and they are routinely enforced by social convention. I have a feeling that being a rock star crosses the social standards of most orthodox Jewish communities. Despite one’s personal beliefs and practices, the mere existence of a pop star career is enough to discredit one’s affiliation with orthodox Judaism. This is not because it is impossible to manage both or that being a Hollywood celebrity is a violation of a Torah or Rabbinic statute. [It is possible and "I told you so" sentiments are awfully childish]. It is because the social environment of orthodox Judaism simply does not tolerate it.
It goes without saying that a bare-headed male is likely to be considered persona non grata in the orthodox Jewish community. This is true despite the possibility that the bare-headed Jewish male is more stringent in a myriad of other laws and customs. In other words, the true level of one’s observance becomes irrelevant. The lines are drawn and enforced by social convention, not objective truth.
Not to mention the fact that in many industries, men go to work without a yarmulka and just 30 years ago it was considered acceptable and normal for orthodox Jewish males to go to work without a yarmulka. Isn’t Matisyahu entitled to the same latitude in his line of work? Somehow, I don’t think so.
Most importantly, in my opinion, is the predictable complaint of the orthodox Jewish Mayisyahu fan. “Matisyahu, you were our hero, how could you do this to us? How could you abandon us? Don’t you see how much it pains us to see you struggle with your religious observance?”
In my opinion, this is obscene. None of us own Matisyahu. He doesn’t need to consider us when he makes his choices. It’s his life and he needs to live with whatever decision he makes. We don’t. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that all the pressure of “representing orthodox Judaism” had more than a little bit of a negative effect on Matisyahu. Imagine a world where your every action is scrutinized by the media on the one side and on the other side by your fellow orthodox Jews. Imagine having to live up to the impossible standard of perfection that was seemingly demanded of him. Imagine a life where one’s choice to become orthodox / chasidic no longer felt like a choice and instead felt like living up to someone else’s perception of what one should be.
It couldn’t have been easy.
And so I say, let the poor man be. Obviously he is going to through a lot. Some of the most talented people in the world deal with so much existential angst. Stop propping him up to be our religious superhero. Don’t expect anything out of him other than good, (hopefully) clean, inspirational music. He is not our paradigm or example of perfection. He is just another Jewish dude struggling with the same things we all struggle with albeit in a much more public manner.
Links: Frum Satire, Ynet, Heeb, The Forward