Oh… Matisyahu…

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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

  • Anonymous

    2) Once he shaved his beard dropping orthodox Judaism was to be expected (by superficial people) so no one is surprised by this.

    Why “by superficial people”? Seems to me like it was an easy call, and we were right.

    • batya from nj

      I agree with you Dan!! It’s not fair to call people superficial who realized that once Matisyahu shaved off his trademark beard, his religious observance was going to follow suit. And I say that as someone who does NOT feel that Orthodox men must have beards. My own husband did not sport a beard for many years & he is currently just as observant now with his little goatee as he was when he was clean-shaven but for Matisyahu the beard seemed to represent his connection with G-d & spirituality & once he gave that up it seems like his Orthodoxy was shifting. That said, he has a right to make his own decisions & does not have to live a life that he is not comfortable living just to please his fans in the Orthodox community. However, I do feel for his wife & children who have to figure out a way to deal with their husband/father & all the changes he is currently going through while they are living in an Orthodox community where Matisyahu’s current ‘look’ & practices may be frowned upon by other community members.

      • Batya and Dan: As I said elsewhere, “Even the blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes”. Just because things worked out as you or others predicted doesn’t mean it was a fair or wise prediction.

        • I agree the beard wasn’t. But videos and pics of him in physical contact with women including but not limited to crowd surfing (again) over the last 2 years were better indicators.

          • Even that… Meh…

            • Maybe but one is entirely superficial and one was halacha.

              • Even that can be justified. Perhaps…

              • Put it this way, if a frum guy you knew touched some women and took some pictures, wouldn’t you still consider him frum, (just dealing with stuff)?

                • No but if that person had been “chasidic” as long as I knew him and then put a video on youtube intended to be seen by thousands of him wearing a Santa outfit and surrounded by scantily clad girls I would take as something more serious. Still, your point is well taken.

        • Good wisdom comes from understanding some patterns. Here was a BT, in the music industry that than decided to shave his beard. People could see where this was going. And just because you don’t like people doing it, doesn’t mean they are the ones being blind.

          Not to say anything bad about Mattisyahu of course. I don’t doubt for a minute that he is any less of a mensch now as he was before, kippa or no kippa

    • josh

      Because many of us spiritual people were hoping that it was just a superficial change.

  • Gil Student

    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?

    He’s the one who made a big deal about his observance in the first place. There are plenty of frum people in the entertainment industry and the compromises they make for their living, as in many industries, are private. None of them put their observance on public display like Matisyahu did, probably inadvertently but nevertheless.

    • Jacob Alperin-Sheriff

      There are “plenty of frum people?” You mean in behind-the-scenes work, yes? I can’t think of a single out-front-frum-person-in-entertainment whose observance hasn’t been a matter of public display/serious discussion

    • Charlie Hall

      Cantor Dudu Fisher has been very upfront about how his Shabat observance has cost his career. He has yet to receive another offer of a Broadway lead role despite having been a success as Jean Valjean in both New York and London.

      I work for a very frum-friendly university. We have no classes on Shabat and at this very moment I’m eating a pareve pizza from the kosher cafeteria in my building. Being observant has cost my career absolutely nothing. I salute those who have sacrificed far more.

  • Anonymous

    Whether or not one’s failure to wear a yarmulke provides a clue as to that fellow’s overall observance, I couldn’t help but notice that Matisyahu has also totally shaved his peyos right off. I don’t really have any pithy observation beyond that; just saying.

  • Anonymous

    The bottom line is that we have a man who – whether intentionally or not – became a role model for many Jewish youth. It is important to point out the danger of creating role models that we only know through popular media.
    Can he still be a good role model? Of course. He still writes clean music wih inspirational messages. He may still show how music can be a form or religious expression. But at the end of the day, he cannot be viewed as a paradigm of the integrated Orthodox Jew that many made him out to be. This was a mistake to begin with, and something that we should learn from.

    • I’m wondering how good. After reading the news yesterday I listened to Chop ’em Down b/c I always felt Shake off the Dust was his best, most personal and least “commercial” album. This time around it didn’t sound so good. The production quality wasn’t there but I guess that makes sense since this was before Sony Epic signed him. But somehow the lyrics sounded clunky and boring, the fake reggae grating, and generally uninspired I’m not sure if I used to convince myself it was good b/c I wanted to like it or now I was convincing myself it wasn’t good b/c I’m disappointed in him. Either way, I don’t see myself following him anymore.

  • Prag

    Great analysis, indeed fans have absolutely no rightt o complain, it’s his life, besides the fact that a (super) star is a hero to them is a (the) problem to begin with, it’s supposed to be their rebbes and and communal leaders.

    • Anonymous

      Are people complaining? I haven’t seen much of that, but more of analyzing his transformation.

      • Yes. Read the links below. They quote a blogger on the Huffington Post.

        • Anonymous

          I did. His beef was that there was no explanation. If you are a role model – and embrace it like it seemed Matisyahu did – you owe it to your followers to explain, or at least acknowledge, any actions that compromise that role.
          If in fact he does not view himself as a role model, well, he should say something like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMzdAZ3TjCA.
          You assume that he is going through something which would be difficult to discuss publically. If so, then yes, he should get some breathing room. But eventually, I think he needs to build up the courage to discuss it.

          • I don’t understand why YOU or anyone else thinks they are ENTITLED to an explanation?

            • Yair_Daar

              Followers choose a role-model because he represents a certain paradigm to them. When the role-model then embraces this role, he i saying “I will be that paradigm for you and I will deliberately do and say things so that you can learn from me.”

              If that person then completely shifts modes, he owes it to his followers to either acknowledge it by saying “I no longer represent this paradigm,” or say “I still do, and here is why I have done something so dramatically different than usual.”

              Imagine if you decided to become Christian? Don’t you think your congregants would deserve an explanation?

              Again, if Matisyahu never embraced being a role-model that is a different story. Then we could discuss whether becoming an ipso facto role model comes with the same responsibilities.

              • I think he definitely intended to be a role model but not necessarily to the Orthodox community. He reached out to those searching for spirituality, but in no way to frum jews. I think we (I) accepted him as a role model and feel entitled to an explanation but I can see why he would feel differently. I also can see why he would feel burdened by the Orthodox community – someone of his background, his experiences as a teenager/20 something following Phish etc. is not the type of person to be shackled down. When he met Chabad at Washington Square Park he was introduced to the Majesty of God and a lot of deep spiritual concepts. Years later he may have found himself in a prison of expectations. The content of his music videos and songs over the last 2 years made it clear to me a lot had changed regarding his Shmiras halacha. Shaving the beard, removing his kippah and payos (?) have cemented that. He didn’t change his appearance for the same reason a lawyer doesn’t wear a kippah – he passed that bridge a while ago. Maybe one day he’ll explain more.

                • Anonymous

                  In that case, can definitely still be that role model, and now maybe even better. Then, we have an interesting question: What is the responsibility of the role-model that never asked to be a role-model?

  • Maybe by Matisyahu discarding his trappings of frumkeit – and also by Y-Love coming out of the closet – maybe Hashem is teaching us not to put so much stock in anyone considered a celebrity, especially if they’re “ours” – maybe we need to work on ourselves and our faith a little more earnestly.

  • “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.”

    I think there’d be a lot of attorneys, politicians, and other people who work outside of Israel or the NYC/S Florida/LA metropolitan areas who would disagree…”

    I think there are quite a few professionals who would disagree, especially in areas outside of NY, LA, or S Fla (not to mention Israel)

    • Yes. Did you read the next line?

  • Devo K

    Yet again another post on the internet that addresses Matisyahu’s look and fails to address the fact that according to his tour schedule, he’ll be performing on Saturday, July 28th – aka 9 Av.

    • ahg

      For parnasa, a musician is allowed to perform during the three weeks. Granted Tisha B’av day itself is very different. The bigger deal to be pointing out is that at the 8:00pm starting time of the concert there will still be more than an hour left to Shabbat in VA. I thought Chillul Shabbat out-ranked Tisha B’av but I could be wrong about that… in today’s world minhagim like kippah have taken on more value than little commandments like Lo Tignov.

  • Benei Shalom

    I am happy that Matisyahu has rebelled, openly, against the brainwashing/stringency/oppression that was wielded over him– an impressionable BT.

    My heart goes out to him; he is likely experiencing post-cult trauma.

  • From the beginning of reading this I have felt the same. When comes time for you to stand and be judged, perhaps the door to the court room will be open. But there will be no judge, no jury, I doubt a janitor will even be there. If you come to wonder why you are not being judged, remember this post of yours today.

  • Emunah F

    I’m glad you represented this side, and I think you’re right that the orthodox community may hold blame for his struggle. At the same time — the social conventions you mention aren’t completely unfounded.

    We live in a freer, supposedly more accepting world today, so there should theoretically be no reason for a person not to wear a kipa (except perhaps in extreme circumstances). Especially Matisyahu who was famous for his “jewishness” shouldn’t get any trouble for it. Thus taking it off is more meaningful than it might have been thirty years ago — it rightly raises suspicions.
    And it’s true that if we were more accepting of the compromises one might have to make to work in the secular music industry, he might have had an easier time. At the same time, we don’t accept that career choice for a reason. It’s creating an identity within an environment that’s basically alien to Jewish observance and values. Anyone who understands the impact of peer pressure and environment should know that taking such a step entails exposing yourself to a lot of “spiritual danger” — and by the community condemning such steps, I suppose we hope to keep people from getting into that situation.
    Finally, I would have to say that we do own Matisyahu — at least on some level. He’s our brother and his connectedness to our nation is a concern of all of us. That doesn’t mean he needs to be pressured or guilt-tripped, but that our interest in his religious status is justified, just like our interest in all other Jews. And to see our brother — who perhaps wrongly was a role model to some of us — but in the very least was some kind of picture of orthodox Jews to the secular world — seem to go astray, is disheartening. Maybe the way people express their reaction to his choices is unhelpful — but their interest is not misplaced.

  • Charlie Hall

    “It goes without saying that a bare-headed male is likely to be considered persona non grata in the orthodox Jewish community.”

    The most powerful Orthodox Jew in America is Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the New York State Assembly for the past 19+ years. He does not routinely wear a yarmulke in public. Someone told me that he actually was told by a rabbi not do wear a yarmulke because people might think he is a rabbi. I thought that was a bit silly until I was visiting a small New England city and just from being seen with a yarmulke got greeted by a local Protestant minister and Mormon elder, who each invited me to join the local interfaith council. They knew that one of the local non-orthodox synagogues was looking for a new rabbi and assumed that I must be the new hire!

    My other interesting yarmulke story is from Madrid, Spain. I wore my yarmulke all over the city, something Spanish Jews don’t do. One day as I was about to enter the subway a woman comes up to me and tells me, “Sir, your backpack is open.” I reflexively said, “Thank you” and proceeded to the turnstyle. But then I realized that something was wrong. I turned around and caught up to the woman as she reached the top of the stairs at the subway station exit. I asked her, “Excuse me, ma’am, thank you for telling me about my backpack, but how did you know I spoke English?” She looked at me and said, “Its the thing on your head!” Wearing a yarmulke in much of Europe is a sign that you are a tourist.

  • Mr. G

    To make matters worse it seems he’s playing on Tisha B’Av.

  • bare headed-ness (if thats a word) is a halachic violation? I think some people need to read rav moshes FIRST published teshuva…

  • Cali Girl

    I knew he was eventually going to leave orthodoxy behind when he shaved his beard, but not because of the shaving part. It was because of the statement he put out at the same time. I’m too lazy to go find it right now and I don’t remember it verbatim but he said something about how at one point he felt the need to submit to an ultimate truth and that now he was beyond that.
    Here is the thing, no matter how far left you go, if you are still in the realm of orthodoxy, you must submit to an ultimate “truth,” and even suspend your moral, intellectual, and common sense thinking when it comes into conflict with codified Jewish law. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that for some people, but because Matisyahu didn’t want and/or believe in that anymore, it was just a matter of time.

    • Did you read the post I linked at the beginning of this post that I wrote when he shaved the beard?

      I basically said the same thing.

      “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.”

      • Cali Girl

        Yeah, I read it after. We were thinking the same thing.

  • Daniel

    He was already taking flack for the most part before he shaved his beard. People loved him for his music, and for the anti-persona, and novelty of being a Chasidishe star accepted by the masses. But we didn’t make him feel welcome or accepted at home. There are many people in Crown Heights who gave him a hard time for being who he was… It was somewhat inevitable that he would revert when not accepted by the frum community (Even Lipa, an FFB was given a hard time for a long time)

  • H P

    ” Stop propping him up to be our religious superhero.”

    Gee, I wonder who ever did that?? No one in my shul….

  • Time to update the post @efink:disqus :


    • I have no idea what he is saying.

  • ahg

    Here’s a fourth possible reason: 4) Before he shaved his beard, people thought they “knew” Matisyahu. After he shaved his beard they realized they didn’t really “know” him, and he wasn’t the person whose mental image they painted in their mind, so nothing new is surprising anymore.

    (Of course they never knew him, but people thought they understood him in as much as we can think we know or understand an celebrity figure we have grown to admire. There’s a tendency to paint a more complete mental picture of a person who we can only relate to from afar so as to allow what’s really a shallow bond to feel deeper. People do it all the time with mucisians, sports figures, politicians, etc. Once that mental picture is shattered, and people are brought back to the reality that they never really knew the person in the first place, what ever follows isn’t as interesting.

  • Proof how fame and fortune can corrupt anyone. His beard didnt make him great his talent did, but his beard was a symbol. A symbol at least to me that, no matter how famous he got he would still be Matisyahu. I don’t know if I even make sense, all I know is that picture with Wiz makes me sick. Wiz thinks life is a party Matis treated life like a journey I guess its just a journey till you get to the party. RIP Matisyahu

    • So you are an expert on Wiz Khalifa and his personality? Ditto for Matisyahu. And are you implying frum yidden don’t party? Have you ever been out Purim night to hear and see all of the drunk bochurim stumbling around in the street? Ah – but that is a mitzvah! Silly me!

  • Yasher koach Rabbi for writing this! I read Mr. Nehorai’s piece on the Huffington Post, and all I could do is cringe. It is unfair to both sides whenever anyone puts another human being on a pedestal. But then again, we have Orthodox Jews who are so caught up in the gedolim fetish…so maybe I’m talking to the wall here. But anyway, the bottom line should be that the utmost attention should be paid to your own personal relationship with G-d. Before you sit back and even think (much less write) to criticize others observances, look at yourself and pick out something that you can improve upon. All of us have something…so let’s not throw stones here. As for Matisyahu, I also feel very bad that his spiritual growth and development has to be scrutinized and criticized in such a public way.

    Apparently, we don’t seem to learn so much from our past. In many ways I see the parallel between Matisyahu and Malcolm X. While the former is an entertainer and the later was an activist, when Malcolm X was alive for most of his public life he was a puppet for Elijah Muhammad. And that puppet stood for racism, intimidation and fiery rhetoric. However the undercurrent (which we know very clearly now) is that Malcolm X had his doubts about the Nation of Islam and in the end, he started to change his views and he tried to move out in a different direction. However NOI wasn’t too happy about that; and when he was killed, they declined to make any public remorse over his death.

    Our similarities bind us together more than our differences tear us apart!

  • josh

    I much agree with your post except for the last part about being role model. We don’t own our favorite celebs, but celebs should know that being a role model is part of the ‘job’ and responsibility. If they exploit that role model status to sell clothes, running shoes, etc.

    The facts show that many nobodies turned celebrities can’t handle that responsibility. I think we were hoping that his strong Jewish background and advisers would be strong enough to sustain the pressure of being in a secular (and hedonistic) industry, so we are disappointed and frustrated.