In the tight-knit Jewish world, sometimes the weirdest, quirkiest stories get the most attention. Especially if they involve a Jewish celebrity.
This week, the biggest story in the Jewish realm by far was the sudden news that Matisyahu – the Chasidic hip-hop artist formerly known as Matthew Paul Miller and raised in Westchester County (despite his Jamaican accent while rapping) – shaved off his beard.
Stop the presses! A grown man shaved off his beard! I can’t tell you how many people emailed me links to this story.
Of course, this wasn’t just any man but arguably the most famous Orthodox Jew on the planet. No one can deny that Matisyahu has become an icon of sorts, for Jews and non-Jews. Besides transcending conventional wisdom about Orthodox Jews and Jews in general with his rhymes and beats, he has brought a certain type of spiritual fervor and awareness to his listeners that goes well beyond labels and boundaries.
There was always something a bit New Agey about Matis, despite his peyos and tzitzit. You always felt that if he didn’t fall into the frum lifestyle, he could’ve just as easily immersed himself in another spiritual or religious discipline, like Buddhism or Evangelical Christianity or something else. (By the way, that’s not putting him down.)
His “gimmick” was always the frum thing, the sight of a guy in a fedora and a long gabardine coat, who looked like a diamond trader from Williamsburg, rapping and moving around like Jay-Z. But unlike us old people, the kids always knew it wasn’t a gimmick or an act, that Matis was being authentic and sincere in his approach, in his kavanah (intention) and creative muse. (Admission: I say this as someone who is not a big fan of his music or that musical genre, but respects the feeling and depth he brings to his work.)
And that’s why Matis never went away after making it big several years ago, like so many other musical fads and one-off poseurs. And in the process, he inspired many of his fans to be more receptive to contemplating their own spiritual lives, including young Christians who just happened to like his tunes and thought he was cool, not to mention all of the young Jewish seekers out there who are sick of the trappings and restrictions of conventional Judaism.
In his big announcement to the world that he’d shaved off his whiskers, Matis sent a photo and wrote, “No more Chasidic reggae superstar. … When I started becoming religious 10 years ago, it was a very natural and organic process. 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.”
This “reclaiming,” the shedding of the beard, might make headlines for a couple of days and good water cooler fodder at Jewish agency offices. But there’s nothing seismic or cataclysmic going on here, it’s not a major indication of the changing times we’re living in. It should just be viewed as part of Matis’s spiritual evolution. (That or his face was getting scratchy.)
When he first broke into the big time in ‘04, Matis was affiliated with the Chabad movement. But throughout the process, he announced that he was no longer involved with Chabad – while never putting down that movement – but was simply an observant Jew, without all of the labels and such.
“I’m really religious, but the more I’m learning about other types of Jews,” Matis said, “I don’t want to exclude myself.” He said he was “not feeling bound to one way or one path, but open to many paths within Judaism.”
Now, it seems that Matis has come to the conclusion that one doesn’t have to sport a beard – or a mustache or a Van Dyke, for that matter – to be a good Jew (or a good person). Some people are already questioning his intentions (Publicity? Gone Hollywood?) and criticizing this move (Is it bad for the Jews? For the frummies?).
Only in the Jewish community could people get worked up about a guy shaving off his beard. I can’t imagine Methodist mayhem over a mustache.
Like Bob Dylan, Matis’s spiritual journey is obviously not based on a herd mentality or a sense of complacency but a healthy restlessness and undying desire to understand his place in the cosmos.
Thirty years ago, while trying to sort out his infamous, much criticized “Gospel Period” and his reemergence as a Jew, Dylan wrote, “In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand/In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.”
Matis, with or without beard, is on that same journey, that fury of the moment, to find God’s presence in every grain of sand, every speck of dust, every gust of wind. And you have to respect him for taking that walk into the lonesome valley, no matter whom he annoys, angers and amuses with his actions and words. That’s the mark of a true artist and seeker.