This story appears trivial, I grant you: but it is worth discussing, I think.
NOTE FROM MATISYAHU
This morning I posted a photo of myself on Twitter.
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.
I am not a religious person, and I do not believe in God. لا إله, as Maryam Namazie puts it.
I both love and enjoy religious activities. It is just that I engage with them as a spectator, rather than as a full participant. The purpose of worship is communion with, or the fulfilment of a duty to, God: not aesthetic pleasure or cultural transmission.
We all know people who have become religious, and most of our religious friends have progressed through various degrees and expressions of religiousity. My old flatmate was brought up in a house church family, graduated to high church Anglicanism, and now has settled somewhere in the middle. Other friends were for a time members of jihadist groups, and now range from largely non-practising to intensely intellectually engaged: specifically in the enterprise of reconciling classic Islamic theology with liberal pluralism.
Some lose their faith altogether. Remember the story of Jonathan Edwards, the Olympic athlete and former Songs of Praise presenter?
The upheaval of recent months has not left Edwards emotionally scarred, at least not visibly. “I am not unhappy about the fact that there might not be a God,” he says. “I don’t feel that my life has a big, gaping hole in it. In some ways I feel more human than I ever have. There is more reality in my existence than when I was full-on as a believer. It is a completely different world to the one I inhabited for 37 years, so there are feelings of unfamiliarity.
“There have also been issues to address in terms of my relationships with family and friends, many of whom are Christians. But I feel internally happier than at any time of my life, more content within my own skin. Maybe it is because I am not viewing the world through a specific set of spectacles.”
“The only inner problem that I face now is a philosophical one,” Edwards says. “If there is no God, does that mean that life has no purpose? Does it mean that personal existence ends at death? They are thoughts that do my head in. One thing that I can say, however, is that even if I am unable to discover some fundamental purpose to life, this will not give me a reason to return to Christianity. Just because something is unpalatable does not mean that it is not true.”
As a spectator of religion, I have only series of partial perspectives into why some people are religious and what it must be like to believe in God, and engage in religious practices for that reason. For some, I’m sure it is a comfort. For others, there’s a sense of belonging to supportive community: specifically one whose members define themselves as “good people”, trying to obey God’s will. Others are convinced by what they take to be good evidence of God.
For a few, undoubtedly, there is a sense of sanctioned rebellion to extreme religiousity. What better way of winding your parents out, than to out-religious them? Best of all, they can’t reproach you for it.
Matisyahu’s rationale is another common one:
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.
The world, the free world, is a frightening place. It is terrifying to have to make choices, some of which may harm you or others. Our judgement is imperfect, so we know that we will fail. How reassuring it is to know that God is in control, and that He has laid out the path for you.
There’s a great tension within the Abrahamic religions, between what is often called ‘spirituality’ and law-keeping. You see it in the battle between the Hassidim and the Mitnagdim and the Sufis and the Salafis. In Christianity, the dichotomy is hard-wired in to the Old Testament by James, who insists of full religious observance by Jews, and adherence to the Noahide laws by everybody else: and Paul, who declares that the Law is a “curse”.
Many religious people find themselves shuttling some distance between these poles during the course of their lives. Some religions allow individuals to enter temporary monastic vows, in order to devote themselves for a time to a life of piety. Judaism also provides for a – notionally – temporary and voluntary submission to additional religious obligations, by taking a nazirite vow. Unfortunately, release from that vow requires certain sacrifices to be made at the now non-existent Temple, which is no longer possible.
Perhaps a period in an intensively religious milieu is something akin to that. From what I remember of Matisyahu’s life, he was a non religious Jewish kid who was into Jamaican music. Perhaps one day he took too deep a drag on his spliff, and needed a moment to steady himself.
Religion is good at doing that sort of thing.
What we have to fear in religion, is the notion that humanity can and should be perfected: regardless of the cost. That totalitarian impulse is far from restricted to religion. However, when a religious culture provides a handrail to the faltering, or when it inspires a person to be and do better, conscious of our imperfect nature, it is at the very least a fantastic human creation. I can see why somebody might see something of the divine in that.
As far as I’m concerned, though, it is largely about the music, the architecture, and an appreciation of the effort that others have put into their collective endeavour.
I’m interested in your thoughts on the subject.
Joseph W adds:
In 2007, Matisyahu announced he was no longer with Chabad. Haaretz reported:
Matisyahu revealed that he had decided to abandon his association with Chabad, his hallmark from the first day he appeared on the radar of international reggae. “I am no longer identified with Chabad,” he announced. “Today, it’s more important to me to connect to a universal message. While they were playing on stage and I closed my eyes, I was thinking that what we do is not at all about Judaism and not about Chabad. It’s much bigger than one religion or another. It relies on something real that can speak to anybody. It’s about truth and memory.”
“It is as convenient for Chabad as it is for Matisyahu,” comments a senior Chabad member in response to Matisyahu’s new religious orientation. “Matisyahu was never a part of the movement’s conventional line. It’s possible that he felt that his membership in Chabad caused him to be scrutinized. He may have received a negative comment here or there within the Hasidic movement, and, perhaps, he felt limited. I do not believe that this was caused by his appearance before a mixed audience, because [international, Chabad singing star] Avraham Fried appears before women as well. This is a case of an inflamed audience in nightclubs and discotheques where Matisyahu gets boys and girls dancing.”
His relationship with Chabad did not turn wholly sour.
But since making public that he is breaking off from Chabad-Lubavitch, the chasidic group to which he has been closely connected since before his 2004 debut album, there have been a few less-than-dreamy moments as well.
Now in a more religiously fluid place, “we’re just frum Jews,” Matisyahu says of his family, in his first extensive interview since breaking off from Lubavitch. “I live in Crown Heights but I daven in Borough Park in Karlin” synagogues when he gets up early enough to reach it in time for morning minyan. “My wife loves the community; that’s why we’re still living in Crown Heights.”
Here he is in a skit on Mendy Pellin’s Purim Show, posted on Youtube by ChabadNewsOnline.
Watch it to the end – Matisyahu makes light of his recent split from Chabad, parodying the Breslev hasidim with whom he had started to identify.
A restless soul, perhaps.
“Perhaps one day he took too deep a drag on his spliff, and needed a moment to steady himself.”
That is exactly what happened. I actually once spent an hour an a half interviewing him. Here was a lovely, bright kid thoroughly secular kid who dropped out (I don’t think he had a full secondary education) and realised at one stage he was lost.
Even then, I wondered how long it would take for him to become disillusioned or distance himself from the dogmatic rigidities and rivalries of Lubavitch and Hasidic Orthodox thought in general.
I think he is still religious however just not an adherent to the ultimately divisive spectacle of many Hasidic beliefs.
Anyway: “Besser a yid mitun a bord, vi a bord mitun a yid”
Some interesting thoughts from OyVaGoy