A chance for dialogue

Matisyahu’s beard trim was a landmark moment for an individual, but it exposed the hypocrisy of many people surrounding him

Matisyahu 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Matisyahu 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I’ll never forget turning on my computer yesterday. I’ll never forget looking at the screen and the multiple Facebook messages asking if I’d seen “the picture.” I had no idea what they were talking about.
When I finally had a look, I had trouble understanding it. What was the big deal? Some flat-looking dude with another one of those “mirror” pictures. Okay. Big deal.
Then I looked at the comments, and they were all talking about Matisyahu. About shaving. About the beard. About the peyot (sidelocks).
And I realized the man staring at me with the sad, calm eyes was the very same man they were speaking about: Matisyahu. And my heart sank.
All this happened in the space of a minute. The pain in my heart is still there, but not for the same reason.
When I first began my journey connecting to Orthodoxy, people like Matisyahu inspired me. His story of combining the modern world with his devotion to Hashem (God) helped me realize it was possible to keep my feet in this world while keeping my head in the spiritual realm.
I still believe that. But it has become clear through moments like this that this job is harder than ever. Connecting to God while going out into the modern world is a difficult, painstaking and grueling journey. No one better exemplifies this than Matisyahu.
The real pain comes, however, when a baal teshuva (“master of repentance” or repentant Jew) who has spent his entire religious life being told that he can change the world, that he is a representative of his people, that he has a special power to turn the modern world into a holy place, finds out that some of the people he thought believed in him weren’t really for him. They were for themselves.
They were for their own agenda.
For their own cause.
The pain I feel, and so many others feel now, isn’t from Matisyahu’s trim. It is from the reaction to it.
The shock of that has worn off and Matisyahu has since assured us that he is simply still on his journey, looking for the genuine Jew within. We still love him for that.
But others don’t. They don’t care about Matisyahu and it’s clear they never did. They have spent their lives profiting from people like Matisyahu, but the moment he really needed their support, they have spurned him. One needs only to look at the article and comments on websites such as COLLive and others to realize that while there are some people who truly care about Matisyahu as a soul, as a breathing Jewish heart, others have brazenly decided to spit in his face. They have taken advantage of his difficulties to push their own agenda.
And then there are articles like the one that appeared in the antireligious HEEB magazine. They have used Matisyahu’s journey to push their own anti-religious agenda and tried to turn him into a poster boy for going “off the derech [way]” before they’ve even heard more than a tweet from him.
There is a common demonimator between both groups: Both have used Matisyahu. Today, both are trying to sell his soul like a piece of meat. Is it any wonder he shaved his beard? I became religious because I saw how my campus Chabad rabbi truly loved every Jew he came in contact with. How, even when a person slandered him, his faith or Chabad, he only responded with love and care.
This is the main reason almost everyone that has become a religious Jew has gone down this path. People don’t become observant because of logical arguments or halachic debates. They become interested in religious Judaism because someone treated them like a soul that is inextricably bound with God.
Now, the main reason people like Matisyahu are leaving the faith is for the opposite reason. They realize how many people along the way have treated them like a number.
They watch videos with dancing Jews, thinking Orthodox Judaism is hip and cool, only to find out that the dancers were just hired minstrels, non-religious Jews who happened to be able to dance.
There is some good that has resulted from Matisyahu’s trim. It has forced us to talk. It has opened the doors to true dialogue. For the first time since his controversial Miracle video, there is real discussion going on in the religious, baal teshuva community.
All Jews, religious or not, should take advantage of this moment.
They should seize it and understand that this is a defining moment in our modern history. We can either use it to bicker, accuse and get angry with each other, or we can use it to discuss issues that have been swept under the table for too long. The Matisyahu issues can serve as a catalyst for asking whether we, as a community, abandon our baalei teshuva after they have become religious.
Are the methods we use to attract people to Orthodoxy genuine, or are they shallow marketing gimmicks that will come back to bite us later? Are we more interested in the people we are dealing with or in our own agendas?
It is not until we answer these important questions that we will be able to answer the real issues that “the picture” has presented us with. It is not until we examine ourselves deeply as a people that anything truly will be resolved for us as a movement. And it is not until we admit that we are partly at fault that people like Matisyahu will feel safe enough to truly develop as Jews and as people in a genuine way. Full beards or no beards.