Comment: Hassidic rocker Matisyahu comes clean

Photo of singer without beard has Jewish world agog – but does it really mean he’s no longer religious?

beardless Matisyahu_311 (photo credit: Matisyahu Twitter)
beardless Matisyahu_311
(photo credit: Matisyahu Twitter)
NEW YORK – It was the razor that launched a thousand lips. On Tuesday, American hassidic reggae star Matisyahu posted a photo of himself on Twitter clean-shaven, without the huge curly beard that has factored so prominently in his persona.
“No more Chassidic reggae superstar.
Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias,” he said on his website.
The internationally known singer and beatboxer, born Matthew Paul Miller, wrote that when he 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 some point, he felt the need, he wrote, “to submit to a higher level of religiosity... to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth.”
The singer declared, “I reclaiming myself.
Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”
He told fans to “get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth.”
“And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry,” he added. “You haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.”
The blogosphere lit up like a Jewish Christmas within hours, with many speculating – based on nothing but Matisyahu’s online statement and picture – that he had dropped being a religious Jew.
Daniel Sieradski wrote in Heeb that Matisyahu had certainly “benefitted so richly” from his Orthodox identity, and that his “iconic hasidically-garbed appearance was oft stated to have had more to do with his rise to stardom than his talent alone.”
Asked Sieradski, “If Miller, whose feverish religiosity inspired so many others on the road to Jewish observance, couldn’t hack it as a frum yid [religious Jew], how can others be expected to maintain the illusion when the benefits are far less tangible?” Rabbi Jason Miller wondered on his blog whether the move might call the long-term devotion of other newly Orthodox into question.
“What will this mean for Matisyahu’s wife Tahlia and their children? Will they remain as Orthodox Jews, committed to the Hasidic lifestyle?” he asked.
However, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, writing in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, attempted to put things in perspective.
“There is no obligation in Judaism to wear a beard. It’s not a mitzvah,” he wrote.
“Facial hair is meant to be an adornment for the face, say the rabbis. The Torah instructs us about how to cut the beard – no razors allowed, leave the upper part of the sideburns – but doesn’t require a man to have a beard. While some associate taking off the beard with a lapse in religious observance, that is simply not the case.”
When I wrote an extensive profile of Matisyahu for The Forward in 2008, I found him to be much more than a “hassidically garbed appearance.” He was a thoughtful person with an unusual thirst for knowledge and religious exploration. He did not seem like someone who would ever be content with easy answers. Rather, his religious journey was clearly one that left him with more questions than answers – questions that he was willing to sign up for a lifetime to explore.
Like his name, Matisyahu’s chin is merely the face he chooses to show the world. As Jews, we are obligated to look deeper. As Jews – and particularly those of us who embrace the idea of pluralism within Judaism – we should applaud a public figure who takes a stand contrary to the monumental hurdles of international expectations in order to reevaluate who he is.
Rather than contenting himself with being a caricature of people’s preconceived ideas of being Jewish – what would have been most lucrative, expedient and expected – Matisyahu has made a different, and no doubt considered, choice. And I sincerely doubt, on the basis of my past contact with him, that this would mean he has abandoned a religious life.
This hunch was substantiated by his post later Tuesday: “For all of those who are being awesome, you are awesome. For all those who are confused: today I went to the Mikva and Shul just like yesterday.”
The self-appointed Jewish-beard Taliban might do well to remember this, and to turn their deliberation to a more relevant issue.