On Matisyahu, shaving, facing truth, and finding ourselves

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Last month, a Jewish man removed his beard and it seems that the whole world noticed. I am referring, of course, to Matisyahu. The 33-year old musician who became famous as an ultra-Orthodox Jewish reggae singer, in the process defining his own category and musical sub-genre, cut off his beard and his payot and provided photographic documentation of his transformation to his fans via Twitter. He described his actions simply on his website: “No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias.”

The reaction was instantaneous. Journalists, bloggers and fans speculated on the meaning of this change. Is Matisyahu turning his back on the Chassidic world? Is he still a traditionally observant Jew? Is this move motivated more by his career than his religion?

And yes, my friends, at least one journalist referred to the whole kerfuffle as “beard-gate.”

Because Matisyahu is perhaps the world’s best-known Baal Teshuva, there have naturally been questions about the singer’s observance and his identification with Chassidim. I am not particularly qualified to analyze the intra-Orthodox cultural and religious subtleties represented by Matisyahu’s journey to traditionally observant life and his movements around the community. However, The Jewish Daily Forward reported that he previously had a break with the Lubavitcher community that he entered upon becoming BT. Matisyahu’s own statements appear to confirm that he is maintaining a relatively high degree of religious observance. Soon after posting his beardless photo, he posted this on his Twitter feed:

 “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.”

So it seems that the former Chassidic reggae superstar is now a beardless still-traditionally observant reggae superstar. But frankly, I don’t think the religious implications of Matisyahu’s choice are the most compelling aspect of this story. I think this is a story about a man’s evolving sense of himself, and that it offers each of us the opportunity to consider our own identities.

As my colleague Hal Senal wrote in these pages last month in response to Matisyahu, it is very human to evolve spiritually over the course of our lives. Yet at an even more fundamental level, the way we understand who we are and the way that we show up in the world also continue to change.

Matisyahu appears to have signaled a conflict that he was experiencing in the days that led to up to cutting off his beard. Again, from Twitter:

“If the world is centered around me then I am in control. If it is not then I am a part of it all and not in control.

 “Very scary thought to be a part of something that you can not control. A part of the IT We don’t know what the IT is even.”

What was Matisyahu controlling? Was he feeling controlled by something else? At this point we don’t know. But his brief, sometimes ambiguous statements lead me to believe that he was perhaps struggling with the notion of internal control versus being controlled from the outside. From this point of view, maybe Matisyahu’s uncovering of his face was a way of asserting control and defining himself anew.

Who among us does not reconsider our identities and make changes throughout our lives? We affirm our sexual orientation, choose professions, commit to our life partners, become parents, and choose to live a Jewish life. And as Jews, a minority everywhere but in Israel, we make the choice every day to be Jewish the way we are Jewish. Whether we keep kosher, or eat bacon; wear kippot and modest clothing, or not; or bring our prayers into action by davening in shul or by doing foreclosure-prevention door knocks on the north side of Minneapolis…we are defining ourselves and taking our place in the world as Jews.

Maybe Matisyahu took off his beard as a means of finding an authentic expression of himself, to make his outside match his inside, to be the man and the Jew he was created to be. Again, we don’t know. Time, and the information that Matisyahu chooses to disclose, may make it all more clear.

It is written in Midrash that “the Torah has seventy panim (faces)” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 13:15). Rabbis have taught that this is a way of describing the many truths that exist simultaneously in every word of Torah. With his newly uncovered face, Matisyahu will show us his truth as he sees it today. And perhaps he will inspire us to continue to seek our own truth and to be the person we were created to be in this moment.

(Photo: Matisyahu World)