Unorthodox Yet Sincere, A Liberal Jew’s Anthem In Matisyahu’s “Sunshine”

June 21, 2012 at 10:34 pm, by

We were all right.

Without the beard, Matisyahu DOES look a little like Andy Samberg.

This is Matisyahu.

This is Andy Samberg.

But in all seriousness, many Matis fans are right now focused on the ex-Chassidic reggae star’s new look because…

<– this guy                         

just

became that guy. –>

(Matis is on Wiz Khalifa‘s left.)


I’ve had divided feelings about Matisyahu’s career, but I have immense respect for what Matthew Miller is doing right now.

Mr. Miller is declaring himself a searching Jew. The way he puts it (the title of his album coming out next month), he is a Spark Seeker.

He is seeking that spark of the true self with which we try to reconnect after we have gotten “lost” in some way.

Today, Matisyahu released the music video for “Sunshine,” the first single off the new album. But what makes this Matis video different from all other Matis videos?

For most of the video, there is no kippah or covering of any other sort on Matisyahu’s head.

But why should there be? Most Jews don’t wear kippot on their heads.

In fact, many Jews who don’t ritually cover their heads are nonetheless serious about their religion and values. (In fact, this includes rabbis!)

The video begins with a quote from the Book of Exodus, was filmed in Israel, has a few shots of Matthew wearing a kippah, and serves as an interpretation to a song with lyrics that gel nicely with Jewish mysticism.

Given all of these factors, Matisyahu is living up to a high standard of Jewyness for an internationally acclaimed pop artist.

But, no kippah? Is he just not Orthodox? (Well… plenty of Orthodox Jews actually don’t wear kippot.)

Wearing a kippah is not required by Jewish law. No rabbis before the 20th Century said that Jewish law requires men to cover their heads.

Still, some find meaning in this garb. And some don’t.

And what if Matisyahu doesn’t? He’s entitled to his own spiritual quest as he seeks some inner Divine spark.

In fact, the spiritual quest that Matisyahu is on now is not new. It just looks different to the untrained eye.

Long before he shaved off his beard in December, he was this phenomenon: this intensely dressed Chassidic Jew affiliated with the Chabad sect but rapping and beatboxing over reggae music. But, after he disaffiliated from Chabad, he was just a Chasidic Jew. And after he no longer had the Chasidic beard, he tweeted the next day that he still went to synagogue in the morning and did some ritual cleansing in a mikveh.

But, before he was under the influence of Chabad, he was… a Phish-head.

I can’t say that I know the full story of how he transformed into a Chasidic Jew. (Israel was in there somewhere, he communicated with God, some other stuff happened…) But from all the bits and pieces I have read and heard of his life from many interviews and articles, there’s nothing I can point to and call “disingenuous” or “fake.”

He’s an honest seeker, and he continues to seek using Jewish language (the Book of Exodus, the land of Israel, etc.).

Today, the Chassidic uniform is not how Matisyahu wants to dress for his intense journey towards truth and meaning.

On a Chassidic journey, in an Ultra-Orthodox community, there are certain questions you’re not allowed to ask and certain routes you’re not allowed to take. But Matisyahu wants to take them.

And guess what? Orthodox Jews aren’t the only Jews who go on spiritual journeys.

Jews of all stripes go on spiritual journeys.

Jews who don’t wear streimels, have beards or know Hebrew are capable of intense spiritual quests. These quests just don’t look like Matisyahu’s did 7 years ago.

So, I’m impressed by Matisyahu renewed. He’s no longer this mysterious other dressed and shaven to look holier than thou.

He is now dressed and shaven to look a little more like some Jewish men most Jews actually know.

Through his dress, Matisyahu is becoming a different kind of Jewish role model. Through non-Chassidic dress, he is literally embodying one of the most important messages Jews must hear: Meaningful Jewish life no longer requires strict Orthodoxy. There are other ways.

Matisyahu publicly talks about how one of the most exciting things about his spiritual journey is that he does not know the destination yet.

A spiritual quest is not merely following a trail. It’s not just deciding what trail to follow. Sometimes it’s about trailblazing, designing and redesigning these trails.

Matisyahu’s journey right now is a personal one, but the way you and I view it intensely reflects how you and I view serious Jewish journeys.

If we ever thought that Matisyahu’s Chassidic life was legitimately Jewish because he was following all the rules, then Matisyahu has bravely opened up the discussion to the entire Jewish community.

Can you take off your kippah, cut off your beard, remove your Orthodoxy AND still be a serious Jew, on a serious quest to seek God?

If the answer is no–that removing Jewish garb removes you from the Jewish people–then I don’t want to be a part of the Jewish conversation.

The way I see it, the truth is that the informed Orthodox Jew who asks no questions can be no greater than the Jew who learns to read her or his first Hebrew letter. And the Jew who studies Torah, takes a step back, and asks if it is true can be just as committed to the Jewish quest for truth as the Jew who does not know how to step away from Torah study–or how to approach it.

No matter what we look like, where we’ve been, or where we’re going, we can all be spark seekers.

Thank you Matisyahu for looking just a little more like Andy Samberg.

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10 Comments So Far

  1. If you want to cloud the truth, that’s fine. But once you start changing the core beliefs that Jews have followed for over 3,000 year, you aren’t talking about Judaism anymore.

    When you write things like “Meaningful Jewish life no longer requires strict Orthodoxy. There are other ways”, you couldn’t be further from the truth. If you want to say that Andy Samberg, Matisyahu and the rest are following some new religion, then fine. But if you are talking about living a “meaningful Jewish life” – the Torah needs to be your guide – or else it’s not Judaism anymore. The Torah is the guidebook G-d gave us that shows us how we should live our Jewish lives – so if you aren’t following what it says, you aren’t living a “meaningful Jewish life” according to G-d himself.

    Why am I writing this? Why do I care or think this is my business? Because I follow the Torah, which states: “Whoever saves a single Jewish soul is as if he saved an entire world.”
    The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) teaches that “Whoever saves a single Jewish soul is as if he saved an entire world.” This passage underscores the importance of helping each individual. Even if only one Jewish person were being misled, our concern is to be great.

    You said: “Wearing a kippah is not required by Jewish law. No rabbis before the 20th Century said that Jewish law requires men to cover their heads”

    In Talmudic times, the practice of wearing a headcovering was reserved for men of great stature. In later generations, though, it became the accepted custom for all Jewish men to wear a kippah at all times, and especially during prayer. As with all Jewish customs, once they become a universally accepted Jewish practice, they become halachically obligatory.

    Since wearing a kippah has become a form of distinction between Jews and non-Jews, failure to wear a headcovering falls under the prohibition of “you shall not follow their statutes.”, which is a Jewish law right out of the Torah:

    We may not follow the statutes of the idolaters or resemble them in their [style] of dress, coiffure, or the like, as [Leviticus 20:23] states: “Do not follow the statutes of the nation [that I am driving out before you],” as [Leviticus 18:3] states: “Do not follow their statutes,” and as [Deuteronomy 12:30] states: “Be careful, lest you inquire after them.”

    [All these verses] share a single theme: they warn us not to try to resemble [the gentiles]. Instead, the Jews should be separate from them and distinct in their dress and in their deeds, as they are in their ideals and character traits. In this context, [Leviticus 20:26] states: “I have separated you from the nations [to be Mine].

    I know I’ve written a lot of information here – but this is what living a meaningful Jewish life is about. Not saying the Torah’s ideas have changed and now this or that is not required. The Torah followed by those who are truly living a Jewish Life, is the one that has not changed since we got it on Mount Sinai.

    I’m not saying I’m perfect, I’m saying to live a Jewish life you need to follow the Torah – and not make up your own path based on what you think is right. G-d gave you free choice – choose Him.

    meir, June 22, 2012 at 12:56 am #
  2. Meir, Betty, and Marc, thanks so much for all of your comments!

    Meir, “You shall not follow their statutes” is in reference to the statutes of certain nations, and, based on the context of the verse, it seems that this is in reference to very specific statutes. Either way, secular American culture has no culture of “You shall not cover your head,” so how could not covering one’s head possibly be the following of a secular American statute?

    I’d like to recommend you review these verses and note the specificity of their contexts. You do exude a good familiarity with the Torah texts and that principle from Sanhedrin, but if you do examine the way that these texts have been interpreted throughout Jewish history, you will see that these laws have been interpreted very differently–and often with reference to a specific law that in my humble opinion has very little to do with the actual context of these verses (the way you cut your hair, how you kill a guy, etc.).

    Also, I am not Orthodox, but I follow the Torah. I don’t know how you can dispute that.

    Jonah Rank, June 22, 2012 at 10:08 am #
  3. Thank you for articulating what many feel.

    Betty Ross, June 22, 2012 at 6:46 am #
  4. Well said.

    In a course I took with Rabbi Art Green he said that every Jewish seeker needs to go through an Orthodox phase. He did, I did, now Matisyahu did…

    Mostly I’ll be a fan as long as there’s catchy music about what I think is import as opposed to the sex and party ethic of so much pop music.

    Marc, June 22, 2012 at 6:57 am #
  5. “Wearing a kippah is not required by Jewish law. No rabbis before the 20th Century said that Jewish law requires men to cover their heads.”

    Er, even a quick look at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kippah) shows your statement to be incorrect.
    Here’s a nice summary from another website:

    The basic halacha of covering the head for men is that it is forbidden to walk four cubits (about 8 feet) with an uncovered head. (According to some authorities it is forbidden to go any distance at all without a head covering. It is even considered improper to sit in one’s home with an uncovered head.)

    It is also forbidden to say a prayer with the name of HaShem or to study Torah without a head covering.

    The Source

    The source for not walking four cubits with the head uncovered is the statement in the Talmud that the mother of Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak would not allow him to go with his head uncovered for she said, “Cover your head in order that you should have the fear of heaven upon you.” There is another statement that Rav Huna brei d’Rabbi Yehoshua would not go four cubits with his head uncovered.

    Another basis given for this practice is to avoid the customs of the non-Jews.

    Even though the requirement to cover the head at all times is not stated in the Torah, or even in the Talmud, it is nevertheless an established Jewish custom and is binding on all Jewish men. The requirement to follow established religious customs is based upon the Biblical teaching, “Hear, my son, your Father’s instruction, and do not forsake your Mother’s Torah” (Mishlei – Proverbs 1:8). It is taught that “Father” in this verse refers to God, while “Mother” refers to the nation of Israel. “Your Mother’s Torah” refers to religious customs which were established by the Jewish people. These have the status of Torah and are binding. The requirement of male headcovering is one such custom. (The requirement to cover one’s head during prayer is discussed in Mesechta Sofrim 14:15.)

    Shimon, June 22, 2012 at 11:58 am #
  6. Shimon, your first source is a piece of Aggadah (Jewish narrative/theopoetics)–not of Jewish law.

    Your second source: the Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31a reads as follows:

    אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי אסור לאדם שיהלך ארבע אמות בקומה זקופה שנא’ (ישעיהו ו, ג) מלא כל הארץ כבודו רב הונא בריה דרב יהושע לא מסגי ארבע אמות בגילוי הראש אמר שכינה למעלה מראשי
    Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “It is forbidden for a person to walk four ammot in upright stature because it says in Isaiah 6:50 “The entirety of the Earth is God’s substance.” Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua said, “One cannot [walk] four ammot with an exposed head.” He said, “The Presence of God is above my head.”

    In that second source, we see that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (primarily an Aggadist by the way, not so much a Halakhist)teaches that when moving significantly, one should move through the world with something of a bent back/neck (picture a submissive, low-headed dog) in order to acknowledge God’s dominating substantive being in the world. Riffing off of this, Rav Huna says “cannot” (the language of Aggadah/idealism, not of Halakhah/legalism) in reference to having an “exposed head.” An “exposed head” here more likely means fully upright, rather than bent submissively. Where in this passage does the word “kippah” appear?

    Shimon, the 2nd to last piece you cite is an interpretation and not law itself. As far as your Sof’rim citation goes, I don’t see it there. I might be looking at another edition. Can you cite these words?

    Jonah Rank, June 22, 2012 at 12:56 pm #
  7. Great article. Thanks for taking the time and linking to his new video. I love it!

    Talia, June 22, 2012 at 1:37 pm #
  8. Hey Jonah,

    I haven’t done all the research on head covering, but it does seem that other (pre-20th C) sources do take this gemara to be giving halakha le’maase – and meaning actually covering your head. You can follow refs forward from the gemara or backwards from SA OH 2:6.

    I seem to remember that there’s a teshuva of the Maharshal (16th C) (#72) where he says that this isn’t really obligatory, but you should do it anyway. The Har Tzvi’s teshuva (OH 1:3) is probably early 20th C. but argues vehemently against the Maharshal.

    I think there’s a good argument for it being less-than-obligatory, but there are earlier sources that suggest otherwise too.

    If you really want to do the job fully, check out Yehve Daat 4:1 for Rav Ovadia’s typical exhaustive and creative treatment of the topic.

    Tim, June 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm #
  9. Thanks Talia!

    And Tim, thank you too!

    I don’t want to say that Moshe Benovitz definitely taught me my understanding of kippah as written above, but I do recall him teaching me this past year something very similar about what the Gemara teaches re: head coverings. Whether later sources interpret something that was not intended to be Halakhah Lema’aseh as Halakhah Lema’aseh in the end is another issue.

    “Not obligatory but you should do it anyway” does approximately sound like an honest rabbinic conception of the importance of wearing a kipped. “Do it anyway” is a funny way to live one’s life in my opinion.

    I’m not currently familiar with Yecheveh Da’at, but I do hope to become familiar with it! Is it online in any form? (Bar-Ilan? Google?) If not, do you think I could find it in a standard seforim store?

    Jonah Rank, June 24, 2012 at 11:00 pm #
  10. Why can’t people accept that he just gave up? Being religious is very demanding and not everyone can handle it. Most of his press releases are excuses to negate this point. He got a lot of flack for trying to fit into the mainstream while maintaining a Jewish identity and he cracked under the pressure. SIMPLE. All the excuses and arguments in the world won’t negate this truth. Doesn’t mean he’s any less jewish but he’s definitely not heading in the direction that our forefathers intended. Can’t negate the truth.

    Isaac, August 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm #
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