Friday, June 8, 2012

An open letter to Matisyahu: Rabbi Hoffman

5tjt by Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Dear Matisyahu,

The reports, have been a bit devastating. First came the beard. Now, it seems, your appearances are sans Yarmulkah.

What happened?

We were, for a while, so proud of you. Here was a powerful entertainer, filled with talent, and unabashed in his Judaism. Unabashed, as well, in his Hasidic deportment. And filled with a spiritual energy of which the secular world took note.

The beard. The peyos and black Yarmulkah. The tzitzis out and flying as you danced to the tunes that underscored Jewish spirituality.

True, reggae music is not to everyone's tastes, but the gentile world was now exposed to a thinking - a philosophy not heard from before. You had exposed a small, yet discernible, ray of the light of Chassidus to a different world. True, it was a world that had gone mad, but nonetheless, the notion of spreading Hasidic light was, in a sense, coming alive in you.

Your religious fans loved you. Those with a similar physical appearance to you, finally, had recognition. No longer did they receive bizarre looks in the street from those never exposed to such dress. They had a Matisyahu out there. Ambassador to the world. But then, something happened. Something may have changed within you. You went native. [...]


  1. I was never proud of this guy. Dressing the worst type of music in Jewish garb doesn't make it Jewish.

  2. As for what happened to him, there is an English saying that explains it quite simply - sleep with dogs and you get fleas.

  3. As for what happened to him, the saying goes, those who sleep with dogs get fleas.

  4. There are plenty of people who sleep with angels and become dogs. Stop being so puerile Avraham.

  5. It's difficult to be both a rock star and shomer mitzvos. Eventually, you have to choose between the two.

  6. "puerile" -- that's a good one.

    I agree that Matisyahu's choice of social context for expressing his entertainment talents was his undoing. True, one can "sleep" with either dogs or angels and become corrupt, but the challenge remains to keep Jewish passion within kosher bounds before spewing it around. Reggae just doesn't seem to lend itself to a good hekhsher.

    1. Reggae doesn't be German tavern songs(i.e. niggunim) do?

      Matisyahu's downfall had less to do with music and more to do with a perfect storm of an unstable and troubled youth who was newly B"T(started going Orthodox in '97 and went Lubavitch in '98) who's talent lead him to be pushed to be a Rockstar to the point that he is signed with a label in 2004, mostly so that he could help draw people into Lubavitch.

      When he got tired of being a Kiruv magnet he left Lubavitch and started "exploring" again.

      But here is the thing. Who in their right minds ever would have thought that a mere 6yrs(at most) in a B"T Yeshiva would have equipped him to start hanging out in his old haunts without hearing a constant siren call back to his former lifestyle? Rockstars/Musicians are as insolated(or not) as they want to be, that is what they have Executive Protection details for. The issue is simply that Matisyahu chose not to be insolated from the world around him. His Live at Stubs II performance showed that when he pulled a female fan up on stage to dance with him(at the end of the show several in fact). No fan is getting on that Stage unless the artist wants it.

      So the problem in my mind was not the music, it was that this poor guy, out of 30yrs of his life, only 6(at most) were spent learning how to be a Jew, and then those that were supposed be helping him to learn to be a Jew, sent him right back out into the world that was initially dragging him down.

      But no worries Lubavitch had DeScribe, Nosson Zand and Y-Love waiting in the wings. At least two of them I think are still on the Derekh.

    2. Another problem is the overemphasis on certain external manifestations of "frumkeit" that divert our attention from real Torah and mitzvos.

      Who says that payos, beard, and visible tzitzis constitute the "derech"? Does protection of children not constitute the derech? Why no articles about the moetzes going "off the derech"?

    3. So it seems you've come around since the olden days, and you see things from my perspective now. Cool.

  7. Maatisyahu was abused when he was young. Otherwise he couldn't possibly go off the derech.
    Only abused children go off.

  8. Perhaps Matthew's mother's Reconstructionist "conversion" was not accepted outside of Chabad.

    Perhaps Rabbi Hoffman should learn the full story.

  9. Here's Matisyahu's recent statement to his fans, after the pictures of him without a kippah were posted online:

    "News & Press
    To My Fans

    To My Fans-

    I will try to write a couple of ideas and thoughts, but I prefer to speak in my native language, the language of the soul, Music. So I will preface this piece by asking that before prescribing judgement to some pictures, please wait and listen to my new record “Spark Seeker” from start to finish. The record is infused with both Jewish and universal inspiration, as it is a reflection of my inner landscape over the past 2 years of its making. From visions of the Bal Shem Tov to Kabbalah references, prayers in Hebrew and stories in Yiddish, this record was both a spiritual and reflective journey full of transition and growth.

    That being said, I believe there is a higher level…a level where there is no divisiveness. Where there is complete unity, and that is what I am mirroring. There was a time when I felt it was necessary to show the world what I believed in through my physical appearance. I think this can be a wonderful thing, but as my faith has evolved I have come to believe there are many other ways to show my spirituality and Judaism. Ways in which our humanity is emphasized over our differences. This was my aim for the music. This was always my aim. During the making of this record I began to feel that I was shedding something, and with that I chose to shave. Just as when I was 18 and I shaved my dreadlocks to let go of my identity, I felt as if I was returning to a time prior to religion or rules or right and wrong. To a place where truth shows itself in beauty and balance and I felt it was time to walk a new path.

    What that exactly means or looks like I am still figuring out, and will be for the rest of my life, I hope. To those who feel betrayed by my choices or my look, don’t worry, I think they will continue to change and evolve—that is the awesomeness of life. I think that through patience, in time you will see we are still on the same team. We are ALL on the same team. I am so excited for you to hear my new record I hope it will explain and inspire so much more then my words here can.

    Sincerely In Love and Truth,


    From this statement, what it sounds like to me is that he is leaning toward the new-agey, spiritual-but-not-religious beliefs held by many middle class Americans. Interestingly, this belief system is very similar to the 18/19th century ideology that convinced most German Jews to assimilate/become Reform: the idea that only the inner self, and not the outer ritual, has real spiritual and ethical significance. This new-agey ideology is prevalent among musicians and artists, and in American culture more generally, so it's understandable that he's been exposed to it. In addition, comments from his fans (see the link above) seem to be accepting -- "we love you no matter what you dress like," etc. -- so this might have helped goad him on.

    I hope he stays (or gets back on) the derech. From a rational-choice perspective, it seems like he should. He still has lots of Orthodox fans, and he will lose most of them if he doesn't put the kippa back on. His fans never had a problem with him being Orthodox -- they love him the way he is. So dropping Orthodoxy would be a net loss for him. If his concerns are about universalism, well there's a strong universalistic strand in Judaism (see the book by R' Dovid Sears) and if his concern is conformity (outward or intellectual) then he can become left-wing modern Orthodox. However, if he's basically lost faith in the Torah and mitzvot, then it's hard to know what to do, other than try to mekarev him through Aish or whatever.

  10. If your child has been the victim of abuse your responsibility is not to phone your local rabbi, but to get to the DA's office IMMEDIATELY. Unfortunately, I have the personal experience to know that it isn't merely the molestation that creates anger at and ultimate rejection of our Orthodox way of life-- it is THE RABBINIC APATHY toward the issue--and sometimes outright support FOR the perpetrators-- that turns off our victimized children! How do you explain that this is an "Olam Hafuch" to a teenager and still expect him to have emunas chachomim?


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