Matisyahu and the New T'shuvah

By Netanel Miles-Yépez


About two years ago, a good friend got me to listen to Matisyahu for the first time . . . and I’ve been a little dissatisfied with other music ever since. Initially, I was reluctant to listen to it at all. Not because I didn’t think he was good. I had heard a sample of him while strolling through a department store one day. I just wasn’t interested in being caught by the marketing. Obviously, the contrast of a bearded Jew in the uniform of a Lubavitcher Hasid (black fedora, loose black suit and open-collared white shirt) with first-rate rap and reggae talent is a marketing opportunity few labels could refuse. But being rebellious by nature, anything I have ‘simply got to hear,’ I tend to avoid as long as I possibly can, or at least until I’ve forgotten I was avoiding it. So by the time my friend lent me Matisyahu’s first major studio album, Youth (2006), the album had already been out for four years, and his follow-up album, Light (2009), for four months.

Nevertheless, for friendship’s sake, I put it in my computer one day and listened to it as I worked. When it was finished, I uttered a grudgingly respectful, “It’s good.” Then I listened to it again . . . and again . . . and again. I just couldn’t stop playing it. My mind was starting to catch-up with the lyrics and I realized that I had found something I had been longing for . . . music that was as satisfying to me spiritually as it was physically and aesthetically. Until that moment, I almost had to flip a switch inside me, or wait for the right mood to strike, if I was going to listen to so-called ‘spiritual music’ (which is a little embarrassing, as I am a spiritual teacher and an author of books on Hasidic spirituality). 

It’s not that I don’t love the traditional Hasidic niggunim—the sometimes contemplative, sometimes rousing melodies—I have learned from my rebbe, my teacher; but they belong to a heart and mind-space I associate with prayer and Hasidic gatherings, and come from a time and a Jewish shtetl-culture which is not my own.

In my mind’s eye, I can see the holy Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, singing these melodies as he walked to the market on weekdays or attuned his disciples to the right ‘frequency’ during a tish, for they were both sacred and contemporary for him. And yet, for me, they are only sacred. Yes, one occasionally drifts into my mind while I’m out for walk; but, for the most part, that territory is owned by the music I grew up with, the music of modern culture that speaks to my senses and my aesthetics today. 

So listening to Matisyahu’s unique fusion of spiritually influenced lyrics and alternatingly raw and refined hip-hop reggae rhythms gave me something I had been missing. It brought the separate worlds of my secular and sacred consciousness together. Before him, I had listened to music always looking for deeper expressions of human love and possibility, often reading spiritual themes into it; but once I found something that accomplished that for me, I almost didn’t want to hear anything else. I wanted Katy Perry and P!nk to sing about ecstatic union, Aimee Mann and Eric Hutchinson about m’rirut, bitterness of heart, and simhah, joy and sweetness, Coldplay and Citizen Cope about storming the gates of heaven! Thank God for Trevor Hall’s bhakti devotionalism, MC Yogi’s “Give Love” and Damian Marley’s “Road to Zion.” I think I’d have starved otherwise or gone into withdrawal. Once you’ve had a taste of what you always wanted, there’s no going back. 

The Returnees and a New Jewish Art

When I was a teenager and first beginning to write and paint seriously, I read books on the life and art of Michelangelo and writers like Leo Tolstoy and wondered at the fact that there was so little spirituality represented in great art today. After the Renaissance, it seemed, the best artists—with a few notable exceptions—had abandoned Judaism and Christianity (not without some justification) and had thrown themselves headlong into a purely secular world of personal expression. In their absence, the art of religion and spirituality had become increasingly ossified and outdated. Even worse for me were the overtly religious attempts to contemporize religious art by hacks and third-rate talent. These anemic experiments with spiritualizing the contemporary only emphasized the poor quality of the art and the absence of truly powerful and inspiring messages in it. Clearly, what we needed was a spirituality that could draw the best artists back to religion, one that would feed their creativity instead of inhibiting it.

While the evolving marketplace of religion and spirituality today can be overwhelming and distracting, it also gives us a new freedom and new options for spiritual practice that did not exist in the past, or at least not for a long time. Sometimes this makes it harder to settle into a discipline, but it is also perfect for the spiritual aspirant ready to take responsibility for his or her own spiritual path, who is ready to replace authority imposed from the outside for a higher standard of personal authenticity on the inside. In Judaism, this is especially clear in the various manifestations of what is often called, ‘neo-Hasidism,’ inspired by the music and teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

But the inspiration for Jewish artists today isn’t only coming from the radical left; it is also coming from progressive and spiritually open parts of traditional Hasidism as well, especially from the lineages of Bratzlav and Habad (also spelled Breslov and Chabad). Although Habad-Lubavitch Hasidism is often lumped in a category of rigid ultra-Orthodoxy, it is nevertheless a tradition with deep roots in mystical spirituality, with teachers profoundly committed to serving Jews everywhere. At a time when he needed it, it provided a younger Matthew Miller (later Matisyahu) with shelter and a way to return to Judaism. And to its credit, this so-called ‘old tradition’ found a way to encourage him to express his love of God through the contemporary music that had most resonance with his soul.

And yet, this is only a return in our time to what was well-known in the early years of Hasidism and throughout Jewish history, i.e., that our music was taken from the landscapes and cultures all around us. Thus, Russian Hasidic lineages have melodies that sound distinctly Russian and Polish Hasidim have melodies that sound Polish. The great Hasidic master, Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav speaks of how the glory of God calls forth even from the stories and melodies of the non-Jews. And we hear of how the great Hungarian Hasidic master and composer, Eisik of Kalev—“a soul from the Temple of Music”—used to go out and listen to the songs and melodies of the Hungarian shepherds. There is even a story of how he purchased a love song he heard from a wandering Gypsy and adapted the words to speak of God and the Shekhinah, the feminine presence of divinity.

Today, a young man from a culturally Jewish home in New Jersey might just as easily be exposed to the reggae of Bob Marley, a young woman in South Carolina to the Dixie Chicks, someone else in California to the updated rancheras of Lila Downs. How is this any different from what happened in the past? It’s the way it should be. We know from the biological sciences that any closed system tends to degenerate. It needs a fresh infusion of DNA from outside to create a healthy system; which is to say, life wants diversity and gets it one way or another. Hasidism, and Judaism generally, are getting it through the ‘returnees,’ from the Jews who have wandered out into the wider world, sampling its art and music, the spirituality and meditation of other cultures, who have come back ‘infected’ with these foreign elements, elements which in time will create a much healthier Judaism. It is a reciprocal relationship based on permeability: the more open and deeply integrated elements of Judaism are making a way for cultural and disaffected Jews to return, and as they do, they are allowing them to bring with them what Judaism needs for the future. 

Breaking Our Idols

Nevertheless, there is a kind of ‘all or nothing’ attitude that continues to plague Jewish identity. This summer, I was talking to a man at the Boulder Jewish Festival who said to me: “I’m trying to learn ‘real’ Judaism now; so I’m studying a commentary by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I don’t want to read about ‘made-up’ Judaism.” I didn’t argue with him, but I looked him up and down and saw a man in his 50s, likely a businessman, with no beard, no tzitzit, no ritual fringes, who probably didn’t wear tefillin when he prayed, and probably wouldn’t ever do any of these things in a serious way. They would interfere with the life he knew and had created for himself. And this wasn’t a problem for me; but I wondered why a man like this—who had made different choices and wasn’t likely to change—was so certain that Orthodox Hasidic Judaism was the only “real Judaism”? After all, it’s all “made-up Judaism.” There are no Jewish practitioners of the original religion handed down to the Ivri’im, the ‘Hebrews’ at Mount Sinai. The Juda-isms that we know today are all the result of evolution. But so many Jews across the spectrum—whether they choose to live that lifestyle or not, or even whether they like it or not—continue to see one version, Orthodoxy, as the version of Judaism.

There are reasons for this, certainly. One good reason is that Orthodox Judaism maintains the maximum of Jewish tradition and thus appears to be Judaism to the nth degree. So anything less seems to be less Jewish. But even as I laud the preservation of these traditions and support my holy friends in the Hasidic community, I cannot say that this Judaism is any more valid than another. It may be more richly imbued with traditional Jewish knowledge and external symbol, but is it necessarily richer in inner experience? Maybe . . . but not by any necessity. If there is a deficiency of passion or fervor, of love or longing for God and commitment in liberal Judaism, or any other form of Jewish observance, the problem is where it has always been—in the heart of the individual. Today, liberal Jews need to ask themselves—Am I embarrassed to love God openly because I am an academic or a professional? Am I ashamed to pray with fervor because my friends don’t, or because my neighbors are not Jewish? What does this have to do with Orthodoxy? This is the real challenge of modern Judaism: to live a Jewish life—according to whatever definition you might want to use—as if it really mattered.

Allowing for Evolution

Since Matisyahu released that first major album four years ago, both he and his music have gone through a lot of changes. And, as a result, his popularity has soared, passing well beyond the Jewish world (especially with his powerful anthem, “One Day”). And yet, as he has become more successful, he has received far more criticism from former fans. Before kicking-off his “Festival of Light” tour last winter in New York, he shaved his beard, causing many Jewish fans to question whether he was still a ‘good Jew.’ And with the release of his new album, Spark Seeker, many of his non-Jewish fans have begun to question whether he is still a ‘reggae artist,’ or whether he has defected to the ‘pop’ scene. I have to say, I’ve listened to all of these identity discussions with some disappointment. It’s so clear that they have more to say about us than they do about him. 

For all his fans, across the spectrum, he was unquestionably a ‘good Jew’ when he wore the uniform of a Lubavitcher Hasid. And though there was some grumbling from the more conservative elements when he abandoned it, opting for a more contemporary and relaxed look (similar to that of a young American Bratzlaver Hasid), he was still clearly a ‘religious Jew.’ After all, he kept his side curls (payot) and beard and still allowed his fringes (tzitzit) to hang loose. But when he chose to break out of the box, removing some of the externals, Jewish fans of all levels of observance acted as if they had been betrayed. It was as if he represented Judaism for them by his embrace of these external Jewish symbols, whether they wore them themselves or not. This is something we need to come to terms with as Jews.

When I first started listening to early Matisyahu albums like Shake Off the Dust (2004) and Live at Stubbs (2005), the influence of Habad Hasidism was obvious, even explicit in lyrics like, “We want Moshiach now!” The lyrics were also very linear, discursive and mission-oriented, like Habad Hasidism itself. But with Youth (2006), I could already sense a small shift toward Bratzlav Hasidism. And by the time Light (2009) was released, the influence of Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav was also explicit. The lyrics were far more intuitive and drew from the imagery of Rebbe Nahman’s teachings and stories, alluding to “the lost princess” and the “seven beggars.” So when Matisyahu announced that his new album, Spark Seeker (2012), would be themed around the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism himself, I was not surprised in the least and suspected there would be more changes ahead. There was even a sense of homecoming about the announcement.

For a Hasid, going back to the Ba’al Shem Tov is a return to the source of Hasidism. It’s a ‘radical’ act, in the sense of the word’s original meaning, ‘to go back to the root.’ In this case, it is a return to the inherent joy of service to God and an overflowing of love toward others. A person doesn’t seek out the Ba’al Shem Tov to visit the ‘archives’ of Hasidism, or the ‘museum’ of the original Hasidic cultural forms, but to dip naked in the mikveh, the ritual bath of the original Hasidic spirit, removing all the forms, all the appearances, all the clothing and accretions that have built up over time that come between us and that spirit, between us and God. And having dipped there, we re-dress, redress the balance, remedy and set right our relationship to God. Thus, to me, it is no more surprising that a Jew with a beard might choose to shave it after re-attuning to the spirit of the Ba’al Shem Tov than to see another without a beard choose to grow one afterward. Both acts indicate renewal. 

A successful artist can so easily become a prisoner of his or her own success. But Matisyahu has become successful in a way that has threatened to cage him twice over. If he shifts his Jewish identity and changes the iconic image that made him famous, he threatens to alienate his Jewish fans who somehow feel dependent on that particular image. If he allows his music to evolve along it’s natural course, he risks losing those fans who only want to think of him as a ‘reggae artist.’ The projections are too heavy, too limiting, and too banal to bear. A person cannot be a symbol anymore than an artist can be a genre . . . but they can create both if they are allowed to. Everybody that falls in love with an album or a song wants to have that artist repeat it over and over again in slightly different versions. But that’s not how the art works. It evolves according to its own mysterious destiny. It wants to grow, to change and find new paths. And so does a person. Once somebody challenged Gandhi about things he had said and done in the past, saying that he was now contradicting himself. He replied—“Yes, that’s what I believed yesterday. But this is who I am today.” 

I don’t really know anything about Matisyahu other than I love his music. I don’t think he’s a tzaddik, a saint, nor a Jewish icon to be celebrated by kids or to make us feel good about being Jews. What he appears to be now is a man trying to be a Hasid from the inside out. And I suppose, like many of us, he feels that he is failing at it much of the time. What really matters is the trying. I think ‘becoming religious’ was trying. Singing a Hasidic niggun with a reggae flavor was also trying. But removing a successful persona when you realize it has become a mask is more than trying—it’s bravery, because to remove it is to risk losing everything. Evolution is bravery. As I look at the evolution from black-hatted Lubavitcher to a beardless bleach-blond, I don’t see a man forsaking his commitment to Judaism, but a man turning from a life lived from the outside-in to one lived from the inside-out. And ‘turning’ it inside-out is the new t’shuvah.

*T’shuvah is Hebrew for ‘turning,’ and is usually used to refer to ‘repentance,’ ‘returning’ or turning back to God.