Foundations of the Fourth Turning of Hasidism: A Manifesto

By Netanel Miles-Yépez & Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

A Call for a New Hasidism


"Hasidism in Poland has to return if it does not want to die (and it must not die, for “thought that proceeds from sublime Wisdom is not to be destroyed”). It must return to the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples, those bearers of divine compassion. Hasidism needs to be restored to its source. Then it will nourish the spirit and soul of all humanity . . ."

"The holy Hasidic word needs to be carried far, far beyond the boundaries of Poland, even beyond the bounds of the entire Jewish people. The inner power of this word needs to call forth to all humanity, arousing them to true love, true justice, and the true 'kingdom of heaven.'”

— Hillel Zeitlin, Warsaw, Poland, 1916-1917 (translated by Arthur Green)


Hasidism is a movement of the spirit that arises in us as a yearning for God and the sacred, and which expresses itself through acts of loving-kindness and service to the same. Hasidism is the willingness to make ourselves transparent to God’s grace and will, to live in the authentic Presence of God—nokhah p’nai Ha’Shem—as if facing God in every moment, allowing this awareness to change our behavior, to make sacred acts out of potentially profane and purely secular moments.

This movement of the spirit, at the core of the Hasidic tradition, is also a universal impulse, as is the attitude of active-receptivity to the divine which it fosters. Thus, what has been called ‘Hasidism’ over the centuries is only the story of the evolution and manifestation of that universal impulse and attitude among the Jewish people—for whom it has become a communal ethos, wedded to the primary revelation of Judaism, to the Jewish myth and magisterium—with unique characteristics and experiential outcomes.

From this perspective, Hasidism is both the origin and fulfillment of Judaism’s spiritual potential, arising and developing in different periods to meet the unique needs of a specific time and place. Through the millennia, Judaism has witnessed the emergence of numerous Hasidic movements, both large and small, some bearing the name, and others not. Among the former are four significant Hasidic movements which represent the Hasidic ideal as it existed in three different paradigms and historical periods: the classical period of Greco-Roman Palestine; the medieval period of Muslim Egypt and Christian Germany; and the pre-industrial period of Eastern Europe and Russia.

We call these movements, ‘turnings,’ literally, revolutions that demonstrate the adaptation of the Hasidic tradition to a particular time and place.[1] Judaism, as we have already suggested, has seen three such turnings of Hasidism (in four separate movements), each an appropriate expression of the highest and most integrated levels of spirituality available in that period, which is to say, informed by the spirit of the times and influenced by the chthonic element of the place.[2]

The First Turning of Hasidism

In the Mishnah, we are told about the Hasidim ha’Rishonim, the ‘First Hasidism.’ Although this expression is likely a general reference to the ‘pious of times past,’ the examples given of their actions are consistent with what we know of Hasidism in other periods.[3] Moreover, in the classical period of Greco-Roman Palestine, we find references to a Jewish sect known as the asidaioi or essaioi in Greek, which may be the first actual community to be called Hasidim, as these words are generally believed to be Hellenized versions of Hebrew and Aramaic originals (most likely, hasidei or hasya, both meaning, ‘pious’).[4] In the Book of Maccabees, they are called, “stalwarts of Israel, devoted in the cause of the Law.”[5] And in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, it is said that they are “above all, devoted to the service of God” and seek “a freedom which can never be enslaved.”[6] It is generally accepted that these Hasidim (usually called Essenes, based on their Latin name, esseni)[7] are the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the sect whose practices and beliefs are described therein. 

The Second Turning of Hasidism

The Second Turning of Hasidism is best seen in two movements of the medieval period, emerging independently in separate geographic areas and cultural climates which clearly influenced the particular expression of Hasidism in those places. These were the Hasidei Ashkenaz in Christian Germany, and the Hasidei Sefarad in Muslim Egypt.[8] The Hasidei Ashkenaz were led by the famous Kalonymous family of kabbalists (most notably, Rabbi Yehudah He’Hasid, the author of the Sefer Hasidim) who practiced an almost monastic form of Hasidism. The Hasidei Ashkenaz planted seeds in Europe that would spring up in many smaller Hasidic movements in the centuries that followed. Similarly, the Hasidei Sefarad were led by the philosopher-mystics of the Maimuni family (most notably, Rabbi Avraham Maimuni of Fustat, the son of Maimonides and the author of the Kifayat al-Abidin) who forged a community of Hasidic contemplatives whose teachings and practices paralleled those of Muslim Sufis, whom they openly admired.

The Third Turning of Hasidism

The Third Turning of Hasidism flowered in the pre-industrial period of Eastern Europe and Russia under the leadership of Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, called the Ba’al Shem Tov, and his successor, Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, whose lives and teachings set the pattern of Hasidism for centuries to come, even into our own day. Integrating and building on the spiritual work of previous Hasidic movements like the Hasidei Ashkenaz, as well as generations of kabbalistic endeavor, Hasidism exploded with creativity in the 18th-century. Its approach was characterized by a new embrace of the material world as a divine manifestation, by an acceptance and celebration of the potential of the common Jew, by a joyous engagement with life, by prayer and contemplation of extraordinary depth, as well as stories and teachings that turned conventional thinking upside down. Owing to its positive approach and popular appeal, the movement spread like wildfire over Eastern Europe and Russia, making it the most influential of the three Hasidic movements. 

The Fourth Turning of Hasidism

With the emergence of a global consciousness in the 20th-century, perhaps best articulated in the work of the philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and symbolized by the first images of our planet as seen from outer space, the paradigm of every known religion began to shift irrevocably. Before the dawning of this global consciousness, every religious tradition followed a more or less independent trajectory, or could at least maintain the illusion of doing so. But once the ‘shape and sharing of the planet’ was known, all trajectories began to align, causing upheaval in every religious tradition and spiritual lineage. Thus, a global consciousness is both the primary catalyst for, and the defining characteristic of the Fourth Turning of Hasidism.

The following are common elements shared by all the previous turnings of Hasidism in the view of the Fourth Turning:


The beginning and end of a Hasid’s spiritual path is t’shuvah, continually ‘turning’ one’s awareness back to the divine source, remembering from whence we come and our common identity in the divine being. T’shuvah is also repentance, a reorientation to a radical humility that serves as the foundation for true righteousness in our world. No matter how righteous one appears or feels oneself to be, there is always room for repentance; for the paradox of true righteousness is the requirement of self-abasement, realizing one’s utter inability to serve God perfectly and humbling oneself in response.[9]


Nevertheless, the primary goal of Hasidism is a direct connection to God, often characterized as nevu’ah, ‘prophecy,’ or ru’ah ha’kodesh, the ‘spirit of holiness.’ Hasidism believes that the prophetic consciousness is still available (though the Sages declared the prophetic period closed at the time of the closing of the canon).[10] If Hasidism, as we have said, is a genuine ‘openness to the divine will,’ then prophecy is the product of such openness (as seen in the root of the word, navi, ‘open’ or ‘hollow’).[11] This suggests both the method and the means that allow for prophecy, or as we might characterize it today, deep intuition.


The primary means of cultivating one’s ‘openness to the divine will’ is prayer, which is central to Hasidic life. In the Hasidism of the Ba’al Shem Tov, prayer is generally spoken of as avodat HaShem or davvenen, ‘divine service’ or ‘prayer in which one is deeply connected to God.’[12] In the Fourth Turning, we are also inclined to emphasize what we call ‘davvenology,’ the investigation of the inner process of prayer, including all aspects of worship and the Jewish liturgical life. For today, it is not enough to be able to connect in prayer; we must also understand the sacred technology which allows us to make the connection.


Nevertheless, Hasidism has always embraced a variety of supererogatory methods or hanhagot, ‘spiritual practices’ that are not required in Judaism, but which are taken on by the Hasid to continue the process of making oneself transparent to God’s grace and will, and to facilitate an awareness of living in the authentic Presence of God. Such hanhagot were often given in the form of traditional and intuitive eitzot or ‘prescriptions,’ to remedy particular spiritual maladies and to promote particular spiritual effects.[13]


Spiritual prescriptions and guidance in the ways of Hasidism are given by one’s rebbe, a neshamah klalit or ‘general soul’ who is able to locate and connect with the souls of individual Hasidim because they are part of the same ‘soul-cluster,’ allowing for relationships of deep spiritual intimacy. The rebbe gives his or her guidance to the Hasid in the private encounter, yehidut, and in public gatherings, farbrengen. In the past, the person serving others as rebbe was often indistinguishable from the ‘rebbe-function’ they performed. But in the Fourth Turning, it is recognized that the rebbe, though ‘called to service’ and to function as a neshamah klalit through the cultivation of their own spiritual attunement, is nevertheless, not identical with that service and function. For the projection of such a static identity limits the rebbe’s personal freedom, creates unrealistic and unhelpful expectations, and allows the Hasid to yield personal responsibility in a way that is not conducive to spiritual growth.

Because the ability to function as a rebbe is rare, requiring particular spiritual gifts and a significant cultivation of them, Hasidism also recognizes the need for the mashpiyya, the mentor or guide, as well as the haver, the spiritual friend. The former is an individual who has achieved maturity on the spiritual path and is thus able to help others in negotiating many of its paths and pitfalls. Likewise, friends who share the same spiritual values, and with whom one can share the journey, are also critically important.[14]


The communal context for spiritual growth in Hasidism is the farbrengen, literally ‘time spent together.’ The Hasidic gathering may take place on Shabbat, other yom tovim, or at any other time of the year. Likewise, it may be led by the rebbe or a mashpiyya, or simply be a gathering of haverim. It is a time for spiritual guidance, cultivating both joy and introspection, during which meditations and Hasidic niggunim are used for tuning consciousness to the right frequency for receiving Torah, and where Hasidic ma’asiot and meshalim, stories and parables, open the heart and imagination to the possibilities of living a more virtuous reality. 


The norms of Hasidic life and behavior are oriented around a radical engagement with Jewish law, or halakhah. Contrary to some modern misconceptions, Hasidism is not anti-legal and has never been casual about halakhah. On the contrary, Hasidism stresses the most integral, elevated, and meaningful application of every aspect of Jewish law and tradition to Jewish life. This is also the view of the Fourth Turning, which seeks to engage and examine every law and tradition, taking the needs of the time, the place, and the people into consideration, looking at the original function of the law in its original context to see how it may be best applied today to achieve similar ends. 


Finally, the view of Hasidism is providential. In each turning, Hasidism has embraced an idea of providence in keeping with its own experience of divinity, as well as an awareness of the ‘miraculous order’ in creation. The holy Ba’al Shem Tov spoke of hashgahah pratit, a ‘specific personal providence,’ in which all events are seen as happening with a specific or particular purpose, beyond appearances of ‘good’ or ‘evil.’[15] This is in keeping with his pantheistic worldview, wherein there is nothing in existence but divinity; therefore, nothing happens that is not divine or divinely ordained (however we may judge it according to our limited vision). Our own understanding of  ‘organismic pantheism’ is but an extension of this view, merely acknowledging the dynamic and sophisticated organizing principle of ecological systems within the whole of possibility, always serving the Greater Purpose.

In one form or another, these elements have been present in every turning of Hasidism. And yet, each turning always contributes something new—new interpretations, new teachings, new practices and new ideas. The following are some of the new ideas on which the Fourth Turning bases itself:


More than ever before, Hasidism needs to maintain an awareness of its own evolution (of which the various turnings are evidence) in the context of the greater evolution of spiritual traditions  on the planet. As consciousness evolves over time and the world changes, traditions must reclaim their primary teleological impulse in order to adapt to the needs of the evolving consciousness. This process of unfolding within and adapting without, we call ‘renewal.’[16] Renewal itself is characterized by the struggle to marry the magisterium of a religious tradition, i.e., its inherited body of knowledge and wisdom, to a new reality map or paradigmatic understanding of the universe. On a small scale, renewal is happening continuously; but it is also a process that we witness on a larger scale in certain epochs or axial moments in history, like ours, when religions and religious forms are breaking down and slowly re-organizing and re-forming over time.

An awareness of this process can help to keep our current religions and spiritual traditions healthy. For as we engage and become aware of the process of renewal, we must re-evaluate our traditional spiritual teachings and practices, considering their ‘deep structures,’ analyzing their function in different historical periods to better understand how they might apply, or be adapted for use in our own time.[17] This new understanding and adaptation allows us to utilize the maximum of our historical traditions, without at the same time turning a blind eye to the true needs of the present. 


However, as we explore the deep structures of our own traditions, revealing the basic functionality beneath the specific wrappings, we cannot ignore their similarity to those of every other religious and spiritual tradition on the planet. Providence, as well as our own evolutionary perspective, demands that we acknowledge a similar sacred purpose at work in these deep structures, that we learn how others use them for the fulfillment of the Greater Purpose, and how others can aid us in understanding our own use of them.

While dialogue with other religious traditions undoubtedly took place in our past, it had no legitimizing basis or support in the tradition and could rarely take place openly. Today, it is nevertheless embraced by many Jewish leaders, being seen as a salutary attempt to achieve a measure of understanding between religions, discerning similarities and differences through dialogue and close observation. However, the Hasid must go beyond such surface knowledge, seeking the spirit beneath the external forms and teachings, undertaking the more intrepid exploration of ‘deep ecumenism,’ in which one learns about oneself through participatory engagement with another religion or tradition.[18]

Judaism can no longer afford to see itself as the only valid religious tradition, or even as the most important. For such a view is ultimately self-defeating and destructive to the ecological system of the planet, which prefers diversity and depends on it for its own health. From this ecological perspective, every religion is like a vital organ of the planet; and for the planet’s sake, each must remain healthy, functioning well in concert with the others for the health of the greater body. Thus, Jews must be the best and healthiest Jews they can be, doing their part in the planetary eco-system; but they must also do it in a way that recognizes the contributions of other religions and supports their healthy functioning.


As we embrace this larger ‘organismic view,’ seeing Judaism as a contributor to the health of the planetary system, we must not, as we have already said, forget to support the health and diversity of the internal Jewish ecological system. Judaism has, for too long, excluded women from full participation in the religious life of the community, denied the basic rights of individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered, and erected high walls to protect Judaism from so-called ‘outsiders.’ Although there may have been times in our history when the exclusion of these groups served to preserve a fragile social order or seemed less important amid greater concerns for health and safety, today, their exclusion is untenable and acts like a cancer in the body of Judaism. If Judaism would be healed and give its most healthy functioning back to the planet, it must embrace all of these groups. And in doing so, it will find that much of its new vitality and creativity will come directly from them.


But all of this is just a beginning. It is not definitive, not the final word, nor the only view of the matter. Our words are not ‘the word’ of the Fourth Turning of Hasidism. They are merely the product of a longing to serve God as deeply as our Hasidic ancestors once did, recognizing the needs of our time and attempting to call the future into the present with a name. It is only Hasidism itself—i.e., making ourselves transparent to God’s grace and will, and living in the authentic Presence of God—that can do the rest.

         — N.M-Y. & Z.S-S.


1. In speaking of ‘turnings,’ we are consciously borrowing language from the Buddhist tradition, which speaks of ‘three turnings of the wheel of dharma,’ describing three phases of how the wisdom of that tradition was presented according to the needs of different eras.

2. Chthonic (from the Greek word, chthon or ‘earth’) referring to how the land itself, or the landscape of a place influences expression in that place.

3. The expression hasidim ha’rishonim may be read both ways. It occurs many times in the Mishnah. One example is found in Berakhot 5:1.

4. Another possibility is the Aramaic word, asyah, ‘healing.’

5. 1 Maccabees 2:42.

6. Philo of Alexandria, Quod Omnis Probus Liber Sit, sections XII and XIII.

7. As they are called by Pliny the Elder.

8. Although this group did identify themselves as Hasidim, “Hasidei Sefarad” is simply a name we have applied to them for the purpose of differentiating them from their northern siblings, the Hasidei Ashkenaz.

9. See Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yépez, A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009: 44-54, and 294-95.

10. See Ibid., 180-92.

11. From the tri-literal Hebrew root, Nun-Beit-Beit, which may be interpreted as ‘hollow.’

12. Davvenen may be derived from the Latin word, divinum, meaning, ‘divine work.’

13. See Schachter-Shalomi and Miles-Yépez, A Heart Afire, 306-31.

14. See Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yépez, A Hidden Light: Stories and Teachings of Early HaBaD and Bratzlav Hasidism, Santa Fe: Gaon Books, 2011: 160.

15. See Schachter-Shalomi and Miles-Yépez, A Heart Afire, 26-44.

16. Another term for what we have sometimes called ‘paradigm shift,’ a phrase originally introduced by the philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn.

17. We have borrowed the term, ‘deep structures’ from Noam Chomsky’s discussion of transformational grammar.

18. ‘Deep ecumenism’ is a phrase coined by Father Matthew Fox. Ecumenism, from the Greek, oikoumenikos, ‘from the whole world,’ originally referred to cooperative efforts between different parts of the Christian Church.

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.