Chabad’s Very Own Messianic Rasta #1

Mattisyahu_kapote

I’ve basically avoided the whole Matisyahu issue. But Rolling Stone has an interesting piece on Chabad’s very own Rasta. It opens this way:

Walking home recently from morning prayers, Matisyahu — the
Hasidic reggae MC — got a call from his manager: Madonna wanted to
invite him over for Passover Seder. A follower of the Jewish
mystical tradition Kabbalah, Madonna promised to follow all the
strictures of Matisyahu’s faith, but he remained suspicious. "I
don’t know if I can go," he says. "I’ll have to check it out with,
like, multiple people, to make sure it’s kosher."

And who exactly is Matisyahu?

It’s a world away from Bend, Oregon, where Miller got his start.
After he struggled with drugs and dropped out of high school to
follow Phish, his parents sent him to a hippie-ish drug-treatment
center where teens go on "vision quests" in the woods. He started
beatboxing and singing at coffeehouses as MC Truth, alongside a
dreadlocked friend, MC Mystic, playing Rick James covers and reggae
classics. "He was a cool guy, a total stoner," says Rob Ainsworth,
who lived with Miller in Oregon. "He was a little burnt out, but
music was incredibly important to him. You could tell he was
talented."

Sitting down to sip soup at a kosher restaurant, Matisyahu
recalls his shows as MC Truth. "It was wild," he says. "We would
drink a big pitcher of mushroom tea, and I’d come out with a turban
on my head and a huge Israeli flag, and we’d walk around throwing
sage on people."

So here’s my two cents worth: Matisyahu trades on the current Kabbala craze and Chabad mysticism. A large part of his fame is based on that, not on talent. This does not mean he is not talented. It simply means in a business flooded with talent, you need extraordinary good luck and a great hook to end up on top. Mattisyahu’s hook – and a significant portion of his early promotion, media, and PR – is Chabad.

On the other hand, Chabad gains greatly by promoting Matisyahu. It helps them raise money. It buys them a hip image. And it brings in new recruits. But is it kosher?

As someone who once (stupidly) turned down the opportunity to work on my own songs with a producer at Prince’s studios, I have some understanding of the business. And I also have some knowledge of the interface between it and halakha.

What Matisyahu does is unseemly. Few, if any, significant poskim (rabbinic legal scholars who rule on halakha, Jewish law) would approve. But what bothers me more is blatant trading on Kabbala and Hasidut to make money. that this does not bother mainstream Chabad may be because this is what mainstream Chabad has itself done for years.

I also know of other, far more talented, musicians who were given rabbinic advice that effectively destroyed their careers. Some of that advice came directly from the Rebbe. People work in camera stores today or paint signs, in large part because they were not allowed to do the things that Matisyahu now does (with much less talent) to great acclaim. It is this that bothers me far more than Matisyahu’s newbie ignorance of parts of halakha, his naive understanding of Judaism, and his pandering.

While Matisyahu may inaccurately represent Judaism, he accurately represents today’s Chabad – all shiny surface, little inner truth.

[Hat Tip: Dovid Lerner.]

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27 Comments

Filed under Chabad Theology, Matisyahu

27 responses to “Chabad’s Very Own Messianic Rasta #1

  1. And who exactly is Matisyahu? Let’s read the next paragraph:

    Eventually, Miller returned to New York, where he met a rabbi in Washington Square Park who led him into the Orthodox fold. Around the same time, Miller honed his flow, listening to Jamaican dancehall star Sizzla. Soon after he began growing his beard, Matisyahu started performing at a youth center in Crown Heights and working on his 2004 debut, Shake Off the Dust . . . Arise. “It was like the pieces of the puzzle coming together,” he says of playing reggae while becoming religious.

    I met Matisyahu before he became a hit. It was Shabbos Parshat Bo 2004, we were both staying at the home of Rabbi Dov Yonah Korn, Rabbi of Chabad at NYU. He was a friendly quiet person, very religous, (he asked me if there is a problem wearing contact lenses in the street on Shabbos…). When Rabbi Korn asked him to sing, he first sang a inspiring Niggun before his reggae.

    Matisyahu brings Jewish content to so many Jewish youth that are on the edge, he makes tremendous Kiddushei Hasheim from the fact that he preformes in a hat and jacket, (or in a kapote on special days).

    Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach Z”L (whom Matisyahu lists as a musical influence) would hug and kiss women unrelated to him. Matisyahu won’t even stage dive anymore!! (see the article). Pray do tell me what aspect of halacha is he violating that very few poskim would agree with. (I can’t help but see the irony that very few Poskim zould agree with the content of his website.)

    Who has come out against him? (Don’t say Williamsburg, they are even against Lipa Schmeltzer’s new record!). Last year Hasc (www.hascconcert.com), had him at their concert, believe me, they are under the leadership of many Litvishe Poskim, they must have OK’d it!!

  2. I’m not a Matisyahu fan, just because in the few times I’ve seen or heard him, I’ve not been impressed with his tonality. If he didn’t have his hook, he’d have the same niche appeal as Rick Recht (whose version of Adon Olam, er, rocks!).

    I don’t question his faith or anything like it, but I can’t help but be concerned that in accepting the obsequious fawning of wannabeeswhowannadoitheirownway types such as Madonna, or the late show circuit, it’s diminishing a serious commitment to halachah by reducing Chassidut to a novelty.

    Additionally, he’s got the typical BT backstory, the same kind of uneducated fervor that dots the BT landscape (and drove my interest in Chabad away). Does it really work as true Jewish outreach? I would proffer that it’s debatable, especially since the reaction seems, even with the Rolling Stone treatment, seem to be “oh, how quaint!”

    Is it any mystery that the niggun on Shake off the Dust…Arise for tzama l’chol nafshi sounds an awful lot like the video version on Chabad’s Rebbe(z”l)-centric website?

    CNN’s treatment of him a year ago painted a lovely picture of an austere young man with a nascent and deep belief. I truly believe a year ago, that Matisyahu would have said “no” to Madonna without needing to check with anyone. Sad.

  3. B”H
    When I was in Milwaukee Wisconsin in October I met a Jew who has a friend who used to be an antisemite untill he once listened to Matisyahu CD while using LSD he reports seeing a vision of many Jews telling him that they burned for him to be able to live …
    Evere since he bacame a friend of the Jewish people…

  4. Shepard

    I hate the way he’s perceived by non-Jewish audience. At least, I think that’s what I’m trying to say. I’ve heard people remark about the odd contrast between the Orthodox look with rap music. It’s a gimmick. A friend sent me a link to a personal photo hosted on flickr of Matisyahu in his Borsalino between two large breasted young women wearing sheer blouses. Its a crude joke, his act. He’s a parody. But maybe I mean this in defense of Chabad, since no one I know would approve of such a thing.

  5. Schneur

    The issue here is not Miller himelf.He seems to be a honest decent felow. But as someone who as been part of Yiddishkeyt for only several years , he clearly has no idea of what is right or wrong. He may believe that he is involved in Kiruv.
    As with many other novices in Chabad , he clearly thinks wearing a surdut is more important than the issue of “Anashim venashim beirbuvya” (Mixed Sex events).
    He believes having a beard is more essential than being part of a musical tradition related to a religious traditino that saw a living man as its god.
    The problem is that no one in Chabad has deemd it important to guide Miller . they see him more important a s a Lubavitch music icon , than in building another good torah Jew called Matisyahu Miller.
    Eventually Miller will wake up and see his misteps in Judaism. For now the main line Orthodox community can only offer him friendly kiruv , but attending his concerts of buying his records is another issue.
    For Lubavitch Inc. Miller is a valuable PR tool and friends what is more important than PR ?

  6. Shoshana

    “he once listened to Matisyahu CD while using LSD he reports seeing a vision of many Jews telling him that they burned for him to be able to live …
    Evere since he bacame a friend of the Jewish people…”

    So. . .both Matisyahu and LSD can be given credit for turning an anti-Semite around?

    And what is it even supposed to mean that Jews burned so he could live?

  7. Getting a headache

    Hello……he just a young guy singing and making a living. I doubt ANY of you could hold up to the level of scrutiny that you’re placing on him at your places of employment? Go back to your desks and push more papers. At least he’s making in a difference in the world!

  8. C-Girl

    I hope he goes to Madonna’s seder so he can get some idea of the kind of madness he’d be helping to perpetrate. Or at least he might rub elbows- figuratively, of course- with (Olympic figure skater, Jew-by-birth & kabbalah enthusiast) Sasha Cohen, Britney (see photo ;-)), Ashton & Demi and Roseanne Barr. Well, maybe not Roseanne…

    And about his music- hip Chabadniks (don’t laugh- I’ve met many) are so tired of Yakov Shwekey and the Haredi pseudo-disco catastrophe that Matisyahu was able to march right in with his bad-boy past and well-honed dancehall stylie and blow away just about everyone- except Shmarya. And he’s been on Letterman, Conan & just about every other late-night show (but not Oprah, for reasons I can’t fathom). I mean, c’mon. The Rebbe, himself, was never on Letterman. With that kind of kiruv track record, he can even get away with stuff like this (the last part, with violinist Estelle Goldfarb): http://www.jumu.fr/matisyahuconcertbis.html

  9. B”H
    Shoshana I’m just telling a story that I heard to show that there is much good coming thru Matisyahu and his music in unlikely places where it otherwise probably wouldn’t come…
    I don’t know what it means that these Jews had to burn for this Russian goy to live but that was what the vision he saw after listening to a CD of Matisyahu’s music while on LSD. The fact is the guy stopped being an antisemite and I think it’s avery positive thing…
    One of countless positive things that came as a result of Matisyahu and his music…

  10. C-Girl

    R. Ariel,

    If that story’s as you present it, Hashem truly works in extremely mysterious (and occasionally unlawful) ways.

    However, we may want to stress, for the kids, that LSD is VERY BAD. Do not interpret this story as carte blanche to employ hallucinogenic substances to straighten out antisemites. It hasn’t been extensively tested and your results may vary.

    This does, however, beg the question: can you still get acceptable results combining Matisyahu’s music with, say, beer?

    That said, I’m glad to hear there’s one less angry Russian to worry about.

    And yes, I happen to like a lot of Matisyahu’s stuff- but it’s his band that really rocks.

  11. Anybody heard the song from his upcoming album “Youth”? It’s inspiring for all walks of life to do the right thing.

    Personaly I think he is the 21st century’s R’ Shlomo Carlebach.

  12. Yochanan Lavie

    Admittedly I never heard his music. I have mixed feelings about this phenomenon. On the one hand, both some factions of Chabad and Rastafarianism exalt a man as the incarnation of G-D (in the latter’s case Haile Selassie). That is wrong. Yet I love reggae and ska because they are catchy and I dig the biblical references (but not the theology). Why does Jewish music have to be corny? Why can’t we have music that rocks, but is not theologically trief?

  13. DK

    Ariel, you wrote,

    “When I was in Milwaukee Wisconsin in October I met a Jew who has a friend who used to be an antisemite untill he once listened to Matisyahu CD while using LSD he reports seeing a vision of many Jews telling him that they burned for him to be able to live …
    Evere since he bacame a friend of the Jewish people…”

    Obviously the poor bastard was having a bad trip.

  14. “On the one hand, both some factions of Chabad and Rastafarianism exalt a man as the incarnation of G-D (in the latter’s case Haile Selassie). That is wrong. Yet I love reggae and ska because they are catchy and I dig the biblical references (but not the theology). Why does Jewish music have to be corny? Why can’t we have music that rocks, but is not theologically trief?”

    Why can’t we? 1) Kanaim. 2) Gedolim who don’t understand music. 3) Guys like Matisyahu.

    As for Ska and Reggae, I also like the form. I wrote seveal ska tunes during the first wave of ska in the early 1980’s. Had two of them (along with another non-ska song) on a CBS release that fizzled from the CBS end at last minute. Then, 6 months later, CBS tried to repackage the deal – but the band had already broken up. The drummer was in law school at a top 10 school. The lead guitarist was working – I kid you not – as a nuclear physicist. So the deal never happened and the songs were never released.

  15. Shepard

    “Why does Jewish music have to be corny? Why can’t we have music that rocks, but is not theologically trief?”

    Good point. In my experience the explanation has always been: we took a vote and you lost. Not that I’d want to see a Chabadnik rock band or rapper, but I see nothing wrong with more modern-sounding vocalists. I always wonder what the hold out was like for Jazz and the train wreck that was Jewish faux-disco.

  16. Yekhonyahu

    another min !

  17. I like the music Matisyahu makes. I don’t go to his shows (bad atmosphere) and I definitely don’t agree with him giving an inch to Madonna or any other Kaballah wanna-be. What Rastas think that he’s divine? Especially when Rastas feel that the messiah will be a Black man? I grew up with Rastafarianism – so that seems pretty far-fetched.

  18. Jerome Soller

    I haven’t heard his music, but more power to him if
    a)he has the talent and management to succeed,
    b)he can pursue his dream in a way that keeps his principles.
    I hope that he will make a difference in some people’s lives. However, I also hope he stays away from Madonna and her pseudo-kabbalistic cult.

    Jerome

  19. Stimach

    The issue is not the music–all music can be made holy, no combination of notes in and of itself can be more or less holy. It is all in the ends the notes serve. But the issue is that Miller is in no way ready to be a representative of Judaism, let alone frum Yiddishkite or Chabad. He is a newbie and still learning, and there is nothing wrong with being new, but humility is a virtue. He has been pushed out so far in front and made to be a pop-culture representative of Yiddishkite, that if he was honest with himself, he would pull back knowing that he is out of his depth. I for one think he lacks enough understanding of what he represents to even be aware of how little he knows and, consequently, how foolish he looks. I also suspect (and I emphasize “suspect”) that there is an element of fraud here. He really seems to be captivated by the glitz and that may be what is driving him. I know that is cruel speculation, but it just seems to be what I see underneath all of this. I think he knows just what elements of style to milk and mold into a marketable image in this tiny little moment.

  20. I think that Matisyau’s beat, timing, tone, passion – it’s all great, and I’m not a fan of reggae.

    I think holding him up to be the symbol of modern Lubavitchers/kiruv/ideal chassid is dangerous.

    He is only frum a few years and his frumkeit rose as he did. Show business careers are so fickle. How will he react as his star fades and Letterman is no longer inviting him to be on his show? How will he feel when only the Jewish music market is buying his latest albums?

    Just as he credits Hashem with his current success, won’t he blame Hashem when it goes away?

    What will the young Chabad recruits think if their poster child goes off the derech? How would such a scenario hurt the Lubavitch movement or Orthodox Judaism in general?

  21. ben matityah

    chabad, min haktubim !
    how so ?
    sheneemar :
    חָכְמָה וּמוּסָר, אֱוִילִים בָּזוּ.

  22. Stimach

    That is just the point Blogweller, well said. It is not hard to imagine that in a short time Miller will be a BAG Christian or a Bhudist or a scientologist or on some other searcher’s path the famous seem to steer each other to (chas v”s). He just seems waaaaay too untested to be the icon he is being made into. Musically he may be star ready, but religiously? maybe not. Mixing the two in a pop personality is dangerous business–for himself and for the Jews in general.

  23. J. Luebaki

    I have enjoyed Matisyahu’s music and I even took my youngest son (13 yrs old) to see him in concert. That being said, I have experienced the inspiration one receives when they find G-D. Matisyahu must be full of energy and completely focused on serving G-D. I know that the transition from being spiritually dead to being alive, and living with purpose, is not completed in a year or even years. I know only one G-D, the G-D of Abraham, I will serve no other. I hope that Matisyahu not fall for the lust and desires that the world offers him. May he have great success and be strengthened as he is tested.

    Shalom

  24. Yaakov Hoffman

    What exactly is the halachic problem with what Matisyahu is doing, i understand he is making abit of a fool of himself and judaism at times, however, how is what he does any different to what Shwekey or Avraham Fried do?

    And by the way Rick Recht is nothing compared to Moshav Band.

  25. The problem is venue. Ask a posek.

  26. Yaakov Hoffman

    I dont know what exactly to make of Matisyahu’s tour of Australia: Sunday 23 July, Monday 24 July, Tuesday 25 July, Thursday 27 July.
    Starting off in the 3 weeks! And gallantly continueing headstrong into the 9 days? Personally, I dont know a great deal about the leniencies for performing during the 3 weeks. But surely for a man trying to reach the jewish community of Australia; Bringing his reputabely inspiring live act here and tempting all his jewish fans to see it, on the night the 9 days begin!!! That just doesn’t seem all that kosher to me.

  27. Anonymous

    He just came to Australia as part of Sony’s music fairs. He did not come for the Jewish community. Apparently he will come back soon for us guys.

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