A Footnote on the Matisyahu Debacle

We all know what happened. Matisyahu was invited to the Rototom Sunsplash Reggae Festival. BDS Valencia pulled out the stops to ban the Jew. Rototom demanded that Matisyahu pass an ideological litmus test and endorse yet another Palestinian state. He refused. They booted him.

At that point, everyone realized BDS had played its hand — it was about Jews, not “Palestinian rights” or any such nonsense. It was anti-Semitic hatred in new clothing. The Spanish government and leading journals condemned the Rototom organizers, not just Jewish groups in America. And Rototom backed down, putting Matisyahu back on the schedule for Saturday night.

Here’s the thing. Matisyahu cut his beard in late 2011 and dropped his yarmulke not long after. “No more Hasidic Reggae superstar,” he told fans on Twitter. And everyone has known this — for more than three years.

Yet much of the coverage of this issue didn’t feature Matisyahu images like the left half of the enclosed photo… rather, they showed the dated Matisyahu on the right. First they come for the Jews, and first they come for the visible ones. And everyone still knows Matisyahu as a very visible Jew.

If you don’t identify as a Jew, Matisyahu, they’ll remind you. It may seem sad, it may seem unfair, but it’s how it works. HKB”H told us so. There are many, many more Mitzvos to do, and being the only well-known Chassidic reggae artist had its benefits. So… it’s not too late to try the Torah path once again.

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6 Responses

  1. Eli says:

    It is rather presumptuous on your part to assume that because Matisyahu no longer follows halacha that that mean that he no longer identifies as a Jew. This is an unfortunate symptom of the Charedi view that Jewish/religious identity is a binary subject – either you fully follow halacha or nothing – when in fact it is much more of a continuum. I personally, as someone whose main social surroundings are secular Israelis, am constantly made aware of this. Whether it’s the one without the kippa who lays tefillin, won’t eat milk after meat, or even one who was proud of fulfilling the mitzva of p’ru ur’vu upon the birth of a daughter after a son. Charedim are unfortunately very quick to judge people as irreligious or even anti-religious because of external appearances, when a little openness would show that there is much more religious observance, or at least positive feeling towards religious observance, than they are aware of. Matisyahu may no longer keep many halachos, but that doesn’t mean he has completely forsaken his people.

    All this reminds me of an aphorism attributed to the Kotzer Rebbe: “Where can you find G-d? Wherever you let him in.” If you shut your eyes to the connection klal yisrael maintains with HKB”H, you’ll just never see it

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      Eli, I may have been misunderstood because I said “if you don’t identify as a Jew, Matisyahu, they’ll remind you.” Of course he still identifies as a Jew. He still sings Jerusalem. He still sings many other songs filled with lyrics we find not only appropriate, but uplifting [I’m not saying his music is appropriate for everyone regardless of his dress or beard status; ask your Rav]. And of course, he knows everyone knows he is the former Hassidic reggae singer.

      But he consciously no longer identifies Jewishly to the same extent. He moved to a very different point on the continuum, deliberately so. That’s not “judging” him, because he said this is so, no one else. Certainly, keeping Halacha, following what HaShem wants, is at the core of self-identifying as a Jew.

      And by discriminating against him, they reminded him that inside, he’s still a Jew, fully a Jew, and yes, different than others. The media knew it, and portrayed him as different by using dated photos. Here’s hoping he’ll let those Mitzvos he left, come back into his life — because they are why we are different.

  2. cvmay says:

    A Jew is a Jew is a Jew is a Jew!!
    Say it frontwards or backwards….

  3. Yosef N says:

    Religon is a private matter. Please don’t tell other people how to act. He made a bigger kiddush hashem by seeing Jerusalem then many of us will ever make. His music today is still a genuine expression of a neshama searching for God.

  4. Moshe Katz says:

    With all respect to Rabbi Menken, are we trying to “preach to the choir” or to reach out to Matisyahu?
    If it’s the latter, I would suggest considerably more warmth and love. It seems likely to me that his embracing a Torah life was likely too fast, without sufficient learning and without a mentor that could have guided him better.
    Why not give him a yashar koach for standing up for his principles in a very public way and tell him, with love, that we miss him?

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      I think he knows the Jewish community all cheered for him. And I’ve said so elsewhere. And your analysis of his circumstances reflects thoughts I’ve heard from very sober, senior voices within Chabad itself. But the exclusion, too, has a message for him. The Yashar Koach and the sympathy and the “how about trying it again” all come together.

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