5772: Vayeshev — “One Day” — Thinking About Matisyahu’s Facial Hair

18/12/2011 at 00:43 2 comments

“One Day”


Parashat Vayeshev

Neil F. Blumofe

17 December 2011


A few years ago the senior class of a rural high school in Texas visited our sanctuary for a few hours.  When I asked how many of them had been to a synagogue before, no one raised their hand – and in between their questions of “what’s that beanie on your head,” and “what do you think about your going to hell, because you don’t believe in Jesus,” we had a sweet point of connection when after a moment, the majority of the students all recognized who the reggae star Matisyahu was and began singing the chorus of “Jerusalem,” his hit at the time – Jerusalem, if I forget you/fire not gonna come from me tongue/Jerusalem, if I forget you/let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do.


It was a poignant moment of revelation for me.  These kids who had not met a Jew before and were quick to ask about what they had learned in church or at home – that anyone who doesn’t believe in the right savior is doomed to perpetual hell and in fact, once our conversation began to flow, they asked me about why I and all Jews felt compelled to kill Jesus in the first place; that these kids were able to sing lyrics based on the Hebrew Bible and felt that Matisyahu spoke to them.  Matisyahu was an incredible shaliach, ambassador into the world – a spark of light carrying an important message of depth and possibility, with an added bonus of looking like a stereotype of a Jew – with his black suit and hat, long peyos, and substantial beard.  More than Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, or the Beastie Boys over the years, Matisyahu – also known as Matthew Miller — attracted people to explore Judaism through his music and his lifestyle – making being Jewish an integral part of his music – bringing Judaism to millions of people in a way that could be appreciated and in some instances, emulated.


Matisyahu was affiliated with Chabad for about seven years, until 2007 – and after that, he was exploring and experimenting with various Hasidic sects.  And this week, a clean shaven singer announces to the world that while he will continue to make music and live as a Jew, he has taken steps to reclaim himself and from now on there will be “no more Hassidic reggae superstar.”  His explanation was revealing – that as he began to learn about Judaism and live as a Jew, the rules and parameters of Hasidic Judaism were helpful in keeping him grounded, and now, as he writes, he will be trusting his goodness and his divine mission, as he continues to develop as a Jew and as a musician.


So, we have been drawn into his journey, and while his next persona will not necessarily help identify the majesty of Judaism to the next class of rural high school seniors, Matisyahu’s, fluid exploration of Jewish identity is a positive and encouraging sign.  Reminding us that even as some in our world forcibly maintain, there is not one way to be Jewish.  Matisyahu’s look was shorthand for a type of credibility among some – and it certainly helped to distinguish him from many other aspirant artists – yet now, the hard work of meeting God everyday and struggling for faith, balance, and self-control, as it becomes public, becomes all of our concerned tasks as it too is more personal.  Beyond relying on a convenient caricature or affiliation of identity, Matthew Miller’s story can mirror our own as he continues his journey, ready to grapple with a Judaism that is more nuanced as he makes decisions – potentially involving himself in a Judaism that admits pluralism, creativity and complexity in weighing out the significance of his actions.  To recalibrate our connections to what we consider important is a true gift – and one that is a constant example in these portions of our Torah – from Ya’akov wrestling with the mysterious man on the banks of the Jabbok River, to the imprisonment of Joseph, where God was constantly and powerfully with him, thus creating a changed soul, a stronger self, that can rely on a private covenant with God, within a larger community-wide expectation of living and obligation.


We so often make people into who we think that they need to be – and it would be a tragedy if talents like Matisyahu ultimately renounced their Judaism.  However, we should rejoice that our traditions, our pathways to God admit such honesty and expectation from an individual.  This kind of work is what attracted me to the Conservative Movement in the first place – a movement that at its best, acts as a container for Judaism encouraging knowledge and observance, as well as questions.  A platform on which one can explore diverse information in different combinations, and in my imagination – a life of Judaism that most accurately recreated the Talmudic depth and breadth of admitting a multiplicity of opinions and challenges to community and ultimately, the most honest place to cleave to God.


To be honest, when I attended Matisyahu concerts at Stubb’s over the years, I was never drawn in, like others seemed to be – and yet now, with this movement of his into the unknown, I admire his conviction to find God again within the generous portions of expansive Judaisms – splashing into the many contradictions that come with a well considered life and perhaps putting his career second to a more true searching for who he is, at this time.


May we have the courage to do the same – to examine who we are underneath what others say we are – or what our professional demands say that we are.  May we have a moment on the Jabbok or a time to dwell in the darkness like Joseph, committed to walking a life that brings us closer to the ineffable and to bigger meaning.  I am convinced that mitzvot and living within the light of a Jewish community propels us on our journey – I am also convinced that always turning our traditions over, probing them for new meaning, holding them up to the light and opening them up with constant learning, brings out a vibrant and enlivening lifelong relationship with what is most true in our lives.


While the image and the lyrics of Matisyahu brought a realization of difference to the high school seniors, I hope too that seeing an active synagogue — a living example of sincerely encountering questions of existence and not shrinking from their pointed questions will be influential to them to do the same.  True and transformational change happens personally and in one on one meetings, day after day.  As we live, may we celebrate the chances for holiness that we have —  taking on new identities and everyday, changing our names from Jacob to Israel.


May we find much inspiration in this development of Matisyahu to take our own spiritual work seriously and not stop emerging and growing.  May we be unconcerned with how others think about what we strive to do – as we continue to learn and apply our learning in directions unexpected.  And finally, may we be aided in our lives by a charitable and understanding community that recognizes the centrality and the importance of the work that always lies before us and moves with each of us as individuals to meet us and improve us.  The world’s children – both rural and urban — are waiting to be inspired — not by our superficiality, or our roles and titles, rather by our depth.  Let us renew our work to study and to sing.


Shabbat Shalom.




Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ruth Goldhor Chlebowski  |  18/12/2011 at 11:06

    What a beautiful sermon! Thank you for sharing this.

  • 2. reblaura  |  20/12/2011 at 16:28

    Beautiful teaching about the lifelong journey into spiritual and personal identity, sparked by one courageous young man not afraid to take a public risk.


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