Unorthodox Yet Sincere, A Liberal Jew’s Anthem In Matisyahu’s “Sunshine”
June 21, 2012 at 10:34 pm, by Jonah Rank
<– this guy
became that guy. –>
(Matis is on Wiz Khalifa‘s left.)
I’ve had divided feelings about Matisyahu’s career, but I have immense respect for what Matthew Miller is doing right now.
He is seeking that spark of the true self with which we try to reconnect after we have gotten “lost” in some way.
Today, Matisyahu released the music video for “Sunshine,” the first single off the new album. But what makes this Matis video different from all other Matis videos?
For most of the video, there is no kippah or covering of any other sort on Matisyahu’s head.
But why should there be? Most Jews don’t wear kippot on their heads.
In fact, many Jews who don’t ritually cover their heads are nonetheless serious about their religion and values. (In fact, this includes rabbis!)
The video begins with a quote from the Book of Exodus, was filmed in Israel, has a few shots of Matthew wearing a kippah, and serves as an interpretation to a song with lyrics that gel nicely with Jewish mysticism.
Given all of these factors, Matisyahu is living up to a high standard of Jewyness for an internationally acclaimed pop artist.
But, no kippah? Is he just not Orthodox? (Well… plenty of Orthodox Jews actually don’t wear kippot.)
Wearing a kippah is not required by Jewish law. No rabbis before the 20th Century said that Jewish law requires men to cover their heads.
Still, some find meaning in this garb. And some don’t.
And what if Matisyahu doesn’t? He’s entitled to his own spiritual quest as he seeks some inner Divine spark.
In fact, the spiritual quest that Matisyahu is on now is not new. It just looks different to the untrained eye.
Long before he shaved off his beard in December, he was this phenomenon: this intensely dressed Chassidic Jew affiliated with the Chabad sect but rapping and beatboxing over reggae music. But, after he disaffiliated from Chabad, he was just a Chasidic Jew. And after he no longer had the Chasidic beard, he tweeted the next day that he still went to synagogue in the morning and did some ritual cleansing in a mikveh.
But, before he was under the influence of Chabad, he was… a Phish-head.
I can’t say that I know the full story of how he transformed into a Chasidic Jew. (Israel was in there somewhere, he communicated with God, some other stuff happened…) But from all the bits and pieces I have read and heard of his life from many interviews and articles, there’s nothing I can point to and call “disingenuous” or “fake.”
He’s an honest seeker, and he continues to seek using Jewish language (the Book of Exodus, the land of Israel, etc.).
Today, the Chassidic uniform is not how Matisyahu wants to dress for his intense journey towards truth and meaning.
On a Chassidic journey, in an Ultra-Orthodox community, there are certain questions you’re not allowed to ask and certain routes you’re not allowed to take. But Matisyahu wants to take them.
And guess what? Orthodox Jews aren’t the only Jews who go on spiritual journeys.
Jews of all stripes go on spiritual journeys.
Jews who don’t wear streimels, have beards or know Hebrew are capable of intense spiritual quests. These quests just don’t look like Matisyahu’s did 7 years ago.
So, I’m impressed by Matisyahu renewed. He’s no longer this mysterious other dressed and shaven to look holier than thou.
He is now dressed and shaven to look a little more like some Jewish men most Jews actually know.
Through his dress, Matisyahu is becoming a different kind of Jewish role model. Through non-Chassidic dress, he is literally embodying one of the most important messages Jews must hear: Meaningful Jewish life no longer requires strict Orthodoxy. There are other ways.
Matisyahu publicly talks about how one of the most exciting things about his spiritual journey is that he does not know the destination yet.
A spiritual quest is not merely following a trail. It’s not just deciding what trail to follow. Sometimes it’s about trailblazing, designing and redesigning these trails.
Matisyahu’s journey right now is a personal one, but the way you and I view it intensely reflects how you and I view serious Jewish journeys.
If we ever thought that Matisyahu’s Chassidic life was legitimately Jewish because he was following all the rules, then Matisyahu has bravely opened up the discussion to the entire Jewish community.
Can you take off your kippah, cut off your beard, remove your Orthodoxy AND still be a serious Jew, on a serious quest to seek God?
If the answer is no–that removing Jewish garb removes you from the Jewish people–then I don’t want to be a part of the Jewish conversation.
The way I see it, the truth is that the informed Orthodox Jew who asks no questions can be no greater than the Jew who learns to read her or his first Hebrew letter. And the Jew who studies Torah, takes a step back, and asks if it is true can be just as committed to the Jewish quest for truth as the Jew who does not know how to step away from Torah study–or how to approach it.
No matter what we look like, where we’ve been, or where we’re going, we can all be spark seekers.
Thank you Matisyahu for looking just a little more like Andy Samberg.
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