So this week’s New York jewish Week chronicles the fall-out over Matisyahu’s revelation that he “no longer identifies” with “the Lubavitch sect” of Chassidus. The revelation, to quote the Jewish Week, “lit up” the Orthodox blogosphere.
Well I wouldn’t call the frum blogosphere “lit up” but there is definitely spirited dialogue.
Rabbi Levi Brackman — a rabbi who I have continuously held in extremely high esteem since I began reading his (often the sole) frum perspectives on YNet — voices his regret for ever having backed Matis:

His lyrics no longer really reflect deep Jewish spirituality and his behavior on stage is becoming increasingly secular. Now that he has publicly distanced himself from Chabad/Lubavitch I am admitting that I was wrong to ever promote Matisyahu. It is my hope that he keeps his faith and does not go off the deep end and thus take others with him.

In his “Life of Rubin” blog, Chaim Rubin, blogging from Crown Heights, writes in his abrasively titled piece “Matisyahu No Longer Lubavitch. Enjoys Jay-Z and Sipping Wine” that he finds Matisyahu’s re-affiliation “alarming” and opines:

It makes it even worse when you hear how irresponsibly he speaks. We don’t want our kids listening to Jay Z and sipping wine to relax. Thats not how a frum yid should act….I think Shluchim might need to reconsider how involved they get with him or his shows. I think we have to worry about what he could still say or do…
I really hope that Matisyahu does well. Both phy$ically and spiritually. I hope and wish him well, but I’m officially OFF the Matisyahu fan club train…because of his comments and his attitude. He may be doing a lot of good for the non religious world and maybe even the goyish world. But for the Frum world I’m afraid that he can only do harm.

First let me preface everything by saying that I have nothing but the highest levels of respect for Rabbi Brackman, and I love to read Life of Rubin.
Perhaps there’s a kabbalistic term for the emotional source of all these blog posts. Perhaps we could call it “Olam ha’Overreaction.” As Yossi B (future hiphop stage name?) writes on his blog ChaBlog-Lubavitch, Matisyahu is being misunderstood and overly criticized, and Yossi blasts Rav Brackman’s equating Matisyahu with a “secular Jewish” musician saying:

You know, [you’re] right. Bob Dylan and Matisyahu are pretty much the same. One barely licked the edge of Torah his entire life, and one says Chitas and Davens every day, but no, your right he is like every other secular Jewish singer. Matisyahu is not made for your little kids in your house, and I hope you don’t have a problem with your teenage ones listening to him because that’s just… odd.
…I think you need to ask yourself who is the good Jew in this situation. No disrespect intended.

I think this entire argument is symptomatic of a far deeper and far more insidious cause — a cause affecting all of us trying to break into the mainstream with our beards and jackets. Matisyahu, as far as I know, hasn’t changed very much. Isn’t he still “very religious”, isn’t he still singing “treif wine clouds the heart”?
I think this is symptomatic of a breakdown in understanding between those religious Jews who were raised religious (FFB) and ba’alei tshuva/converts.

For FFB Jews, much of this soul-searching process does not happen — my father was Yekkish (German Jew), my grandfather was a Yekke, I went to Yekkishe yeshivos, I pray at a Yekkishe shul, so I’ll be Yekkish until the Next World. The most dramatic paradigm shift is for girls who get married, when they switch from “minhag X” to “minhag Y”. Those of us who are religious by choice, however, have no such pre-fab outlooks, we are constantly re-evaluating, constantly re-examining ourselves and seeing whether or not we feel “at home” anymore.
Matisyahu is going through no more than any other ba’al teshuva or convert goes through. The first few years after making the transition to Torah are often marked by a lot of soul-searching. The BT/convert often examines themselves vis-a-vis their beit din/rabbi, vis-a-vis their yeshiva, their shul — everything can come into and out of question. And to the untrained FFB eye, this can often look far more earth-shattering than it is: Matisyahu, unlike Mr. Rubin said in a comment to Rabbi Brackman’s blog, never said “Chassidus makes me feel boxed in”. Only that he didn’t want to be boxed in to Chabad. (Word on the street is that he’s gravitating towards Breslov, actually.)
Also, what bothers me is that the main issue Mr. Rubin raises is external to halacha, and external to the Shulchan Aruch: sipping wine before a show is, flatly, “not how a frum yid should act. Yidden drink wine at a Simcha, or a spiritual gathering…[w]e don’t just causally drink wine to relax while listening to goyish rap music.” Was this wine treif? Can anyone pick up the Shulchan Aruch and point to any line and say “it is evident that Matisyahu violated this law”?
No, it is only the extra-halachic concern which Mr. Rubin says constitutes the “lifestyle” which no religious person “wants their children to be exposed to.” This wine could have been consumed after recitation of 80 Tehillim, and said “wine” may have been about 3 fluid ounces, but no matter. Matis “can only do harm” now.
Matisyahu is a frum Jew. A Jew who I’m sure respects the concept of da’as Torah. However, these nebulous “a frum Yid just does not do X” can be traumatizing — because they make Torah Judaism much harder than it is delineated to be in Halacha. The bar feels as if it gets higher and higher — and much of this is solely due to our communities. My rav says, for instance, that music’s permissibility (not including lyrical content) is only determined by the emotions it evokes — listening to radio-clean gangsta rap would be assur for the person it angers or makes belligerent, not for the person for whom it is calming and gets one into a G-dly mindset. (For instance, listening to System of a Down makes me extremely G-d-aware.)
Such extra-halachic guidelines can be traumatizing to someone who is religious by choice because they’re not written anywhere — these are things which “you just know” or “you just do/don’t do”. Things which are not taught in any class, which should just be “inferred”. This extra-halachic criticism is often heaped on those of us who enter the mainstream (non-Jewish) media world — because we have to conduct ourselves slightly differently than our shtetl-centered counterparts.
And, one is behooved to look at the big picture — by listening to said Jay-Z song (which could have been perfectly edited — dan l’kaf zechut!) and sipping said (Baron Herzog? Zakon?) wine, he was chilled out enough to turn on potentially thousands of people to the light of Torah, the light of G-d. An extra-halachic, culturally imposed guideline — not even a Rabbinical injunction — somehow invalidates this? (Granted, if the commenter on life-of-rubin is true, there may have been some Sabbath violation involved in his Alaska show. That’s a real issue. Not this.) I agree with Yossi, if that’s why one forbids their children to listen to lines like “there are many names for One G-d”, that is takeh odd.
I don’t know Mr. Rubin’s background, but one thing I’m almost certain of — he’s misunderstanding Matis. Matis is not “frei-ing out”, he has merely chosen a different chassidus, a different path of being ultra-Orthodox. And if Matisyahu is helping far-flung people get in touch with the Divine Light, and turning on Jews to their spiritual heritage, I think the Rebbe ztvk”l would give him a hearty “bracha v’hatzlacha” (“Blessings and success!”).
After all, “the Messiah comes” when the “fountains of Torah spring forth” to unforeseen places — and who’s doing a better job of helping that along, a guy sipping kosher wine before performing to thousands, or one angry father who forbids his children from hearing Torah-driven music?
(crossposted to This is Babylon.)