The King Without a Crown (or a yellow flag)

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.)

27 thoughts on “The King Without a Crown (or a yellow flag)

  1. Y,
    A few things.
    1) BOTH of my parents are Baal Teshuvahs. They both became frum through different means, different places on thier own. One of my parents parents are also both baal teshuvah, later on in life. I grew up in a house that was almost exclusively surrounded by Baal Teshuvahs coming and going. I myself went “off the derech” for a few year in my late teens, and through a wonderful Shliach “came back” to being Frum (and Lubavitch)
    I know very well and good what the baal teshuvah culture is all about, in fact sometimes I wish I had grown up in a different environment.
    I never outright accused Matisyahu of frying out. I just said that he’s on a bad path. I am not just making this comments from this one interview, but based on a pattern of comments and actions stemming back to his very coldly dropping the Jdub chevra.
    My overall point was not really about Halacha. It was about Hashkafa and the example Matisyahu leads, by his choice or not.
    I know there is nothing technically wrong with drinking wine in the manner in which he explains he prepares. But there is nothing technically wreong with playing tennis in shorts and a tee shirt if there is an eruv presents on Shabbos.
    We’re talking about Hashkafa, the spirit of it, the love for g-dliness and not dragging grub things into it.
    The Alaska show is not the only example of even more serious issues. Matisyahu did a show in Dallas a couple weeks ago, and based on an eye witness report from the newspaper reporter who reviewed the concert (I spoke with him personally) Matisyahu finished his set with 6 minutes to candle lighting. (I check the times online for that area as well)
    Is that Shabbosdik? With 6 minutes to spare (we hope) he left the concert stage, and where did he go? Did he walk to a nearby hotel? Did he walk to a nearby chabad house? Even if he did have some sort of plan in motion to get him to where he needed to be for Shabbos, is that something you would encourage frum kids to do? Perform at a rock concert literally until minutes before Shabbos??
    I think this is about more then just a baal teshuvah charging his mind on a spiritual path. I’m worried about the people he is surrounding himself with and if there are people keeping him in check, grounding him in reality.
    I think when frum kids who are on the fence, see someone treat erev shabbos like that, they think its ok. “As long as its for the greater spiritual good” I’m sorry, there is something wrong with this.
    I hope I don’t sound rude or “abrasive” 🙂 in this comment. I appriciate your post and your thoughts on this and I always LOVE reading your posts. You always say very smart things.
    Just on this issue, I don’t agree.

  2. “My initial ties were through the Lubavitch sect. … At this point, I don’t necessarily identify with it any more,” Matisyahu told the Miami weekly. “I’m really religious, but the more I’m learning about other types of Jews, I don’t want to exclude myself.”
    Sounds like sound and healthy attitude.

  3. You know me, I always relate things to technology and society. But Mat clearly taps into what Henry Jenkins refers to when talking about digital/cultural interminglings re: identity, celebrity and cultural/spiritual values.
    Things are only getting worse, esp. from my vantage point reporting from the depth-pit of lalaland.
    Was Mat a reggae star/Jew/damaged child/first – then how he’d play with what identity, what exactly has been transgressed. Of course, I understand the religious boundaries he crossed, but there’s something unique about our time, which fools people into thinking these crossing are viable so quick and so often.

  4. I just saw Matisyahu (for the first time since 2005) on Sunday night, at a big amphitheater opening up for 311. I still have a lot of respect for him as a religious Jew–whatever his affiliation–getting up there and doing his thing in a realm that typically doesn’t include religious Jews. He still sang “Water” and other songs with very religious lyrics. Upon introducing that song, he gave a speech (to a largely non-Jewish crowd that didn’t know how to react) about Tisha B’av, explaining the destruction of the Temple, the Diaspora, and why he wouldn’t be playing the next few shows. Bob Dylan simply wouldn’t do that, and it’s unfair to Matisyahu to suggest that they’re the same.
    Of course, one could say that if he’s still religiously observant, he shouldn’t have been performing music during the Nine Days preceding Tisha B’av … but as a Conservative Jew who attended a concert then and is posting this comment on Shabbos (albeit right before going to shul), I really don’t have a problem with that.

  5. I have considerably more respect for him now that he has distanced himself from a group of people I personally hold in low esteem.

  6. Kol Hakavod.
    That was extremely well said, and a much needed defense of Matis. His explanation for leaving Chabad; “…the more I´m learning about other types of Jews, I don´t want to exclude myself. I felt boxed in.” says a lot about his character. Matis isn’t and doesn’t want to be confined to a single ideology. He is dedicated to Judaism, to orthodoxy and to Hashem and he is continuing to search for the right path to express that dedication.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if he chose Breslov. It seems to fit his personality, and let’s be honest, how much of this “concern” over his actions is actually just Chabadniks upset that they’ve lost the best ambassador that Orthodox Judaism has had in many many years?

  7. Y, Firstly I want you to know that you guys still have my love. However I am worried about the direction it all seems to be taking as the lead religious reggae/hip hop person, Matisyahu, steps outside the firm boundaries of Chabad. Therefore as a Rabbi I feel that I can no longer “promote” what you are all doing. Thats all. I do however wish you all success and hope you only continue to grow in your spirituality and relationship with Hashem.

  8. We need to realize that Matisyahu is still quite young, and after being exposed to so many cultures and levels of Judaism all of a sudden he is rethinking his Lubavitch ties. This is normal for a frum but openminded thinking, growing person. He will always be religious but now he needs to see where he will land. This is great! I feel even better about Matisyahu than I already did. I love his stuff and am relieved it seems he is considering becoming more mainstream frum. Perhaps he realizes he is too creative and funky for his community and wants to branch out in a place he can breathe. Matisyahu, if you are reading this, I applaud you and respect your need to grow and be open while still serving G-d.

  9. The issue at hand is that Matisyahu has not yet found the version of Judaism where he will plant his roots forever, yet he puts himself in very dangerous places, spiritually.
    Mr. Rubin says, “At some point you need stability… you have to pick something and believe in it.”
    To be loyal to any faith you need to be so dedicated to it and not be “open minded” enough to leave that faith for anything else.
    Floating between sects is indicant of loose roots in the religion. Moving from one group to another might be growth but simply “not being boxed in” is very flimsy.
    [Remember Mt. Carmel? Elijah didn’t say “Return to Judaism!” He said, “Till when will you hang on the fence?” In other words, pick a side, whether it’s G-d or Baal, and stick to it. Otherwise you have no identity, which is worse than having a bad identity.]

  10. R’ Brackman:
    With nothing but respect for the rav, I hope the rav isn’t lumping Y-Love and Matisyahu together in a category like that — what “we are all doing” is quite different. Matis is reggae, I’m hiphop. I have no question in my mind that Matis has a rav who he consults with regularly: when he and I played together back in the day (2001-2002), I remember he had a “mashgiach” who would “check out” the venues before he went on stage. I went to my rosh yeshiva at the time, “how come none of MY rebbeim will come out to MY shows?” I used to deeply envy that, how much Torah hashgacha he received from his community.
    I can’t imagine any of that stopped when he signed with Sony/Epic.
    Any frum Jew trying to make it in mainstream media has got to have a rav on their speed dial, I can’t imagine that Matisyahu’s boundaries are any less “firm” than they ever were. Were he to decide to become a hardcore Mirrer, are Chabad’s “firm boundaries” the only ones relevant or could R’ Nosson Tzvi provide at least a reasonable facsimile? Or if he were to become Sephardi, does R’ Ovadia provide “firm boundaries”?
    The Shabbat thing notwithstanding (because that is a serious issue, and does irk me quite deeply), I have faith that Matis is keeping it halachically quite real, and — let’s say that these “frum kids on the fence” were to emulate Matis’ “example”. They’d be studying Chita”s, saying Tehillim, wearing white and black — oh yeah, and sipping wine while listening to goyish music. Zollt men shreien ‘gevalt’ far dem?

  11. Like R’ Brackman said already:
    “Music is both unthreatening and endearing and as long as these Chasidic hip-hop/reggae/rap artists who have returned to Judaism stay true to their message, they may end up being the best and most effective ambassadors traditional Judaism has ever produced.”
    Amen, ken yehi ratzon.

  12. come on ppl. rabbi, wake up, this is a big world… it’s all gonna be ok try to stop being so scared… we’re doing well.
    btw… finally matis has cred!

  13. I don’t think anybody has mentioned the real issue here–this is Chabad’s way. In their minds, he really has left Judaism. Go to a Chabad house and you’ll see ads for “Kabbalah classes” but what they mean is (usually only) Tanya classes. If you have the same experience I’ve had, you’d be visiting a friend at a Chabad Yeshiva’s Beis Medrash and want to look something up in the Shulhan Arukh, only to find that the volumes with those words on the spine aren’t the work by R. Yosef Karo, but the one by the Alter Rebbe. “Falling off the Derekh” for them means something very specific: it’s not that they believe their way is the only way-i don’t think they don’t believe that-but they do believe it’s the most real or best or whatever. Here in Brooklyn they have Chabad houses in Kensington, Midwood and other frum neighborhoods. Who do you think they’re trying to mekarev? My teacher used to joke “what’s the closest religion to Judaism? Chabad!” I wouldn’t go that far, but certainly the Chabad=Judaism and Judaism=(basically only)Chabad is an axiom of the movement and one that (the rest of) Judaism has not done enough to understand/publicize/knock down.

  14. Right on, emilia. His NYU rabbi was kind of a drag anyways, kicked us out of his sukkah, all in the ‘nice, chabadnik style’. I’m glad when anybody is able to recognize spiritual and religious strictures as being too restrictive, if and when they are, and being capable of stepping away from whatever’s no longer useful. GO Matt.

  15. I agree with the post made by Chaim.
    I am also a BT. My wife and I know the Miller’s. They are very nice people and I hope to maintain a positive relationship with them.
    I can you tell you that many of us are so quick to focus on the fact that we see a frum Jew somewhere, or that because of a certain situation, a non frum Jew will physically hear a frum Jew speak a few words, sing a few songs, that we dont pay attention to what that certain situation is and whether or not it will really be beneficial anyway, or G-D forbid the opposite.
    Mattisyahu, like my wife and I, MUST BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE for actions that are NOT IN THE SPIRIT of being a frum Jew, especially one who IS STILL connected to the Chasidic way, whether it be Breslov or whatever. Too often a BT will start doing some questionable things, but we throw it under the rug and blame Chabad institutions and the BT is 100% innocent…this has to change.
    It is not Chabad’s fault that Mattisyahu felt boxed in, he should have thought of that before promoting world wide himself as a Chabad Chasid. It is not Chabad’s fault that he signed with a goyish label that would make it very difficult for him, as Chaim points out WITH EREV SHABBOS SHOWS, his agents and lawyers could have explained this to him at the time of the signing if he asked about it.
    Whatever one decides to be, they need to take it seriously. My wife and I were not always Chabad, but we still didnt treat Erev shabbos like this. To publicize that he listens to Jay-Z, the very antithis of the “good” he is trying to do, it points out he is not fully into it.
    In the end, he is responsible for his actions. It is not society who is wrong on this. If he wants to be frum, no matter how frum, he needs TO ALSO follow the spirit of the law here.
    Every frum Jew who is hurt by this has an absolute to let this person know.
    If a Shliach born and bred in Crown Heights did something like this…where would the love be then..especially among BT’s because after all Shluchim mekarav BTs? I dont see Shmuely Boteach’s actions taken lightly. People called him a traitor to the Rebbe, a traitor to frumkeit, a phony, and a fraud.
    Finally, the Rebbe said that we should bring Jews to Torah, not Torah to Jews. If it takes longer to do it, that is one thing..but let us at least do it correctly. Let us at least do it by being PROPER EXAMPLES of how a frum Jew…ANY TYPE of FRUM JEW should act…especially in an erev shabbos situation….which happens quite regularly for him now.

  16. A friend of mine refered me to this page, and I am a bit sad he did. Actually, Jonathon, I doubt that Rebbenu Nachman,Ztl, would approve of most of the comments posted here. He would probably have less of a problem with Matisyahu than with the disgusting display of Loshon Hora we see in these comments regarding Matisyahu and his shabbos observance.
    Is Reb Chaim telling us that Matisyahu ended a concert 6 minutes before Shabbos because he thinks that this info, whether it is true or not, will somehow enable us to help Matisyahu and ourselves be better Jews? I doubt it. If he does, I would love to hear how we can use this info constructively. Call me a fool, I personally choose to believe that the 6 minute story is not true.
    Keep in mind that a fact can be as true as any word in the Torah, yet I may have no business knowing this fact at all, especially if it lacks any constructive purpose.
    I suggest people read Rebbenu Nachman’s teaching of Azamra, which can be found at . Let’s add to that a healthy dose of the Chofetz Chaim. I suggest the “Chofetz Chaim A day” published by Artscroll. We should take his presence on the bottom of the page seriously.

    “Here in Brooklyn they have Chabad houses in Kensington, Midwood and other frum neighborhoods. Who do you think they’re trying to mekarev?”
    If you actually did some research into these neighborhoods you would come across a few facts.
    1) There are many secular Jewish Russians and Israelis that do need to be mekareved…..they count too buddy
    2) There are many families mekareved by chabad houses in non frum parts of the country. These families move to NYC with NO SUPPORT SYSTEM….knowing NO ONE. They want to live in a frum neighborhood, and that is where these Chabad shuls come in. It makes it a bit easier for them…and many of them are NOT Chabad afer all.
    Since you love to criticize Chabad for this…why dont you please tell us what your community rabbis are doing to reach out to these Russian Jews who dont even know what the letter Aleph is. Please also share with us how your yeshiva system is helping new BT families that dont know anyone?
    Before atacking these guys….DO SOME RESEARCH

  18. ” To publicize that he listens to Jay-Z, the very antithis of the “good” he is trying to do, it points out he is not fully into it.
    That’s a testament to ignorance of the Torah of R Nachman. He’s is the Chassidic Rebbe who legalized the listening to Niggun Rasha, a very old issur for anyone who learns torah she b’aal Peh at night, by finding the seret mystical loophole for transforming the sound of music into something positive by returning it to it’s source.
    But why shouldn’t a frum Jew play HASHEM INSPIRING music on a friday afternoon until close to shabbos? Or during the nine days? If what someone is doing is bringing people closer to G-d… or, for that matter, benifiting them in any way? A professional musician is allowed to play music during the nine days, as long as it’s just for the money, if I remember correctly.
    I wonder where he’s holding. Maybe if he learns better Torah, he’ll be more away of the power and importance of dancein bringing Redemption, and will get over his fakkakte “head in the stars, feet on the ground” trip. I wonder how much of a theologian he is.

  19. Yoseph Leib,
    I am suprised by your statement tha Rebbenu Nachman,zt’l was the Chassidic Rebbe who legalized listening to “Niggun Rasha” as you put it. Do you know in which sefer this is brought down?
    I never heard of such a thing, and the exact opposite seems to be the practice among serious Breslover Chassidim I know. The statement is especially surprising in light of Rebbenu Nachman stressing strict adherence to the Shulchan Aruch and halacha in general, hence my surprise at the use of “legalized”. He was, for example famous for his criticism of other Rebbes of his day because the davened after the zman, flat out saying they are making a mistake.
    That being said, there does seem to be a tradition or history among Chassidim of adopting goyishe music. Perhaps the most well known include a number of Chabad niggunim, including Russian lyrics, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s (zt’l) minhag of singing “Ha’aderet V’haemunah” to the tune of the French. National Anthem

  20. In the midst of trying to balance the spectacle with the art of mystical existence (Judaism), we become polarized, its either heredi or Modern Orthodoz with all of its musar, or even more radical such as reform or conservative. Lets just be honest here the line is between roman ideals of physicocentral existence and Judeic path of soulular refinement, are the two mutually exclusive, in some aspects yes, and it is the teachings of Rashbi and Chabad Chasidus that there is a blessing in every curse. thus there is good in that which is evil. with this spirit we should remember how Matis’s tracks make our hearts feel and understand that G-d leads the men in any path he chooses to follow. So it might as well be that Matis is his mainstream voice and his aligence to Sony allows him to the airways. I rather have Matis rocking the globe then Amy seducing the mases with her post heron shiek and lusty exposes. I am sure that the Rebbe didnt do anything to affend Matis. And with this in mind i like to inform that it appears that Matis is not choosing baal over the king, he is just looking to be transfered to a different unit in the kings army.

  21. It seems to me, that the Na Nach Nachma Nachman people have the least challenging Jewish lifestyle, essentially it’s just a hippy with a yarmulka, no authority, no rules, just vildkeit.

  22. I found this article late but found the comments about Matisyahu’s show in Dallas to be misleading. I live in Dallas and had Shabbos lunch with Matis that Shabbos. He arrived in the eruv shortly before Shabbos began because of the lateness of the show. Two frum guys who travel with Matis had made arrangements for him to stay with the director of the Kollel here and spend Shabbos with the kollel rabis. He had a tish that night for some of the young yeshiva boys here and we had a very good shabbos with him. His wife also told him that he had to talk to some of the concert people to make sure the concerts did not go as long before Shabbos. He might have cut it close but he had a completely kosher Shabbos here in Dallas at Ohr HaTorah.

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