Matisyahu, the popular artist who shot to fame as a Hasidic reggae-inspired rapper in 2004, made headlines this week for his decision to seemingly leave his Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, with which he'd been involved since 2001. (At least, he shaved his beard.) The news sent minor waves through both the entertainment and Jewish world, and indeed, his decision will undoubtedly spark much conversation and potentially angst amongst his followers and fans.
However, his choice carries implications for the wider religious dialogue, and lends hints as to where the intersection of spirituality and culture might now be headed. While there are limitations in drawing too great of conclusions from our celebrities' lifestyles and actions, Matisyahu's choice does represent an important development in the underlying psycho-spiritual evolution of our time.
Born Matthew Paul Miller to a Reconstructionist Jewish family is West Chester, Penn., Matisyahu came into the music world following the band Phish before becoming ba'al teshuva in 2001 and becoming one of the most famous Orthodox Jews of our time to find traction in the secular world. He spent time affiliated with both the Shlomo Carlebach movement and Chabad, and it's become his signature to represent classic Jewish mystical and theological concepts through his music and image. He has become an international celebrity while maintaining a strict observance of Jewish halacha, not performing on Shabbat and offering patrons of his concerts the opportunity to participate in traditional Jewish ritual and prayer.
Now, that's all to change. Last week, Miller posted a beardless photo of himself on Twitter, explaining, "No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me."
It's impossible to fully know the personal motivations and circumstances driving Miller's decision, or the full extent and specifics of his decision. He does go on to emphasize, however, that, "I am reclaiming myself." Apparently, he felt a need to return to a looser, more inwardly driven religious practice in the face of the strict rules of the Orthodox sect to which he belonged. To put it colloquially, it seems Orthodox Judaism was cramping his style.
Matisyahu's spiritual and artistic evolution chronicles the desire of many of us to ground the emotive and spiritual modalities of our time in more stable, received traditions. Connecting to venerated institutions (whether religious, political, academic, etc.) serves to give us more confidence and awareness of who we are, and provide a comforting context in which to make sense of the rock concerts, psychedelics, trips to India, new age literature and science that form the spiritual currency of our strange, post-modern age. If we are living in the era of which Yeats famously said, "the centre cannot hold," the psychology of Matisyahu and others like him makes plenty of sense. So says the former Phishhead: "I needed rules. Or else I would somehow fall apart."
Given the disorder becoming widespread in the world today, you don't need to be an LSD-popping groupie in order to feel some trace of his sentiment. In a world of credit crises, environmental change and political instability, this fear of break down is understandable.
Yet, perhaps it is precisely this falling apart that we so desperately need. According to the theory of the chaordic (a term coined by Dee Hock, the founder of Visa, to describe the harmonious and dynamic co-existence of chaos and order), it is out of the chaos of breaking that new order and possibilities emerge. Such a principle, while painful, can be necessary to developing truly regenerative societies. To quote another Jewish musician famous for integrating biblical narratives into his songs, "Ring the bells that still will ring / Forget your perfect offering / There's a crack in everything / That's how the light gets through."
Such an understanding raises problems for those who would seek to find comfort in the received solutions of their predecessors. While an enormous amount of wisdom can be gleaned from being in conversation with our religious traditions (an under-appreciated point that is likely responsible in part for Matisyahu's enormous appeal), the resistance to change and the emergent, evolving truth ultimately creates theologies and lifestyles that are controlling, colorless, one-dimensional, and more often than not, caught up, even if unwittingly, in the oppression of both self and others.
The flipside of this is the world beyond the unknown, the world beyond the horizon of who we presently conceive ourselves to be. It is the world of true art and meaning making. It might also be the world of authentic, personally driven religious practice, too. From the viewpoint of a Western (or specifically in Matisyahu's case, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish) society built largely on order and control, it is easy to become lost in fear at the uncertainty such a journey presupposes. Yet at the same time, this journey must serve, by definition, as the basis for any truly meaningful spiritual paradigm.
How do we access this space? If Matisyahu's evolution is any indication, it's a process that has a lot more to do with making authentic art than with adhering to parochial paradigms.
With the goal of an authentic, liberated spirituality in mind, it's a substantial step in the right direction. Indeed, if his choice is inspired by or informs some wider movement, we might find the implications of such honesty and self-affirmation to be far more impacting than we presently realize.