The controversial beard of hiphop-reggae-pop-performer Matisyahu

It started on December 13th, 2011 with this tweet:

And these photos:

Photos attached to Matisyahu's December 13th tweet

For any other mainstream artist, shaving off a beard of ten years might be newsworthy, but definitely not controversial. Matisyahu, though, has been a Chasidic Jew his whole musical career. Increasingly on the world stage as he grows more popular with every album, he has attracted a lot of scrutiny, praise and criticism from the world of orthodox Judaism.

Matisyahu started life as Matthew Paul Miller, a Jewish kid who went to high school in White Plains, New York, where he began performing the type of music that would later make him famous: hiphop and beatbox, but with this crazy Jamaican-accented reggae infusing it all.

After dropping out of high school, he eventually got serious about religion and joined the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement, adopting a Hebrew form of his name: Matisyahu. He became famous for his deeply spiritual lyrics as much as for his unique sound.

Sidenote: If you want to check out his music, I suggest starting with ‘Live Like A Warrior’, ‘One Day’, and ‘Jerusalem’, all three from different albums (in that order you would hear them newest to oldest).

I won’t pretend to understand the deeper meaning and emotion involved, but what appears obvious from reactions inside the orthodox community is that for an orthodox Jew, shaving off a man’s beard is equal to shaving off his religion, his faith and his community.

Blogs and magazines reported Matisyahu had posted a note on his website, explaining,

‘No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias.

When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey :to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality—not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.

Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth. And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry…

you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.’

Later, he tweeted:

‘In other words,’ declared Huffington Post in an update to their take on the story, ‘He performed the same ritual observances today as any day. So it’s confirmed: Beardless religious Jews exist.’

Elad Nehorai wrote another HuffPo piece in June after Matisyahu tweeted two more controversial photos, one of him standing at the back of a crowd sans yamaka (a head covering that observant Jewish males wear to show respect for God), and the other of him ‘sitting next to another musician who was smoking a joint.’

And then, yesterday, Matisyahu posted two pictures of himself. Not wearing a kippah. Sitting with someone who’s smoking pot.

The cry is quieter this time. It’s not as vocal and intense, but it’s deeper.

Although the beard cut was more shocking, these latest pictures are a clear and outright rejection of his values, and also as his position as a leader and role model for us religious Jews who still want to be a part of secular culture.

It’s not about pot. It’s not about the kippah, even. It’s about the message he’s sending. The way these pictures didn’t even come with an explanation. As if our relationship with him didn’t even exist.

Words cannot describe what it is like when your brother, the person you looked up to and admired for so long, rejects everything you hold dear. It used to be that we loved him for the great good he did for us and the world, for the way he proudly represented who he was, without any apologies and with a full heart. He was our spokesman, our ambassador and mentor.

Matisyahu recently released his fourth studio album, Spark Seeker. Kool Kojak, co-writer and producer on Spark Seeker, interviewed Matisyahu about the album for The Lab Magazine, asking, ‘Where is your beard?’ Matisyahu replied, ‘Last I saw my beard it was on the floor of Supercuts on 96th St. and Broadway. I had that beard for 10 years – almost all my twenties.’ About the album he says,

Obviously during this record I went through some external changes that reflect deeper inner changes. Authenticity is necessary. In order to find one’s truth [one] must be willing to take chances and make mistakes. I found for myself that doing things in an unauthentic way or out of guilt – especially when it pertains to God and spirituality – was quietly deadening my soul. I decided I would start over and free myself from any baggage I could. To shave it all off and start a new phase, clean slate, and return to something fresh. To release and approach God from within, not out of duty.

For more, check out ‘Catching Up With Matisyahu’ by Kristen Blanton on Paste Magazine, ‘Matisyahu, Former Hasidic Reggae Star, Continues Evolution With ‘Spark Seeker” by Mark Kennedy on Huffington, and ‘Matisyahu And Me: Partners In Rhyme’ by Daniel Isenberg on Complex Magazine.

Cover: Beau Grealy

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The controversial beard of hiphop-reggae-pop-performer Matisyahu

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