Could it be that Matisyahu — the genre-bending poster boy for all that is cool and kosher — is off the derech? At least the Chabad derech?
It sure looks that way after the chasidic reggae star told the Miami New Times last week before a concert, “I felt boxed in.”
“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.”
The news that Matisyahu appears to be distancing himself from Chabad, the outreach-oriented group that helped transform him from a Reconstructionist-affiliated suburban kid to the chart-topping hipster he’s become, lit up the Orthodox blogosphere.
Some bloggers even expressed fear that the 28-year-old Crown Heights resident and father of two — who last year was crowned Billboard’s top reggae artist and was referenced in the hit film “Knocked Up” — would lead young people away from religious life. “I am and have always been concerned with his effect on frum (religious) teenagers. Especially kids who may already be on a bad derech (path), Matisyahu is something that could lead them further down that wrong path,” writes Chaim Rubin, a blogging father and marketing consultant (life-of-rubin.blogspot.com) who lives in Crown Heights.
Matisyahu’s work has been that rare combination of hip and frum for chasidic consumption. He marries the Lubavitch man’s uniform — dark pants, white shirt, long beard and tzitzit hanging out — with reggae’s spiritually and socially conscious lyrics (some of them weaving in chasidic-inflected Hebrew) and dance-hall rhythm into a powerful message for young Jews. Perhaps unwittingly, the singer has become a role model for young Lubavitchers who themselves feel “boxed in” by family and community expectations.
“He’s someone who me and hundreds of guys look up to. He’s out there, he’s with it, and it’s a real powerful image of being proud of who you are,” said Yossi B., an 18-year-old Lubavitch blogger with a site called Chablog (chabloglubavitch.blogspot.com), in an interview with The Jewish Week.On Chablog, Yossi wrote “To me Matisyahu is a shaliach (emissary). Hell, a head shaliach, just without the politics. I have spoken to countless amounts of people who have actually changed their lives for the better after hearing Matisyahu sing.”
“I see that people are scared that he might totally lose it. I would sort of flip out if he decides he doesn’t want to be frum anymore. A lot of guys would flip out,” said Yossi, whose room is decorated with Matisyahu posters. Matisyahu could not be reached for comment.
Others write that Matisyahu’s comments have brought their support to an end.
“I am admitting that I was wrong to ever promote Matisyahu,” writes Rabbi Levi Brackman of Evergreen, Colo., on his blog (levibrackman.blogspot.com), which was reprinted on a central Lubavitch news site, Shturem.net and later removed. “It is my hope that he keeps his faith,” continued the rabbi, “and does not go off the deep end and thus take others with him.”