Wise Men, Be Cautious with your Words

In case you haven’t figured it out, I have been intrigued, since Tuesday morning, with the topic of Jewish singer “Matisyahu” and his strange decision to shave his beard.  Now, normally, someone shaving would not raise many eyebrows.  In Jewish law, halachic authorities are divided on the use of electric shavers, since the Torah forbids using a razor on one’s face.  The legal debate surrounds the question of whether close-cutting electric shavers have the halachic status of the razors proscribed by the Torah.  Whereas Hasidim, based on Kabbalistic sources, do not touch their beards, and for sure do not use electric shavers, unmarried men in both the Lithuanian and Sephardic communities generally shave their beards.  The decision of a Jewish man – famous or less so – to shave his beard – is not particularly noteworthy. As Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of JConnect LA, a west-coast outreach organization notes,

Historically, Jews have gone without beards before. Over the ages, Jewish men have used depilatory creams and powders made from nasty stuff that took off the beard. At the most famous yeshiva in pre-war Europe, most men studied bare-faced. The invention of the electric shaver created the opportunity for observant Jewish men to go beardless without killing their faces.

Q: So why the particular interest in the beard of this man, Matthew Paul Miller?

A: He has chosen this career path and has publicly linked his religious views and practice to his music.  Wittingly or unwittingly, he is a representative of the Jewish people, and specifically a symbol of the observant Jew.

With that in mind, let’s examine this week’s infamous “Tweet”: ”

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..

On the simplest level, Matthew Miller could be just saying that he has chosen to remain observant, just not Hasidic. In other words, at the time he started to observe mitzvot, he moved directly into the Habad Hasidut, and his religious growth came through exposure to the their unique customs.  It is these set of customs that he has now decided to drop.  This is what he meant by “I needed rules- lots of them – or else I would somehow fall apart.”  His “reclaiming” of himself is simply the move into a more Modern Orthodox style of Jewish observance.

Another reading could be: Orthodox Judaism in general was a mistake.  Rules – and there are lots of them in classical Jewish sources and in the life of every observant Jew – are a barrier to one’s discovery of his true self.  Matthew Paul Miller is “reclaiming himself” by freeing himself of the shackles of halachic discipline per se.

Now if the former is his intention, I don’t think there is much to say about the decision or the message.

If the latter is his what he has in mind, the message is problematic and perhaps even a Hillul Hashem (desecration of Hashem’s name). According to this interpretation, the rules of the Torah bind you and stand in the way of your spiritual growth.  To drop mitzvot is to “reclaim yourself”.  This message is the antithesis of a Torah perspective, according to which mitzvot actually free us spiritually and are essential to self-actualization.  “There is no freer person that the one engrossed in Torah study…” (Pirkei Avot)

After reading his Twitter entry, it is unclear to me what he meant.  Our tradition teaches that even a momentary Hillul Hashem is problematic: Moshe does not say to Pharoah that the plague of the first born will be exactly at the strike of midnight.  Why? Perhaps Pharoah’s cronies’ watches would not be exactly coordinated with the exact time – and they may be prompted to say, “See, midnight has come, and nothing’s happened!”

But two minutes later, the plague would begin!  What Hillul Hashem could occur in two minutes?….

Yesterday, I posted the first half of Matisyahu’s interview on the topic.  He certainly comes off as a nice and sincere person, as he does in previous interviews when he was donning full Hasidic garb.

When asked why he shaved the beard, he went into a brief explanation that in Kabbalah, the 13 parts of a man’s face correspond with 13 attributes of G-d’s mercy, and that the beard plays a role in drawing this mercy into the world for the one who wears a beard.  Upon reflection, Matisyahu has now concluded that this was “ludicrous”, absurd; one’s behavior determines whether he or she will receive Divine mercy…

As a non-Hasidic Jew, I cannot honestly say that not trimming or shaving my beard is central to my worldview.  In general, I try to guide my life by Halacha/Jewish law and Kabbalistic sources play a tangential role in my daily life.  This is in keeping with a strong tradition of observant Jews who see the Talmud and codes as setting the standard for an observant life.  That said, I would never say – and certainly not in the national media, before Jew and non-Jew alike – that a tenet of the Kabbalah is “ludicrous”!  Matisyahu may or may not be making theological errors; but his comments certainly bespeak poor judgement….

You may wish to cross-reference this post with my post “The Jewish Stairway to Heaven” from a couple of weeks ago; the importance of a ladder having a “roof to lean on”, an adviser whose knowledge and life experience help guide you up the ladder, cannot be underestimated.

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