The artist’s untrimmed beard was central to both his musical persona and his piety, since many Hasidic Jews believe that male facial hair is sacred. It’s also an outward symbol of their religious fervor.
Since Matisyahu burst onto the scene in 2005 with the Top 40 hit “King Without a Crown,” his lyrics have been filled with his love of Torah and devotion to God, albeit with a Caribbean patois. He’s known to sing the key Jewish prayer, the Shema, at his concerts, and his fans are largely Jewish, though he does draw some rastas.
For Matisyahu, shaving his beard is akin to Tim McGraw taking off his cowboy hat. In a stark photograph that shows him cleanshaven and without his Hasidic black garb, he goes on to tweet: “Sorry folks all you get is me
. . .
no alias. When I started becoming religious ten 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. 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. Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth.”
Then last week he kicked a female photographer who was taking pictures at his Hanukkah show in Brooklyn. He tweeted that he “snapped” because of the flash in his face. He later issued an apology, saying he “reacted impulsively.”
Befuddled fans have flooded Facebook with questions about the Grammy-nominated singer, who is a hero to some in the Jewish world. He was the most visible example of the blending of an ultra-
Orthodox religious lifestyle with the creative counterculture of reggae and hip-hop. Hasidic Jews separate the sexes, for instance, and married men are forbidden to touch women who are not their wives or blood relatives. (Matisyahu reportedly once had to turn down an invitation by Madonna to hang out at a Passover Seder.)
Matisyahu declined to be interviewed for this article.
But California-based Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, who writes the blog Fink or Swim,
called the tweet “The Shave Heard Around the World.”
“Is his music truly good enough that he will continue to be successful when he is no longer a poster boy for anything other than himself?” asked the irreverent online magazine Heeb, which also joked that the tweet by the “artist formerly known as Matisyahu” was so shocking “it even triggered a JTA [the global Jewish information service] news alert which is normally reserved for terrorist attacks.”
Was the Hasid in the hoodie — who is known to fuse beatboxing with orthodox Judaism’s style of songful prayer — forgoing his faith? Or was he simply dialing back his belief? Would his highly religious lyrics — like those to “One Day,” which was played as background music in some television coverage of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and asks God for a day without violence — vastly change?