Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Thoughts of Matisyahu and "Irregular Chassidim"

The career of Matisyahu, the orthodox Jewish Reggae singer has been followed with avid interest by many Jews in the observant world. Through his music, a whole genre of music that had been has been outside the realm of what is considered Jewish music found its way to the ears of listeners struggling to reconcile different musical worlds.

The first"guides" that Matisyahu found in his search were Lubavitcher chassidim. For a long and very public stage of his personal and professional evolution, it was the writings and teachings of Chabad that provided Matisyahu's inspiration and peer support. Because of his great talent, a process of spiritual evolution that would have been a private affair became the dinner table conversation of strangers.

At this stage of his spiritual development, Matisyahu, like many people defines himself as an observant Jew with no additional denominational subheadings. He has expressed a fondness for Breslov chassidic teachings with their emphasis upon spontaneous speaking to G-d in one's own words as a supplement to formal prayer. Additionally, he has a personal spiritual mentor who is not exclusively rooted in the Chabad community and belief system.

It is hard for a person raised in a religious home to imagine the massive adjustment made by Matisyahu. I do not know him. I have never met him. My thread of commonality with Matisyahu is that of being raised outside of orthodox Jewish tradition. He discovered a whole new Jewish world complete with rivalries of text, tradition and personalities. He also discovered within himself an amazing talent that was itself a vehicle of discovering and transmitting spirituality. This is a lot to absorb and incorporate into an existing identity and world view. For anyone becoming religious, the new found discovery of a faith does not just answer a multitude of questions. It raises a host of new issues as well.

I became an observant Jew at around the same age as did Matisyahu. Additionally, Lubavitch was my "port of entry". It did not take long for me to discover that there is great diversity in orthodox Judaism. In the Jewish faith tradition, disagreements do not die in the generation in which they were voiced. The dialogues and arguments themselves become a guide for the generations. Indeed, the Talmud itself is a set of arguments that often spanned generations, connecting the living and the (physically) dead.

Everyone experiences this diversity within Torah tradition differently. Some people incorporate an intact tradition into the warp and woof of their very being, fashioning a vibrant and spontaneous dialogue with the world on the terms defined by their spiritual masters. The world needs such people like wayfarers need hotels and gas stations. They are a laudable part of the spiritual and philosophical landscape.

There are others who are find it harder to define their spiritual journey in the language of one master. Some may be generically Jewish yet be attracted simultaneously to aspects of Lubavitch, Breslov and Arab Jewish elucidations of Torah Judaism. Such individuals need the "spiritual innkeepers" who maintain a world view that is not in a certain sense "hybrid" even as they move upon their life path.

It is good for those who are spiritually settled to be kind to Jewish "wayfarers". This is good not only for the tactical reason that it is more likely to win "converts" to one's ideological strain. Such kindness is praiseworthy in its own right. Every cashier clocks out at the end of the day and becomes a customer. Every waiter sits down eventually at his own table. Life is a wheel.

I find my approach to Judaism and that of Matisyahu to have an eclectic common denominator. When I read in The Forward of Matisyahu discovering strains of thinking outside of Lubavitch, it reminded me of my reaction to religious diversity within orthodox Judaism. His discovery of spirituality within reggae was also something that resonated with me.

Matisyahu's music is more "plugged in" than my personal reggae preferences. I favour the softer strains of "Lucky Dube", who fuses his music with a social and spiritual message. Lucky Dube was from South Africa and his music reflected the post apartheid struggles in that country. His death in 2006 in a carjacking in South Africa still pains me. His music focuses upon a message prominent in Judaism that liberation from external oppression is only a prerequisite for the inner struggle for perfection. If Matisyahu's music ever starts reflecting an influence from Lucky Dube, I will note it with pleasure.

Sometimes the public nature of a celebrity's life becomes an artistic statement to supplement and deepen the appreciation of his or her actual artistic work. I do not speak of tabloid gossip. There is nothing praiseworthy about tearing away the curtain of privacy from a public figure. Thankfully, Matisyahu has not been the fodder of such trashy fare.

Matisyahu has been very open about his religious journey, about its stretches of uncertainty and its changes in spiritual landscape. As much as his music resonates with a message, his words off stage with journalists strike a responsive chord in my soul. His eclectic mix of spiritual influences and his feeling of being a "work in progress" has a resonance to those who have taken an exit but are still navigating the side streets . I am very grateful to him for sharing such a wide range of feelings from his spiritual journey. He has deepened my respect for him. He has also given an articulate voice to the spiritual yearnings of many whose lives play out on a smaller stage. He has my respect and admiration.

This is a song called "House of Exile" from Lucky Dube (1964-2006)
of blessed memory Sphere: Related Content

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