Matisyahu Meditation

I was driving west on the Cross Bronx Expressway, a place that always makes me extremely nervous, with my both hands clenching the wheel, listening to WFUV, Fordham University’s tres cool radio station, when mine ears beheld some wacky dub reggae with a very rock sound and out-a-control singer going on about G-d using very “old testament”-y sounding language. I was quite taken. Three minutes into the song I was screaming, “Yah, Mon! Yah Mon! Rock on muthafucka!” as the guitar solo went stratospheric.

“Who the hell was that?” I asked my invisible car mates when the song ended.

Turns out it was this guy, Matisyahu, nee Matthew Miller, a Hasidic rapper now from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. So I downloaded his album Live At Stubbs, which was recorded at a rock club in Austin, Texas, and listened to it about 10 times yesterday.

Kinda got me thinking about things musical, Jewish, and Brooklyn.

Let me say that this kid Matisyahu is a first-rate talent, and he has a quite competent backing band behind him. After having listened to album several times now I can hear the ragged edges– his “flow” is not always especially flowing, and he’s not a first-rate poet, although a lot of his lyrics are quite good (after all, a lot of what he sings is lifted from the psalms of David, so he’s starting with some quality sources). Musically, the songs, when you get down to it, are pretty straightforward three or four-chord Reggae/Dub. Which is good stuff, generally speaking, but hardly new news anymore. So what was it about this music that had me screaming with the radio? What made me go track down this album and listen to it compulsively all day? (I don’t do that very often.)

It’s genuine, that’s what. That first song I heard, “King without a crown” starts off with this eerie kind of ecstatic moaning, very Marvin Gaye, that surprisingly mutates into reggae. (It was surprising to me, that is, as some guy hearing the song on the radio, unintroduced, without context.) I assume that the opening verses are in the psalmic tradition–something a cantor would sing– but I don’t know. All I know is that I was completely grabbed by the singer. I was totally convinced that he was singing something that he felt to be absolutely true and vitally important. He could have been singing about the color of the floor tiles in aisle six of the local Stop & Shop for all I cared. It was the passion, the intensity, that was unmistakable, and so very compelling.

It turns out that virtually all of Matisyahu’s songs are religiously themed. The bio on his website tells the story of a kid from White Plains, New York, who grew up in the typical American suburban pattern, got in touch with his inner Jew after a spiritual experience while hiking in the Rockies, went to Israel and had some more spiritual experiences, met a Hasidic rabbi in a New York City park and had some more spiritual experiences. Along the way he put his band together.

But what is one to make of his “message”? If he were a so-called “Christian rocker”, what he’s doing would be called evangelizing. Christians, even those of the non “evangelical” stripe, believe that they have heard the “Good News” and have a responsibility to share that good news with the world. When they “testify” about how great Jesus is, it’s implicit that you, the listener, should get hip and let “Him” into your heart too. But last time I looked, Judaism was still, (thank (fill in the blank)), a pretty non-evangelical religion. You don’t see many rabbis on the street corners exhorting random passers-by to “Come to Y—–h”.

I’m not a Jew. So what exactly am I supposed to do with Matisyahu’s expressions of love for Hashem? In a way, listening to Matisyahu’s ecstatic hymns is like listening to somebody sing about how much he loves having sex with his wife: it’s nice and all, but, how do I relate? And it’s not as if I can transfer his meaning to my own situation by contemplating how much I like having sex with my own wife, because, if you’re a monotheist like Matisyahu, there is only one wife. I’m saying that, ontologically speaking, it’s somehow voyeuristic.

Not that I think that Matisyahu or any other Jewish person owes me an explanation of how I’m supposed to relate to “their” God — and furthermore, I don’t care. I just note the oddness of the phenomenon of a Hasidic rapper preaching the Hebrew God, if you will, to an enthusiastic audience of goyem (including me). On the other hand, I don’t suppose it’s much more odd than taking delight in the music of Rastafarians singing songs in praise of Hailie Selasie, which is, after all, the inspiration of Matisyahu’s music (and an even more alien religious proposition, at least to me).

Like every sophisticated person in the western world, of course, I have Jew envy. As a smart, inquisitive, direct-talking hardworking person with a sense of humor, I am aware that my not being Jewish is some kind of cosmic mistake — although being an Americanized Scottish-Irish-SwedeFinn is not a bad pedigree. “We can’t all be Jewish,” my mother used to explain, “but at least we can be Catholic. After all, that’s why Jesus came.”

A climax of the original Acts of the Apostles (the chronicle of the early church attributed to St. Luke, not the novel of the same name by me) is the big showdown between Paul (nee Saul), who never met Jesus (at least, not before the crucifixion) and a powerful faction of (Jewish) Christians in Jerusalem, over whether a man needed to be circumcised in order to be a Christian (chapter 15). Paul was of the “absolutely not!” school, and came back from a mission hundreds of miles away to argue his case (based on the theology of the Holy Spirit). Peter had already started by ball rolling, having received a vision (confirmed three times) that dietary laws of Moses had been superceded by the teachings of Jesus and no longer needed to be followed. Between Peter’s vision and Paul’s logic, the early Church began to be something different than a Jewish sect, although it was clearly still a Jewish something. Having claimed the prophets without the messy bother of circumcision or the sensual deprivation of keeping kosher, the early church offered a kind of free lunch. It was a way to be Jewish without having to actually be Jewish; plus you got to see miracles and other cool stuff.

Nowadays, of course, Christianity has evolved and mutated and metastasized into 43,952 different idiot bastard dress codes, each of them more stupid and incomprehensible–when it is not simply more perverse–than the others. Who knows what “Christianity” means these days? And furthermore, who cares?

The point of this whole digression is simply that were Paul or Peter or Barnabus or any of those other early church dudes rapping in front of a reggae band preaching the love of Reb Jesus at Stubbs in Austin, at least we would know where we stood in relation to the words coming from their lips. With Matisyahu, that’s kinda unclear.

But back to the music. I was really hoping that the album would contain some klezmer influences. I don’t know if he’s done anything other than reggae & hip hop, but there some tantalizing hints out there on the net–photos of Matisyahu in front of an accordian player–give me to hope that there are new musical treats in store for me. I really think that this guy is a phenomenal talent, and I will not be surprised to see him creating all kinds of new mixes and genres.

I also had some thoughts about Brooklyn, including my adventures as a furniture mover in Crown Heights and a recent encounter with an old friend in Park Slope, but I think I’ve rambled on sufficiently for one entry already.


  1. I love the economy of those two sentences from your mom. It’s like a well-told joke or science-fiction story, in which the punchline transforms the meaning that the listeners had been building for themselves.

    There’s a great deal of music that, when taken at face value, I have no basis to relate to. Take Tracy Chapman, for example. And yet the best of it expresses something that is common to the human condition. It’s not that I pick out something and feel that it “like” something from my own life. It is that I recognize some aspect as being exactly present in my experience. If the art touches me emotionally, it’s because I feel this intuitively. If it appeals to me logically, it is because the art puts a name on the the thing we have in common: it helps me _understand_. And after all, I think this is what your mother was telling us. Thanks for sharing, John.

    I think there’s a difference in performance when a person absolutely believes what they’re saying and when they don’t, and also on whether they’re trying to convince you of the truth. Only the first of these is appealing to me. I understand that there’s an apocryphal scene in the new Johnny Cash movie in which the producer tells Cash to sing as though he’s going to die in five minutes and that this song is the last thing he will ever record. That’s belief. But I think that some folks feel that they are performing in order to sell the audience on something; as though whether or not the performer or audience will die in five minutes depends on how they respond to the song. That’s evangelizing, and to my mind, it is morally wrong. Evangilizing is a widespread attitude by some folks, embodied by a lot of current political leaders. Part of it is that it tends to come out as “do as I say, not as a I do,” but there’s something deeper that I think leads to that result. It’s more than just that they absolutely believe what they say. Sometimes I happen to believe it, too. It’s that they are telling me what I _must_ believe. That I must see their truth. That can only lead to disaster. Indeed, I think that’s one very definition of evil.

    I suspect that Matisyahu appeal for you is that this artist conveys that he absolutely believes himself, that he believes you will find something in it that is true for you, but that he doesn’t demand that you accept it.

  2. Yes, I like my mother’s conceit that Jesus did not come in order to bring “salvation from sin” (and, more obnoxiously, “eternal life”), but rather to give everybody a chance to be Jewish, just like Sandy Koufax, Moses, and Albert Einstein.

    Frankly, and I’m no theologian, it seems to me that that’s what the dude actually said was on offer — well, what he offered was an insight into how to construct a coherernt moral universe, starting on the foundations laid down in the Judaic tradition. My own guess is that the real historic Jesus, if he could see the Kandy-Kolored Disney Happy-Happy Live Forever After You Die in This Kitchland We Call “Heaven” vision promulgated in his name by the typical Dallas megachurch would say “what the fuck are these batshit-crazy loons talking about?”

    But my point about Matisyahu’s “evangelizing” versus Christian evangelizing is that the Christian says,“Hey, this God stuff is really cool. You want some? Here, have some!” Whereas Matisyahu (implicitly) says, “Hey, this God stuff is really cool (Sorry you can’t have any).”

    As far as I understand it, Jewish theology is silent on the subject of how the non-Jew can or should relate to God. Which is a certainly commendable position to take (contrast that with, for example, the Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Catholic, or Moslem position on how non-$Religion-ists can and should relate to God.) I just think it’s funny, then, that Matisyahu is going out into the non-Jewish world to “preach”, if you will. I’m glad that he’s doing it, because I really enjoy his music. It just amuses me to think through the metamessages.

  3. I think part of it is that you’re not the audience, unless you’re Jewish. While Christianity believes in evangelism to the unconverted, Judaism (at least since the Christians gained power and started killing us for doing so) does not.

    However, we do “reach out” to the not-yet-religious. Lubavitch Hasidism, in the past 50 years, in particular, focuses extensively on this message. So Matisyahu is not speaking to you, he’s trying to awaken the “inner Jew”, the “pintele Yid” in his audiences.

    In fact, his songs push Lubavitch theology – the concept of nullification when one recognizes that the Infinite is just that; a panentheistic Deity; various kabbalistic light metaphors, etc. The lyric (in “King without a crown”) “Nullified to the One like sunlight in a ray,” is exactly an image from Tanya, the foundational book of Lubavitch Hasidism.

    Lubavitch also pushes, to a lesser extent, the “Seven Commands to the Descendents of Noah”, which is the Torah’s universal basic moral code for all of humanity. It doesn’t mandate belief in, or worship of, the Jewish God, but it does mandate rejection of other gods. Atheism is OK, idolatry isn’t. Neither are theft, murder, certain forms of incest, adultery, or living without a judicial system.

    So if there’s a message to the non-Jews, it would be pretty basic like that. It wouldn’t necessarily push particulars of Lubavitch theology. I don’t know a lot of his lyrics, so I can’t say if there are such messages.

    He’s hardly the first to harness the power of pop music to Jewish lyrics. Lenny Solomon and Shlock Rock have been doing that for years, but they mostly preach to the converted – humorous lyrics about the religious life, not so much outreach to the not-yet-religious. Yossi Piamenta has been doing Grateful Dead-style stuff for years, but without such a particularist religious vision. Matisyahu stands out in that he’s the latest and greatest.

  4. *snicker* Jew envy.

    As for the music: if you hear a love song dedicated to someone, it can still speak to you about your own relationships. Even if you don’t feel a particular relationship with God or any of the details of the song, the passion the singer brings to his beleifs can speak to you and resonate with you.

    As for Jew envy, I’ve occassionaly wondered what it would be like not being Jewish. I can imagine what it would be like not being _observant_, but even non-observant Jews are still and end up dealing with it in a variety of ways.

    I mean, imagine waking up every moring and knowing that about 2 billion people hate you without even _knowing_ you. That there are only 14 million Jews in the entire freakin’ world and people care more about us than countries three times that size.

    It’s weird.

  5. To Jonathan: thank you, that was an elucidating comment.

    To Harold:

    Given the tragic history of the Jewish people (or perhaps better said as the shameful history of the persecution of the Jewish people), and given the horrible reality of antisemitism rampant in the world today, I suppose that the term “Jew envy” would make one snicker.

    Nevertheless, I meant what I said (and so did my mother, in her toungue-in-cheek way). Certainly in my house both of my parents extolled the virtues of the Jewish people, who, they repeatedly pointed out, had a tradition worth clinging too, and clung to it through the proverbial hell and high water.

    In an episode of the TV show “Northern Esposure,” the citizens of remote Cicely, Alaska, go on a mission to find nine Jews in order to constitute a minyan so that Fleishman can properly mourn his uncle. Only problem is, none of well-meaning citizens of Cicely have ever met a Jew (other than Fleishman) so they don’t know what they’re looking for.

    Maurice, the worldly Ex-astronaut explains:

    “Your Jew is very intelligent, hardworking, musically gifted, devoted to study and to family; respectful of tradtion. Basically, your Jew is your Chinese, but with a sense of humor.”

    Classic Jew-envy is given a very funny and sweet treatment in the movie “The Big Lebowski” by Joel and Ethan Cohen, in the character Walter, played by John Goodman. He’s a big Polish fellow who has converted in order to marry. Now he’s divorced, and his friends expect him to somehow stop being Jewish because of that. He properly dismisses their attitude as beneath contempt. “Three thousand years of glorious history from Moses to Sandy Koufax? You just throw that out?”

    And of course the various versions of Christianity, virtually all of which I find ridiculous, are predicated on a wholesale usurpation of Jewish scripture, a simpleminded appropriation of your culture. As somebody who was raised Catholic & including 4 years of indoctrination at a Jesuit high school, I think I’ve earned the right to say that it’s stupid. I don’t mean that the scriptures and moral lessons contained therein are stupid; rather I mean the Christian ex post facto of reading Christian messages into your texts is stupid. But it’s also evidence of the envy of which I spoke. Christians don’t go around looking for Christian messages in Hopi or Hindu sacred texts.

  6. Really enjoyed your description of the car trip, pretty much how I discovered
    Matisyahu. I just escaped from 6 months in Brooklyn back to the Jersey shore. I had a lot of interaction with Hasidim during that time. They DO proselytize but the first question is always "are you Jewish?" If there’s an opening, they ask you to come to a meeting or whatever. J. Baker is spot-on. His preaching is to Jews but we can listen and watch and enjoy.

    Just listened to "Live at Stubbs" again and its so strong. I hear raw talent plus Messianic power and unabashed rock enthusiasm. I hear much of what the Church needs. Simple, direct admission that you have a "first love" and want to talk about Him.

    Part of the engergy is because this dude really <expects> the Messiah to pop up at any moment and longs for it. In NYC, you see posters welcoming the Messiah, and there’s a new one every few years. Of course, Jesus warned about this and it’s serious, but I admire that pure desire to see the Messiah.

    Christians!!! Don’t you wanna see him soon, too??? Represent!
    The daddy

  7. Frim,
    I think that you are correct that the Hasidim put most of their energy into igniting the flame of Jewish souls, however, I feel that Matisyahu is consiously bringing some of the more universal and very beautiful ideas of Hasidism to the rest of the world in the hope that the world as a whole will benefit. That is in keeping with the idea that all individuals can have a transformative impact on the cosmos and hasten the coming of the Messianic era. As a non-orthodox and strongly identified Jew, it is exciting for me to hear that Non-Jews are reporting that they find comfort and inspriation in Matisyahu’s lyrics and deeper appreciation of their own faith.

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