Matisyahu and the Pitfalls of the Charismatic Leader

The Jewish blogosphere is a abuzz today with the latest news from the constantly evolving life of the musician Matisyahu. First, Matisyahu shaved off his beard, which to the non-Orthodox community did not seem like much, but to the Orthodox Jewish community represented a significant shift in religious orientation. This was a man who had inspired countless numbers of his fellow Jews to see their faith in a new light and it emboldened those within the Orthodox camp to take pride in their peculiarities and differences from mainstream society as fellow HuffPost blogger Elad Nehorai recently wrote about.

The move away from his religious observance, and thus his role as a cultural icon and leader for religious Jewry, took another dramatic step today as Matisyahu posted two pictures of himself sporting a new closely cropped haircut unadorned with a yarmulke and in one picture posing with another artist who was smoking what was presumably a marijuana joint. It would seem then that the circle has been completed from Matthew Miller, Westchester-raised secular Jewish kid, to Matisyahu, icon and inspiration for thousands of his fellow Jews, back to Matthew Miller.

All of these personal changes are, of course, within his right. A person is free to live any life style he or she so chooses. Similarly to what Elad expressed, as someone who not only enjoyed his music but also the role he played on the borderlines between religious Jewish society and general society I cannot help but be disappointed that this avenue for Jewish pride and connection is gone. However, this turn of events does provide an opportunity to discuss the dangers of charismatic leadership, both within and without the religious context.

Charisma, that character trait that one either has or does not have, can produce remarkable changes in other people. It can cause a near worship of the individual and the cause or ideology they represent. It can fulfill for people perhaps one of the most deeply felt needs of the human condition: to belong to something greater than ourselves. Charisma can produce wonderful results such as civic engagement and voter turnout, like it did in 2008, as untold numbers of young people, otherwise disaffected from politics, came to the voting booth attracted by the charisma of President Obama. It can also yield nightmarish scenarios and take the phenomenon of groupthink to the next horrific level such as what happens in the early days of dictatorships under persuasive and charismatic leaders. Yet, no matter how much one connects to their leader or how in touch they feel to the cause, the let down is inevitable. Even the most charming, persuasive and magnetic leader is, after all, only human and will eventually err and the enchantment will wear off.

Real purpose comes from deep exploration and reflection. It comes from analysis and what Jewish tradition calls cheshbon hanefesh, the internal work of figuring out who you are and what you are called to do. This is hard work but it is authentic and genuinely life transforming. There is an important role in this work for mentors, role models and teachers. In fact, tradition instructs every person to acquire for themselves a rabbi, a teacher. A rabbi may have charisma, they may be charming and friendly and their passion for their life's work may be downright inspiring but that is not the vehicle by which one connects to their mentor, their teacher or their rabbi. The teacher is the guide along the road who helps you find your path not put you on their path. The teacher connects you to the resources from within their expertise that can assist you in making life's truly hard decisions and does not make those decisions for you.

Leadership from charisma is a dangerous proposition. Leadership from the vantage point of mentoring and guiding is life long and produces long lasting impact. It is my hope that the continuing unfolding drama surrounding Matisyahu provides an opportunity to reconnect to leadership of the second kind and that we draw our inspiration from within.