Matisyahu's Public Transformation: What The World Doesn't Understand About Religious Jews' Reaction

Six months ago, Matisyahu shaved off his beard. Yesterday, he posted a picture of himself not wearing a kippah. The world didn't react, but the Jewish world let out another anguished cry.
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Six months ago, Matisyahu shaved off his beard. And while it made headlines in the mainstream press, few realized how much this seemingly simple act had rippled through the religious Jewish community. Jewish blogs, newspapers and more buzzed with the news of what Matisyahu had done.

Now, Matisyahu has done something again, and very few people are reacting, especially the mainstream press, mostly because on the outside it's not quite as dramatic as it was when he cut his beard.

Yesterday, Matisyahu posted a picture of himself not wearing a kippah, and then another one that showed him sitting next to another musician who was smoking a joint.

The world didn't react, but the Jewish world let out another anguished cry.

There seem to always be two camps whenever Matisyahu does something like this. One is the religious Jews, his biggest fans, who get angry, sad or upset. They react emotionally and often write very personal things to him, usually critical, in public places like Facebook and blogs.

Far larger than the religious Jewish fanbase is the Matisyahu's wider audience. Non-Jews, secular Jews, etc. These are the people that connect to Matisyahu not because of his religion, per se, but simply as any fan relates to a musician. They love his beats, they love his journey, and they love his deep lyrics. The reaction from the typical Matisyahu fan, when they see the turmoil his actions create in our community, is one of bemusement. Why on earth is this group of people so judgmental, they wonder. How could they react so violently? Can't they just live and let live?

Here's what this group doesn't get: Matisyahu was a hero to us religious Jews not because he was deep, not because he was a good musician and not even because of his beard.

Religious Jews, especially the young ones who, more than any other generation for the last 5,000 years, have felt connected to the secular world, the "outside" world, felt an incredible connection with him. He wasn't just a role model, the way a president is, or anyone else. He was a brother. Someone who had a connection with us no one else could understand. And he represented our culture to the entire world in a way that the world could finally understand and connect to who we were.

When Matisyahu realized the power he held, he took it on with gusto. Every time he would do a show, he would come eat Shabbat meals with us on our college campuses or our synagogues like he was one of us. If you lived in Jerusalem, you stood a good chance of running into him on the street, not surrounded or hounded like he might be in America, but walking around like any other religious Jew. He was one of us.

And then there was the music. It might be hard to understand if you aren't a religious Jew, but there was an amazing joy that we got out of finally being able to dance, to sing, to music that was connected to us and our beliefs. That we no longer had to compromise and listen to music we felt didn't represent us or our values just because we liked the beat. Now we could like the beat, and connect to the music. We could even let our children listen to it. You have no idea what a blessing that is.

When other, more judgmental, religious Jews criticized him, attacked him even, we stood up for him. If he slipped, if he didn't do things exactly the way we wanted, we understood he was human, we understood he was someone on a journey. He didn't grow up religious, and he deserved the ability to make mistakes. It didn't matter, because in the end we knew he wanted the best for us, just the way we wanted the best for him.

And then he cut his beard.

No matter whether we defended him, as I did, or attacked him, the truth is, we all reacted the same on an emotional level. This was what was so hard for people to understand from the outside. People saw some of us judging him, point fingers at him and attacking him. And they saw others sympathizing, saying we should understand where he was coming from.

But the truth is it didn't make a difference how we acted. We were all mourning. We understood that this was it. He had taken off the mantle of leadership. He had "left" in a public way, in an insensitive and humiliating way. And we were broken hearted. No matter how much I defended him, I couldn't help feeling as if this was the end of an era.

But the truth was, even then, most of us still loved him and held out hope it would all work out in the end. He was still our brother, and he had affected us all so positively that words could not express our gratitude. We loved him no matter how much he hurt us, no matter how much he talked down about religious Judaism from then on, even when it was in public, no matter how much he rejected us.

And then, yesterday, Matisyahu posted two pictures of himself. Not wearing a kippah. Sitting with someone who's smoking pot.

The cry is quieter this time. It's not as vocal and intense, but it's deeper.

Although the beard cut was more shocking, these latest pictures are a clear and outright rejection of his values, and also as his position as a leader and role model for us religious Jews who still want to be a part of secular culture.

It's not about pot. It's not about the kippah, even. It's about the message he's sending. The way these pictures didn't even come with an explanation. As if our relationship with him didn't even exist.

Words cannot describe what it is like when your brother, the person you looked up to and admired for so long, rejects everything you hold dear. It used to be that we loved him for the great good he did for us and the world, for the way he proudly represented who he was, without any apologies and with a full heart. He was our spokesman, our ambassador and mentor.

Now he's just our brother. A person we'll always love, but who has, nonetheless, broken our hearts.

Elad Nehorai is a writer living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Five years ago, he became a religious Jew in the Chabad Hassidic community and has since written about his experience extensively, most recently in his blog Pop Chassid. You can find him on Twitter as @PopChassid and Facebook.

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