The Matisyahu saga unravels

It would appear that Matisyahu’s adherence to Torah and Mitzvos is in recess. There are reactions a plenty. First, we have the pop chassid who wrote:

Last night, Matisyahu went onto Facebook “live” (as it were) to speak up about some of the issues that have been swirling around him recently.

And although he didn’t exactly explain why he was in a picture with a dude smoking pot, or why he wasn’t wearing a kippah, he did hint that he was into a much more “universalist” philosophy. Where we are all one and united.

Okay then.

What I’ve found most fascinating about this whole Matisyahu thing is that so many people, people that are either OTD, not religious, etc etc etc, have come out of the woodwork to accuse us religious folks of being “judgmental” of not caring about Matisyahu’s personal journey and allowing him to be “real”. If he’s trying to be healthy then, so what, right? Heshy Fried brought it up in one of the first blogs about Matisyahu’s “Kippah-Gate”. He argued that some people need to go off the derech. For their own health. Many others have made this assertion.

I would agree. I would agree if I thought what Matisyahu was doing was healthy. But it’s not.

Although he may not be doing drugs in a physical form, he’s turned religion and spirituality into a drug.

What do I mean?

There is a thing in the baal teshuva world known as the “flaming baal teshuva”. This often happens in the first phase of their returning to Judaism, and can be identified by extreme amounts of kavanah (passion and focus) in prayer, being extremely judgmental of other Jews, and taking on lots of mitzvahs super fast. This happens because at first, being religious is a drug. It is something that gets one high. This isn’t a bad thing, inherently. It gives one the energy one needs to launch into an entire lifestyle. However, its power takes you up to the stratosphere and shakes your entire being in a very physical way.

Becoming a baal teshuva is a very delicate process, and unfortunately there is a whole huge contingent of “kiruv professionals” dedicated to the idea that as long as a person becomes frum, any means justify their ends. These kiruv people are drug pushers, some so bad that they should be locked up. They feed their subjects the parts of Judaism that get them high, while forgetting that Judaism, at its core, is a very grounded religion. A religion that requires us to dig deep, focus on each individual action, and slowly improve.

I’ll never forget when I was thinking that perhaps Chabad wasn’t for me and I started shopping around for other yeshivas in Israel, and I went in to speak with the rosh yeshiva of another baal teshuva yeshiva. I was sitting around waiting for him when I overheard a rabbi talking to a baal teshuva that looked to be no more than eighteen years old. He was describing what would happen when Moshiach comes. “The goyim, they’ll be hanging by our tzitzit! They’ll pay for years of oppressing us! They’ll be our slaves!”

I was in shock, and walked straight out the door. I realized that this yeshiva was about the drugs, about stuffing kids full of intense propaganda.

The worst thing that happens with this process is when these “professionals” then throw these drugged up, confused kids, into early marriages, marriages they are not close to being prepared for.

Now, I know that some of you would criticize me for saying someone has an “issue” with drugs if all they did was pot. So let me explain what I mean.

Drugs are a funny thing. And so is addiction. It can take many different forms. A person can be addicted to crack, of course, but they can also be addicted to video games. They can be addicted to writing. Yes, they can be addicted to pot. Or they could be addicted to religion.

The point is, some of us need to get high. We need something in our lives to escape from the world. To deal with the difficulties in our lives by throwing ourselves full out into. For some, this comes out healthily. We exercise, we do art, we do a hobby. We’re all addicted to something.

But some people use addiction to try to fill an imaginary hole within. They get high so that they don’t have to face their own issues. They’re addicted not because of some physical addiction, although that can come into play, but because if they let go of the thing that’s getting them high, they have to face their own lives, lives that are imperfect, confusing and painful.

If we religious folks are honest with ourselves, we can admit that many in our community have chosen to become religious just because it gets them high. They do it more for themselves than for G-d. And almost all of us, especially baal teshuvas, have had some phase in our religious lives that has been marked by this desire to get high.

The problem, though, occurs when the high becomes more important than G-d. More important than our beliefs. And so, we’ll do anything to get that next fix.

What happens in any drug addiction is that eventually our drug stops being quite as effective. We start to get used to it, and then we have to go on to the next thing. The next substance that will help us escape our existence.

Unfortunately, this means that for some people who are addicted to religion, they need to move onto whatever is next. Because at the end of the day, Judaism is not a drug. It’s the experience of Judaism that a baal teshuva has that is a drug. But Judaism, as I said, is a grounded religion, focused on action and practicality, for all the high flying ideas that surround it.

What I found so interesting about the Facebook conversation Matisyahu conducted last night was how many people were so happy for him. They loved what he wrote and felt so moved. They were gushing about how inspiring he was, how he was moving them to be more honest in their own lives, how he helped them connect to spirituality.

And Matisyahu thanked them all for being so positive. He was inspired in turn.

On its face, this was an uplifting turn of events.

In reality, what was happening was that a bunch of people who used spirituality for a high were getting high off of what Matisyahu had written. These people don’t care about Matisyahu any more than the people who were defending him on my article in the Huffington Post. What they cared about was their experience.

People who claim to be “spiritual” are often just looking to get high. Religion and spirituality offer a convenient escape from day to day life, and a person like Matisyahu is the perfect person to throw their desires at.

I challenge anyone who has been following this whole ordeal to show me proof that Matisyahu is in, or is going to, a healthy place. Prove to me that he’s not going down the same road so many other celebrities have gone down before. The one that leads to (and is caused by) unhealthy addictions, deep emotional issues, hurting the ones they love, and, G-d forbid… it’s unnecessary to explain where it usually leads.

I challenge the people that are “defending” Matisyahu to prove to me that they aren’t hurting him even more, contributing to the problem, and acting like every fan that has contributed to a celebrity’s decline by worshiping him into the ground. That they’re not just like every druggy’s friend who encourage his descent to justify their own.

I challenge the kiruv professionals to prove to me that they aren’t actively destroying people’s lives with their silly propaganda. To prove that implying that a person cannot be happy or healthy unless they are religious, and doing everything to get someone to that place, is not an incredibly destructive agenda.

I challenge everyone who is a part of this conversation to look within themselves and decide if they really care about another Jew or whether they are only pushing their own agenda.

The internet is a world where words seem to have no consequences, where we can rant and cry and scream about the things that plague us without having to deal with the results of our actions.

But words have just as much power on the internet as in real life, and sometimes more when they become spread enough. We all have a responsibility to deal with the difficulties of the Jewish world with care and delicacy.

And in our daily lives we have a responsibility to transform our beliefs from drugs into reality. Getting high lasts for a moment. But until we internalize Judaism into our souls, especially through the study of Chassidus, we are all just pundits.

In summary, pop chassid, felt it was too fast too soon and like a drug hit, only the people who were administering the dose of Judaism were unrealistic and pumping him full of unrealistic expectation. Matisyahu was fed a dose of elements of Judaism that made him high. He didn’t get the real thing, so to speak.

Next,  we have Guravitzer’s view:

The descent of Matisyahu is a direct lesson for people in power, especially Shluchim who need programs to promote to their communities. The lesson: Never sacrifice an individual for community inspiration. Maybe that’s a slight paraphrase of, “When working for Klal Yisroel, don’t forget Reb Yisroel” – or in this case, Reb Matisyahu. Shluchim gave Matisyahu his platform. Not just his first platform, but year after year of platforms, which translated into press, and then Sony noticed him. Shluchim on campus noticed his attraction to their college-age crowds and started the trend, then communities picked up on it. Shluchim may believe that they have no responsibility to think through who they bring to entertain or lecture for their community beyond checking that the person is kosher. Shluchim may believe that they have no reason to consider the impact on the performer or lecturer themselves. They are wrong, wrong, wrong.

The first question every Shliach should have asked is the same question they would have asked about their own Baalei Teshuvah and community members – is this right for the Baal Teshuvah, for the person, not is this right for my community. Did no Shliach notice that he was back to doing drugs almost immediately? Did no Shliach realize they were propping him up as an example for their communities, and Lubavitch in general, when he had barely acquired anything of his own to give? The message became, don’t follow Torah, Mitzvos and Chassidus, follow the celebrity and Sony contract. Shluchim vet visitors to their Chabad houses from other towns carefully. As they should, there are crazies out there. Witness the firebombing of the California Chabad house. Phone calls, references, some chatting to feel the visitor out, whatever it is, Shluchim check. The same vetting should apply to entertainment, not only for its value to the community, but for the value to the person performing. Matisyahu isn’t the first person to inappropriately join the Chabad house circuit, only the most prominent. The problem takes other shapes as well, such as the direction given staff – bochurim or bochurettes – when they come to a community to run camps or programs. I don’t know how far down the responsibility goes – rumor had it back then when Matisyahu started his career that his mashpia encouraged him in his path of celebrity, which is outrageous – but we are each responsible for every yid, not only the ones we want to take charge of.

In summary, he felt that some in Chabad were opportunistic in using Matisyahu’s talents without doing due diligence on where he was at, and what he needed.

The only thing I have in common with Matisyahu is that we are musicians and singers. I remember the first time I saw him perform. I couldn’t relate to what he was doing. I don’t like rap. My first attempt at doing “Jerusalem” live was an abject failure. I remember the moment to this day. It’s just not me. When I listen to song it’s never about the lyrics. It’s always about the tune. There is no melody in rap music; I hear nothing, it is a vacant dirge. [I do admit to being an unabashed fan of Adele’s songs, but let’s not go there now].

I’ve often felt that both extremes: Misnagdim and Chassidim (viz Chabad given they are the only one’s who genuinely give a damn) are too extreme and inflexible when it comes to the menu for Ba’alei Tshuva. Misnagdim over focus on unrealistic ‘Moredik’ stories. It’s ironic given that this used to be the purvey of Chassidim of yore. Misnagdim are more likely to use the infamous Bible codes and similar discredited devices to “prove” that someone should be frum. There are no proofs for belief in God. Get over it. It’s belief, no more and no less. At the same time, their brand of Judaism is so void of Ga’aguim that I find it soulless. Yes, I’m generalising. There are exceptions; notable ones.

Chabad, however, use the powerful armoury of their sublime metaphysical meaning of life. The Alter Rebbe was a genius. One can see that just from the beauty of his language in his Shulchan Aruch. If only he had met the Gaon on that fateful day. These were the two giants of that generation. I’m not sure if we have seen two like that since then. I have always viewed Chassidus as a sufficient but not necessary part of Torah. It works very well for some, but less so for others. In many cases, though, it seems that the only thing Ba’alei Tshuva seem to become pseudo-expert in is Chassidus. What’s wrong with exposing the more cerebrally inclined to the beauty of a Tosfos, a Rambam and a Reb Chaim, or a Tshuva from R’ Shlomo Zalman? Was Matisyahu only fed a diet of Chassidus? What of Chochmas HaTorah? Given his esoteric leanings, would it perhaps also have been an idea to feed him a good does of Nigleh (to use Chabad parlance)? Surely he needed something else to anchor him, so to speak.

At one stage, I used to learn Maharal instead of Mussar during Mussar Seder. I liked it a lot more. Mussar did nothing for me. It wasn’t a big dose of Maharal, but I gravitated to it because of its accessibility. I could just pick it up and learn. Maharal was another incredible genius. What a tall and majestic figure he was.

Once Matisyahu left Chabad, there was no doubt (to me) that he wouldn’t find joy elsewhere. Let’s face it. Amongst Chassidim, apart from the Sfas Emes  and a few selected Seforim, there isn’t a lot out there.

I’m sad that he has gone down the current track. I’m even sadder for his wife and children. Life will not be easy for them. Let’s not be pointing fingers at him. If you live in the states and see him, invite him and his family for a meal. Don’t pontificate or ever be judgemental.

We never tread the roads he travelled.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

3 thoughts on “The Matisyahu saga unravels”

  1. This is a good article that covers the subject from many viewpoints and states the case well. The direction which you point to toward the end of the article is a good one, namely to continue learning Torah.

    Since you point to the Alter Rebbe and his Shulchan Aruch and the Vilna Gaon, it’s worth mentioning that the Alter Rebbe addresses those who have returned to the path later in life in the second chapter of Hilchot Talmud Torah. This is the same pamphlet which he originally published anonymously and to which the Vilna Gaon gave strong approval.

    The Alter Rebbe emphasizes that unlike the order of education one gives to a child who is raised on the road of observance from birth, for someone starting later in life, a ba’al teshuva, whatever learning one apportions for each day should be broken up into thirds. One third for Tanach, one third for halacha meaning Mishnah, Shulchan Aruch and poskim and one third to all other parts of the Torah which give meaning to the halacha. This last third he says includes Talmud, Haggadah and Midrashim and all the kabbalistic literature. This prescription provides the balance which you are suggesting in your article. Excess in any one direction leads to an unbalanced life and increases the likelihood of failing to keep to the path.

    For Mattisyahu, since according to his own words what he hears best is the music, it seems appropriate to quote from one of the classics of the Beatles:

    The long and winding road
    That leads to your door
    Will never disappear
    I’ve seen that road before
    It always leads me here
    Lead me to you door

    The wild and windy night
    That the rain washed away
    Has left a pool of tears
    Crying for the day
    Why leave me standing here?
    Let me know the way

    Many times I’ve been alone
    And many times I’ve cried
    Anyway you’ll never know
    The many ways I’ve tried

    And still they lead me back
    To the long winding road
    You left me standing here
    A long long time ago
    Don’t leave me waiting here
    Lead me to your door

    But still they lead me back
    To the long winding road
    You left me standing here
    A long long time ago
    Don’t keep me waiting here
    Lead me to your door

    Like

  2. Was Matisyahu only fed a diet of Chassidus? What of Chochmas HaTorah?

    he said when he tried stolin, that in chabad he was being od’d on chasidit but knew he didnt know how to read gemora by himself… sad, so sad.

    Like

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