January 10, 2007
Matisyahu gets a new spiritual groove
(Page 2 - Previous Page)He began praying wearing his grandfather's tallit, alone on the roof of the college building and screaming out his prayers to God -- an approach he recently learned he shares with a small Chasidic group in Jerusalem.
Matisyahu visited different New York shuls, finding his first spiritual home at Carlebach on the Upper West Side. At the time he was also beatboxing -- creating rhythms and sound effects with his voice -- at open mic nights at venues like the Lower East Side's Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
"I started growing out my beard and wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis then," he says. Then he connected with a shaliach (a Chabad emissary) and quickly got deeply involved.
"I moved into the apartment of this shaliach and his family, and stayed on his couch," Matisyahu recalls. "I had in my mind an image of a Chasid and I wanted to completely transform myself. I wanted to just jump in."
He found teachers eager to embrace his fervor.
"A lot of shluchim feel it's their job, their end goal, to make Lubavitchers with the hat and the jacket and belief in the rebbe. And I got into it," he says.
He moved to Crown Heights to study full time in yeshiva. He let go of music almost completely as he delved deeply into religious life, even adopting a Chasidishe lilt, like he picked up a touch of Jamaican patois when he was more involved in reggae.
Being in yeshiva "was a very positive thing, learning Torah all day and getting outside of myself," he says.
But as he concluded his studies he realized that perhaps he had set aside too much of his nature in order to fit into his new community.
"I'd made such a huge change in my life," he says. "Because I did it all the way I stopped trusting my intuition, my own sense of right and wrong."
As he toured, Chabad rabbis would meet with him in each city to study Chasidic teachings: "At first it was very exciting to me, but after learning it for hours a day for two years, the ideas weren't fresh anymore."
As he was leaving the Lubavitch yeshiva, in the fall of 2004, he met an Orthodox therapist and together they studied Tanya, the founding Chabad theological text. "It was like learning it for the first time," Matisyahu says.
Then they began studying Breslov Chasidic texts, and comparing the approaches. "It became so real, so alive. We studied where these two great thinkers differ, and how they can differ" theologically, he says.
It awoke the singer to the reality that there was more than one Jewish approach to serving God.
Earlier this fall, he began learning with a non-Chasidic Orthodox rabbi when he was in Dallas on tour.
"I started learning Gemara [Talmud] from ArtScroll, very slowly, in English translating one word at a time, and getting a broader sense of Judaism," he says
More recently, he was introduced to an entirely different approach to Chasidic prayer, one that, he says, he connects to. Visiting Israel, he went to the Pinsk-Karlin shul in Mea Shearim, where morning prayers take 90 minutes rather than the half hour he had become used to. That community's custom is for the men to scream their prayers. Not just at moments of peak religious ecstasy, Matisyahu says, but throughout the service.
With them, "I'm really saying the words, trying to break through. To me that really fits with the essence of what the Chasidic movement was really about" originally, he says. "Being unconventional and breaking out of your boundaries in any way you can."
"I was full-on Chabad for about four years," he says.
The recent articles written about his break from Chabad "made it seem like I just woke up and said Chabad is not for me, but it's been a process for the last four years."
"Not that I want to come down on Chabad," he says. "But I started learning things in a new way."
And, he says, "I need to do Judaism in a way that makes me feel more alive, not less alive."
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