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Bigger than the beard, Matisyahu move marks ongoing spiritual journey

by Adam Soclof, JTA

December 13, 2011 | 4:16 pm

Matisyahu posted pictures of himself on Twitter after shaving his signature beard, Dec. 13. Photo via Twitter

Matisyahu posted pictures of himself on Twitter after shaving his signature beard, Dec. 13. Photo via Twitter

The world’s most famous Chasidic Jew has shaved his beard.

With a declaration Tuesday morning that he was “reclaiming” himself, Jewish music star Matisyahu—a.k.a. Matthew Miller—shaved his signature beard and wrote, “No more Chassidic reggae superstar.”

The musician posted two photos of his newly beardless face to the social networking site Twitter and added an explanation on his website a few hours later.

“When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process,” he wrote. “I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself.”
Matisyahu’s religious journey has long been an object of speculation and media fascination. Raised in a Reconstructionist family in White Plains, N.Y., he became affiliated with the Chabad movement only in 2000, after studying at one of its institutions in Israel.

Four years later, after his debut album “Shake Off the Dust… Arise” was released by JDub Records, Matisyahu began a rise that ultimately would find him performing on national television as well as at Jewish events.

Here was a beat-boxing Chasid borrowing lyrics from Jewish liturgy on television while wearing the black fedora and long black coat typical of members of the Chabad sect. Matisyahu represented a major step forward in the visibility of traditional Judaism in the mainstream media.

Chasidic Judaism was always central his public persona. While on tour, promoters made special arrangements to accommodate Matisyahu’s Sabbath observance.

As recently as last weekend, Matisyahu’s status as a Chasidic cultural icon was on full display. An episode of the Bravo channel’s “Chef Roble & Co.” focused on a kosher Thai Vegan party held at the musician’s home. The episode explored the intricacies of rules governing the preparation of kosher meals.

But Matisyahu’s spiritual exploration didn’t end with his rise to public attention. In 2007, he distanced himself the Chabad movement, a move that sparked another round of news stories.

“My initial ties were through the Lubavitch sect… At this point, I don’t necessarily identify with it any more,” Matisyahu told the Miami New Times in 2007. “I’m really religious, but the more I’m learning about other types of Jews, I don’t want to exclude myself.”

“Matisyahu was never a part of the movement’s conventional line,” a senior Chabad official told Haaretz later that year. “It’s possible that he felt that his membership in Chabad caused him to be scrutinized.”

Matisyahu went on to explore other schools of Chasidism—including Karlin-Stoliners, a Chasidic group known for praying at full volume. It wasn’t a matter of rejecting Chabad, the singer told JTA in 2008, but rather “not feeling bound to one way or one path, but open to many paths within Judaism.”

The singer’s latest statement isn’t definitive. It doesn’t rule out belonging to Judaism or even a Chasidic movement. At most, the statement seems to indicate another stage of spiritual exploration.

“Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth,” Matisyahu says in his statement. “And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry ... you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.”

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