Matisyahu is now an international phenomenon; he is a reggae singer with a difference. Instead of dreadlocks he sports a trilby. His beard is predicated on the Kabbalists’ theosophy instead of Rastafarian tradition and his clothing places him in an Ultra Orthodox Jewish enclave rather than a black ghetto. Now with the release of his latest CD it seems that Matisyahu’s tremendous success so far is about to reach unprecedented heights. Predictably, this man’s singing antics are deeply controversial.
Many have asked the following questions. Is it correct for a Chassidic Jew to be singing in clubs and bars? Is Matisyahu using his talent to bring Godliness to the profoundly unGodly and thus sanctifying God’s name or is he achieving the opposite?
Whereas this article is not meant to give a definitive answer to these questions it does, however, endeavor to explain what motivates a Chassidic Jew to perform in a bar and club.
There is a fundamental difference between the Kabbalistic and the non-Kabbalistic views of Judaism. Up until the French Revolution in 1789, society was divided into three groups: the church, the aristocracy and the peasants. In the terminology of the post-modern French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004), the landowners and the church were the centre and the peasants were the periphery. The two did not mix. Education, money and power were restricted to the elite; the peasants enjoyed no such privileges. After the French Revolution, the periphery was also given some of the privileges that were previously the exclusive right of the centre. With this came the emancipation of the Jews. Although the landowners and the educated were still regarded as the centre, the difference now was that peasants had the possibility of entering this exclusive domain.
The post-modern era, according to Derrida, was a time of “deconstruction.” All things were seen in pairs, one superior to the other: rich and poor, educated and ignorant, powerful and powerless, etc. The deconstructivist view is that rich is not necessarily superior to poor, in fact, being poor can be more advantageous. Seen from this perspective, poor is the new centre and rich is the periphery.
Derrida goes one step further and says that hierarchy should not exist at all; rather, all boundaries between centre and periphery should be deconstructed [i].
Western society is a deconstructed civilization in many ways. Whereas in the past women were seen as inferior, today they are often regarded as superior to men. Similarly, modern human rights laws have ensured that the views of vulnerable minorities are respected and listened to.
Non-Kabbalistic Judaism, in general, does not deconstruct boundaries. According to this school of thought, the centre should be distinct from the periphery. Here we have the concept of ‘enclave Judaism’, which clearly marks out the boundaries between the holy and the profane. The fact that this type of Judaism disagrees with Matisyahu’s style of music and choice of audience is no surprise, for it regards the mixing of the centre with the periphery as an obvious desecration of God’s name.
The Kabbalah as interpreted by the School, however, adds a deconstructive element to Judaism. It says that in the messianic epoch women will be perceivably greater than men. Similarly, the Kabbalah deconstructs the boundaries between the physical and the spiritual. Whereas non-Kabbalistic
Judaism holds spirituality superior to physicality, the Kabbalah maintains that in the final analysis the physical is more potent.
The principle is simple: the higher the source the lower it reaches. Esau is thus seen as having a higher spiritual antecedent than Jacob. One who meditates may reach lofty spiritual heights; however, the essence of the Godhead will remain elusive. Ironically, Kabbalah teaches that the only way one can connect to the Divine essence is through the physical. Spiritual levels are by definition constantly cognizant of their dependency on their sources. Conversely, physical objects project auras of egocentricity – they seem to depend on nothing other than themselves for their existence. This aura is, in a sense, parallel with the nature of the Divine essence whose existence is truly independent.[ii]
According to the Kabbalists, the ex nihilo nature of the creation of the physical universe necessitates direct intervention of the Divine essence. It is this intervention that allowed the physical to assume its egocentric aura. Thus, there is a unique similarity – at least in terms of language – and connection between the physical and the Divine essence[iii].
This sheds light on the Mitzvoth, which are mainly physical acts rather than mystical meditations. It is precisely through the physical act of a Mitzvah that the most profound connection with the Divine is forged. In fact, according to a Midrash[iv] – adopted by the Kabbalists – the purpose of creation was for
humans to unveil the Divine essence found in those parts of the universe which are most devoid of Godliness[v]. This stresses the inherent value of the mundane and unrefined aspects of the universe – where the mission is most intense[vi].
This completely deconstructs the boundaries. What was once the centre – without the Kabbalistic explanation – can now be seen as the periphery and vice versa [vii]. Thus, by bringing a Godly message to the intensely profane one in a sense is fulfilling the purpose of creation in the most profound manner possible. Indeed it is this ideology that has caused me to choose to live in secular Evergreen, Colorado rather than in a Chasidic enclave of Brooklyn, New York.
By his own admission, Matisyahu is being guided by the School of Kabbalistic thought. Thus, as long as he adheres to Jewish law and does not get carried away with stardom and the narcissistic celebrity culture of modern-day America, his music may be considered a sanctification of God’s name.
[i] See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, John Hopkins, (1976).
[ii] See Maimonides, The Book of Knowledge, 1:3.
[iii] For a more in-depth analysis of post-modern parallels with the Chassidic School of
Kabbalistic thought, see Naftali Loewenthal’s forthcoming article, “Jewish Mysticism in a
World of Change: Pre-Modern, Modern and Post-Modern Perspectives,” which in part inspired
[iv] Bamidbar Rabba, 13:6. The seventh Lubavicher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, quoted this Midrash most frequently.
[vi] For a complete treatise on this subject see Faitel Levin, Heaven on Earth, Kehot Publication Society (2002).
[vii] Inherent in deconstructing boundaries is the danger of losing all sense of limits, and thus raising the possibility of further concealing the Divine essence. To forestall this possibility the Halacha (Jewish law) must be steadfastly adhered to at all times.