Matt Miller - Do Your Thing!
Wow, 2 Jewish posts in a row (cool)! Well in all honesty, I wish I didn’t even have to write this one. But after reading this ridiculous piece in the Huffington Post, I feel like I need to vent. I mean, personally, I’m not surprised about Matt Miller’s - a.k.a. Matisyahu’s journey off the derech (Hebrew for “way” or “path” — used to refer to those who were Orthodox Jews, and are no longer). But I’m not torn up about it either. And I’m also not going to ponder and wonder about someone who I don’t even know, regarding something where I don’t even know the full story. And that is that.
What I will talk about though is Orthodox Judaism and the highly inaccurate ideas that many, both from the inside and the outside, have. Number one — there are “two” Orthodox Judaisms; the first is the religion…which is actually just “Judaism” really. Prior to the 19th century, all of Judaism was “Orthodox Judaism” in that the other segments of Judaism had not formed yet. So in that way, Orthodox Judaism (the religion) is no more extreme than hardline Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity. Number two — there is Orthodox Judaism the culture; which of course is governed by the religion, but actually adds on a lot of different layers on top of the religious core.
50-75 years ago, many Jews were new Americans and a distinct minority. They fought for equal opportunities and recognition. They took actions to reach outside of their own community to connect with other disadvantaged populations (i.e. Negros). In those days plenty of Orthodox Jews went without a yarmulke and beard.
However if you fast forward to today; the Orthodox Jewish community has changed. Similar to how “mega-churches” have met huge success, the kiruv (outreach) movement of Orthodox Judaism has also been successful. Chabad, which is the Lubavitch chassidic branch of this that drew in Matisyahu, has been no exception. This success has made them very visible with their distinctive dress and manner. Almost how Bob Marley made Rastafarians much more visible and successful.
It may be a stretch to say that Matishyahu is to Lubavitch as Bob Marley was to Rastafarianism. However I’ll go there….just to illustrate. Let’s say Bob Marley decided to cut off his dreadlocks….a la Lenny Kravitz. There is no doubt that the Rastafarian community would express disdain. But guess what. It would be pretty apparent to just about everyone else that he is still a great musician and is still the same person inside. In fact, before Bob died….he did in fact lose his dreadlocks. It was due to sickness…not personal choice, but in the end, it was clear that the physical appearance did not make the man.
Among healthy people, we do choose how we look and how we want to present ourselves to the world physically. One of the key teaches of tznius (modesty) is that modest clothes not only detract from you body, but they cause you to conduct yourself in a more refined manner. I wholeheartedly agree with this; and I still wear skirts, modest tops and dresses 85% of the time because of this. However if I decide to wear jeans one day and a tank top, then I haven’t instantly changed as a person.
Orthodox Judaism is complicated in the appearance issue. There is the concept of “marit ayin’ - which is essentially where Jewish Law holds that a Jew is prohibited from doing something that gives the appearance that they are sinning (or that may lead another Jew to sin). For example, an Orthodox Jew can’t go into Quiznos to buy a bottle of Coke; even though the Coke is perfectly kosher. Many say that an Orthodox Jew can’t even go into the public restroom of a non-kosher eatery (unless there are no other options). However I have had Orthodox Jews admit to me that there have been times where they went through McDonald drive-thrus for coffee. Whether it is right or wrong in the eyes of G-d, who knows. But what stays out of public eye is much more “safe”.
Do you see the problem here? Judaism (Orthodox or not) maintains that all of the mitzvot (commandments and laws) are equally important. Not just the obvious ones; not just the ones that make you distinctive from other people; and certainly not just the ones that are tasteful to you. For example, there is the Jewish commandment to “love the ger” (a ger is a convert to Judaism). However, gerim who are Black or Asian or Hispanic are (in my experience) left out of Orthodox Jewish social circles. Yes, I know — you do have plenty of happy stories. You have many more of these people who say they are totally happy. However the reality is they are struggling financially, single (and being a single Orthodox Jew is miserable for all but the most optimistic people), and not well integrated into the community. What is the response from the Orthodox community regarding these gerim and other baalei teshuva (born non-Orthodox Jews who become Orthodox later)? They throw up their hands and say “Well we didn’t ask them to take this on!” “A Torah-based life is fulfilling if you live it correctly.”. What they fail to understand is that their fulfillment is coming from a lot more than just the Torah. It comes from the security of homogeneity. It comes from a strong financial foundation where large well off Orthodox Jewish families keep the money in the community (and in the family….which many gerim and BTs can’t marry into anyway). It comes from being insulated — away from other non-Jews, non-Jewish influences, and other Jews who are not like you.
If it isn’t apparent I’ll explicitly state that this is not an attack against Orthodox Judaism, but rather a plea to Orthodox Jews to just simply take the blinders off. No one has come out and said it, but plenty of Orthodox Jews are probably just as hot over Matisyahu’s appearance sans yarmulke as they are about the fact that he is hanging out with a Black man and smoking a joint with him. This exact same scene makes me incredibly happy. Generations of great Jewish rabbis smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol (in fact drinking is encouraged on Purim - a Jewish holiday). If anything marijuana is prohibited by Jewish law because it is illegal by civil law (and Jewish law says Jews must abide by the laws of the land in which they live). But not paying your taxes is also illegal and I’ve known of Orthodox Jews who have been hounded by the IRS. Also Orthodox Jews are not too fond of hanging out with goyim (non-Jews) and Wiz Khalifa fits squarely into this category. But outside of the fact that he is a Black non-Jew and his interesting taste in women, what other problems could you have with him? At least he wasn’t hanging out with T.I. and all his guns. And at least he’s not out tweeting the “N-word” like Ms. Paltrow over there…
(Not that I care about that either)
If Matisyahu has come to the acknowledgment that Orthodox Judaism is not for him, then that is his decision to make. No one else can live his life for him. As a fellow Jew, we must encourage and support — and ultimately learn how to make improvements so that people will stop feeling so disenfranchised.