Who Cares About Matisyahu?

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About a year ago, I went to the post office on Kings Highway (in Brooklyn) and the postal worker who was fulfilling my transaction asked me if I’m going to the fight. “Excuse me?” The postal worker informed me that an Orthodox Jewish boxer was fighting and every Jew should go and cheer him on. I told him that when the boxer comes to my office and stands in the background and cheers me on, then I’ll consider going to his fight to cheer him on.

My point, which probably could have been made more delicately, is that just because an Orthodox Jew (or any kind of Jew) does something unusual doesn’t automatically make it interesting for me. Jews are people who are different from each other (can you believe it?) and thus have divergent interests and different ideas of what is important. I have no interest in boxing. Actually, I find it boring and maybe even degrading. Additionally, from what little I know, the women at boxing matches do not dress or act like Bais Yaakov girls and some of the things that go on there do not necessarily represent the things with which I choose to associate. And that is without going into the halakhic aspects of whether boxing (havalah) or attending a boxing match (moshav leitzim) is permissible. Maybe or maybe not. Ask your rabbi. But just because a Jew does something new does not make it a national-religious imperative to applaud him and cheer him on. Even if he didn’t do it, the world would be a fine place.

A year later, the latest rage in the Judaism-Contemporary Culture intersection is Matisyahu the Habad rapper reggae singer. He seems to be a big deal in the music scene (see here for a NY Times review of his performance, that I didn’t even read to the end). Should I go to a concert of his, buy his CD, or otherwise do something to support him? Why in the world would I do that? I’m in my thirties. I don’t get rap. I don’t really get any music that came into being after I stopped listening to secular music on any regular basis — pretty much the Billy Joel and Police era. I don’t get reggae, even though I have listened to Bob Marley on occasion, once upon a time.

So do I care about Matisyahu?

There was a documentary made about Hasidim in the US, I think called “A Life Apart,” that I saw with my wife in a screening at a local girls high school a number of years ago. I remember an interview with a fish salesman who told the story of a Hasidic rebbe who kept refusing a photographer’s request to take his picture. Finally, the photographer begged the rebbe, saying that he would be able to sell the picture and make money off of it. The rebbe then allowed him to take the picture, saying something like, “A Jew needs to make a living.” That’s how I feel about Matisyahu. By all means, buy his CDs and go to any concerts he gives that have an appropriate environment. Let the guy make a living using his talents.

But is this some sort of major Jewish event? Hardly.

I once saw some JDL recruiters in Brooklyn and, when I happened to have the opportunity to speak with a prominent rabbi in that neighborhood, I mentioned to him as an aside that the JDL is recruiting in his neighborhood. For some reason, he seemed to think that I was telling it to him because I was interested in them, which I was not. But he responded to me, “Learn a blatt (page) of Gemara and you’ll do more for the Jewish people than they are.” Matisyahu is using his talents to do what satisfies his creative spirit and supports his family. I think that’s great. But if you’re looking to support the Jewish people, learn a blatt Gemara rather than buying a CD. You’ll do much more for the world that way.


N.B. To answer the question in the title of this post, I care about Matisyahu. And I care about his cousins and his parents and plenty of people. As Jews and as people.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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