Searching for Your Jewish Soul? Matisyahu, the Son of Matityahu, and the Gospel of Matthew

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Matisyahu – Judaism for the Artist

Matisyahu, shaved, microphone

Nearly a year ago now, fans of the Lubavitcher rapper “Matisyahu” were shocked to see that he had shaved his beard, cut his hair, and shed his kippah. “Wait a minute! Where’s my old Matisyahu? Bait and switch!” This guy had walked and talked like the real deal. I mean, if he wasn’t an authentic expression of a true Jewish soul, who was? Even for some in the Messianic world—who secretly dreamed of a life of “legitimate” observance—Matisyahu was an emblem of the look and feel of orthodoxy. However, sincere commitment to the halakhah aside, we must admit that the record label’s marketing of this Hasid’s pious persona didn’t hurt! I suspect it even made a Christian or two wonder… is this what Jesus looked like?

We don’t have to speculate about the reason for the change. You can hear the artist’s various accounts firsthand on YouTube. Something to do with personal revelations that God’s mercy was not dependent upon whether he had a beard or not, and the decision to cease worrying about what other people were thinking. You go, Matti! I recall one remark (paraphrased), “It’s what’s inside that matters.” He shares openly that he pursued Chabad as far as he could and got much out of it. There’s just more to life. Afterall, he had only come to orthodoxy as a teenager, having been raised a more-or-less “secular” Jew. But the world now beckoned, and Matisyahu felt called to new horizons far outside the yeshiva walls. Not that he’s abandoned Judaism. On the contrary, he apparently continues to go to the mikvah and shul. And though his new image is Hasidus-free, the “Sunshine” video has him in a cave with his yarmulka holding what looks like a siddur – only it looks like the pages are blank. (Yet another statement about “Jewish Spirituality”?) Either way, does anyone feel a bit jipped when they see the old CDs? Maybe he could at least set Madonna (er, um, Esther) straight on the intricacies of kabbalah.

Son of Matityahu – The Best Judaism There Is

Josephus 3Turn back almost two thousand years to a “son of Matityahu” of priestly lineage, known to most by his Latin name Flavius Josephus. Years after his defection to Rome during the time of the seige of the Second Temple, Josephus wrote extensively on the history of Jews to help educate his Roman patrons. In this autobiography, we read of his own systematic investigation of the different expressions of Judaism available in his day.

“…when I was about sixteen years old, I had a mind to make trial of the several sects that were among us. These sects are three: The first is that of the Pharisees, the second that of the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes… for I thought that by this means I might choose the best, if I were once acquainted with them all; so I contented myself with hard fare, and underwent great difficulties and went through them all.” (Life, 10-11. Whiston translation)

A few lines later we learn that Josephus finally came to make an official, educated choice: Pharisaism! (Of course we know he was right because Paul was a Pharisee.) But the story continues with details about the messiness and complications of Roman occupation of the Holy Land, and how the Jews were forced into the war that resulted in thousands upon thousands of deaths (Josephus reports over a million) and the Temple’s ultimate destruction. In spite of this subsequent devastation, Josephus had certainly taken pride in having devoted his early years to exploring the true meaning of his Jewishness. But of course, we can’t forget that he’s recalling these memories in Rome when Jerusalem – along with almost everything he’d ever known – was gone. Was he still a “Pharisee”? Whatever the case may be, I’m sure there was some nostalgia for the “old days” involved.

The Gospel of Matthew – Judaism Isn’t Enough

st matthew_apostle_evangelist 2In general, the Apostles didn’t really say much about their own “experience” or “investigation” of the religion of thier ancestors. In his Gospel, Matthew never described himself as having “tried on” different Judaisms to find the best fit. Neither did he have some larger personal life agenda inside of which Judaism was a mere “choice” – be it for religious authenticity or cultural expression. Rather, he wanted his readers to know about someone else: Yeshua of Nazareth, whom he knew to be none other than the King Messiah, Son of God. But though his focus is not on himself, Matthew does offer us one small glimpse of his initial encounter with the Master and how it looked to the religious elite.

As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him. [Later] it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:9-11, NASB)

These suspicious Pharisees were uncomfortable with Yeshua’s teaching and approach, as it didn’t jive with their own. Eating with tax collectors and sinners? Unheard of! In his career as a tax collector, you can imagine the shame Matthew may had felt in the presence of these Torah Teachers. Perhaps he was even tempted to feel that way again in this confrontational situation. The truth became clear while sitting at Yeshua’s feet. Regarding the righteousness of these Pharisees Matthew presents what he received from Yeshua in unmistakable terms:

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

In spite of the intimidating reputation for exacting ritual observance that preceded the Pharisees, there was apparently something missing in what Josephus called the “best” Judaism. Something lacking which the traditions of the elders could not provide. But what was it? Was not the Sinai revelation sufficient? After all, the Torah had been given to men (“lo bashamayim hee!”). More over, how could Yeshua say, “exceeds”? This smacks of supersessionism, of making Jewish tradition irrelavant to the Messianic faith! Yet He said it. And Matthew followed.

After ten years of dedicated study and immersion in the Judaism of Crown Heights Habad, some thing was still missing for Matisyahu. According to him, it had something to do with listening to an intuition or “inner voice.” Perhaps in his post-Chabad phase he will hear the Gospel and believe in Yeshua! (Could you imagine?) Josephus studied all the different versions of Judaism in his day and chose the “best.” Being from a line of wealthy priests, he enjoyed such luxury. (How much this prestige helped him at the end of his life is between him and his Maker.) For Matthew, however, it was all about Yeshua and the righteousness that comes only by faith in Him. Let this be a lesson for us. We can each look in the mirror and ask ourselves. “Am I merely ‘trying on’ different Judaisms to see what fits? Am I looking for religion? Or, do I belong to Yeshua? Do I know the truth? Does He mean everything to me? Is it about my choice or His?”

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