Searching for Your Jewish Soul? Matisyahu, the Son of Matityahu, and the Gospel of Matthew
Matisyahu â€“ Judaism for the Artist
Nearly a year ago now, fans of the Lubavitcher rapper â€œMatisyahuâ€ were shocked to see that he had shaved his beard, cut his hair, and shed his kippah. â€œWait a minute! Whereâ€™s my old Matisyahu? Bait and switch!â€ This guy had walked and talked like the real deal. I mean, if he wasnâ€™t an authentic expression of a true Jewish soul, who was? Even for some in the Messianic worldâ€”who secretly dreamed of a life of â€œlegitimateâ€ observanceâ€”Matisyahu was an emblem of the look and feel of orthodoxy. However, sincere commitment to the halakhah aside, we must admit that the record labelâ€™s marketing of this Hasidâ€™s pious persona didnâ€™t hurt! I suspect it even made a Christian or two wonder… is this what Jesus looked like?
We donâ€™t have to speculate about the reason for the change. You can hear the artistâ€™s various accounts ï¬rsthand on YouTube. Something to do with personal revelations that Godâ€™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), â€œItâ€™s whatâ€™s inside that matters.â€ He shares openly that he pursued Chabad as far as he could and got much out of it. Thereâ€™s just more to life. Afterall, he had only come to orthodoxy as a teenager, having been raised a more-or-less â€œsecularâ€ Jew. But the world now beckoned, and Matisyahu felt called to new horizons far outside the yeshiva walls. Not that heâ€™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 â€œSunshineâ€ video has him in a cave with his yarmulka holding what looks like a siddur â€“ only it looks like the pages are blank. (Yet another statement about â€œJewish Spiritualityâ€?) 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 â€“ The Best Judaism There Is
Turn back almost two thousand years to a â€œson of Matityahuâ€ 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.
â€œ…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 ï¬rst 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 difï¬culties and went through them all.â€ (Life, 10-11. Whiston translation)
A few lines later we learn that Josephus ï¬nally came to make an ofï¬cial, 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 Templeâ€™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 canâ€™t forget that heâ€™s recalling these memories in Rome when Jerusalem – along with almost everything heâ€™d ever known – was gone. Was he still a â€œPhariseeâ€? Whatever the case may be, Iâ€™m sure there was some nostalgia for the â€œold daysâ€ involved.
The Gospel of Matthew â€“ Judaism Isnâ€™t Enough
In general, the Apostles didnâ€™t really say much about their own â€œexperienceâ€ or â€œinvestigationâ€ of the religion of thier ancestors. In his Gospel, Matthew never described himself as having â€œtried onâ€ different Judaisms to ï¬nd the best ï¬t. Neither did he have some larger personal life agenda inside of which Judaism was a mere â€œchoiceâ€ – 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 collectorâ€™s booth; and He said to him, â€œFollow Me!â€ 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, â€œWhy is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?â€ (Matthew 9:9-11, NASB)
These suspicious Pharisees were uncomfortable with Yeshuaâ€™s teaching and approach, as it didnâ€™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 Yeshuaâ€™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 â€œbestâ€ Judaism. Something lacking which the traditions of the elders could not provide. But what was it? Was not the Sinai revelation sufï¬cient? After all, the Torah had been given to men (â€œlo bashamayim hee!â€). More over, how could Yeshua say, â€œexceedsâ€? 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 â€œinner voice.â€ 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 â€œbest.â€ 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. â€œAm I merely â€˜trying onâ€™ different Judaisms to see what ï¬ts? 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?â€