When I shaved my head and posted photos on my Facebook page, I got about a dozen comments. Reviews were mixed, but the reality was that my follicles were giving up the fight whether or not I went along with their surrender.
When Hasidic Jewish reggae star Matisyahu shaved his beard this week, it literally made headlines. Everywhere. Aside from the fact that he’s famous, the beard represents much more in the Jewish religion. For those who feel it is integral to their faith to follow Jewish law, using a razor on one’s face is an affront to God.
Along with the photos of his newly clean-shaven face, Matisyahu posted the following poetic, if not cryptic, comment:
No more Chassidic reggae superstar.
Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias. When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality–not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules–lots of them–or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.
Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth. And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry…you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair. – Matisyahu
Immediately the internet was abuzz with speculation that he was walking away from Judaism, or at least from the more orthodox version he had followed some a decade. To help dissuade those concerns, he posted on Tuesday that, “for all those who are confused: today I went to the Mikva and Shul just like yesterday.”
It seems at least for now that Matisyahu is continuing to attend to his more traditional religious practices, though he is certainly contending with some of the legalism that underpins his faith. It seems that he, like many who spend much time practicing any given faith, is seeking to better understand what it means to be a person of faith as an individual, and not only as someone who follows a certain orthodoxy.
I have great respect for the values and practices of Judaism. As a Christian, it is my own heritage as well. I also can relate to the urge to explore beyond doctrine and ritual, to discern what God means to us as embodied human beings, and not just as Jews, Muslims, Christians or the like.
For me, this actually is at the heart of my own Christian faith. In the Torah, there are 613 rules that devout Jews are called to follow. From there, Moses brought to his people a set of Ten Commandments. Though certainly not inclusive of all of the Rabbinic laws that preceded him, Moses’ commands still clung to the heart of what the Torah tried to convey.
Jesus, when questioned about the primacy of any of the Jewish laws, distilled everything down to what is now known as the Greatest Commandment (technically one command in two parts):
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and;
Love your neighbor as yourself.
On first blush, it might seem that both Jesus and Moses are rebuffing the laws of the Torah, but as Jesus goes on to proclaim, he doesn’t want to do away with old ways, but rather seeks to bring them to greater fullness. He says as much in the same quote in Matthew where the Greatest Commandment appears, when he says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
This is not to suggest that Matisyahu is on a path to Christianity, but perhaps this step in his spiritual journey is parallel in some ways to that of Moses and Jesus as understood in their own commands. Rules are fine, in so much as they help point you toward God. But they can also become cumbersome. For some, they may even become the idol we put in God’s place.
So it seems a natural process to try to figure out who we are as people of faith independent of our religion, however we understand that. Matisyahu certainly is not divesting himself of his Judaism at this point. But in divesting himself of his beard, he is making a clear statement that who he is transcends the sum total of his ritual religious practices.