The gospel according to Matisyahu

Adam Shah looks at the man, the music and the message of the unorthodox orthodox Jewish musician Matisyahu.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover but in the case of Matisyahu it might be nearer the mark to say you can’t judge an album by its cover! The 31 year old Hasidic Jew is undoubtedly a man of many talents. Over the last six years he has achieved international acclaim for his unique sound and mixed musical style. Fusing traditional Jewish themes (including the Hazzan style of songful prayer) with reggae, rock, hip-hop and beat-box styles, he has managed to skip over cultural and religious barriers with his eclectic music in a way that no other recording artist has come close to or arguably, has even attempted. At a recent gig in London the multi-cultural make-up of his fan base was clear to see. Two young Muslim girls wearing hijabs at the front of the crowd sang along to familiar tunes, rubbing shoulders with both young and old kippah wearing Jewish men alongside those who would not profess faith in any kind of god at all. Matisyahu’s music has a varied and universal appeal both in terms of style and lyrical content and it is this that unites the crowds of onlookers, as well as his diverse fan base across the globe.

Early and continuing musical success
Following the success of his three albums Youth, Shake Off The Dust…Arise and Live at Stubbs, all of which received critical acclaim (including a Grammy nomination), his recent album Light made it to number 34 on the US reggae billboard charts. His latest single from the album, One Day – an aspiration to an idyllic, peaceful future where “there’ll be no more war and our children will play” – was recently played as the Spanish football team made their way to collect the World Cup trophy following their victory over Holland in South Africa, and featured on the official 2010 World Cup Album Listen Up! Going back a few years, in 2006 he was named Top Reggae artist by Billboard magazine. No small feat for a young Jewish boy from the Bronx!

The message behind the man
So what of Matisyahu’s message? Well, his identity is clear and uncompromising – he is a Hasidic Jew and much of the lyrical content of his music centres on the religion which he professes and practises. Originally born Matthew Paul Miller, he converted to Orthodox Judaism in 1996 following his attendance on a programme at the Alexander Muss High School in Hod Hasharon, Israel, which offered students first-hand exploration of Jewish heritage. The traditional Orthodox Jewish style of dress he originally performed in, and for which he initially drew media attention towards the beginning of his career, has been toned down somewhat in recent days and replaced with a more secular hip-hop style of clothing. However, his distinctive beard, peyot and kippah remain, marking out where his faith still very much lies. This change can in some ways be explained by his disassociation with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement (some of whom are expecting their dead Rebbe Schneerson to raise himself from the dead and reveal himself as the long awaited Jewish Messiah).

Speaking of this change of direction on he said, “I am no longer identified with Chabad. Today, it’s more important to me to connect to a universal message. While they were playing on stage and I closed my eyes, I was thinking that what we do is not at all about Judaism and not about Chabad. It’s much bigger than one religion or another. It relies on something real that can speak to anybody. It’s about truth and memory.”

In another recent interview he stated “My music is really about people connecting with their identities, even if they aren’t Jewish.”

Wanting Moshiach now                                          
Despite the professed universal intention behind his music, the message of his songs unmistakably demonstrates Matisyahu’s dedication and regard for the God he follows religiously, in whom he expects to find his salvation. Songs such as Exaltation, in which he sings to his “God of salvation”, and Lord Raise Me Up communicate common themes, borrowing heavily from the scriptures, the Psalms in particular. His songs also demonstrate the pain, suffering and wide-ranging angst felt and experienced by the Jewish people throughout thousands of years of dispersion and continuing persecution. This very personal heritage comes through loud and clear in his song writing. The rebuilding of the temple, the persecution of the Jews and strict religious devotion and discipline are themes that regularly arise in his early material. While such themes may appear to have been toned down somewhat on his album Light, on his website he describes his latest effort as being the product of a lengthy religious exercise “to consolidate three years of learning Torah into 16 songs.”

Regarding his forward looking stance, his songs are reflective of his committed religious devotion as well as being indicative of the fact that he “wants Moschiach now”, and this is the point at which he would part ways with many would-be Christian fans. In an interview from early on in his career, it was reported that the voicemail message on his mobile phone was “Moshiach now”. It is here that we find the “gospel” as preached by Matisyahu. In spite of the universality of Matisyahu’s message, it is undoubtedly a clear expression of his Judaism.

Where eternal hope lies...
First and foremost, the message being proclaimed is that he sets his hope in the God of the Old Testament scriptures alone and, along with all those who practise Judaism, is still awaiting the promised Messiah of the Torah. From a Christian viewpoint, while it is easy to associate with and even embrace the sentiment behind a number of his songs, many of which are very reminiscent of the psalms (with the exception perhaps of the accompanying beats!), there are certain subtle aspersions on the Christian faith in his lyrics which cannot be ignored. Lyrics such as “seek and you might find” and “Torah – one truth not two”, along with the lyrics from Fire of Heaven which state “Heavenly fire only resides on an altar made from the ground” could indeed be taken as thinly veiled attacks on Christian belief; subtly denying Jesus as the fulfilment of the promised Messiah, the authority of New Testament as Holy Scripture, or the Christian understanding of the operation and power of the Holy Spirit to name a few examples. 

Matisyahu, being the wordsmith that he is, says it best himself in regard to the difference in who is being served on either side of the Jewish/Christian fence. In the song Silence he sings “Bring my help to an invisible king, with a hope one day you might answer me, so I pray you don’t abandon me, your silence kills me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

For Christians, true hope lies in a God who has already revealed Himself and answered us through His grace and mercy, promising never to abandon His children. The Christian God, incarnated in Jesus as the promised Messiah of the Old Testament scriptures, is not a silent God in who we put blind faith, but One in who we can have full assurance and who demonstrably answers the prayers of His people… and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

This article first appeared in the winter Herald 2010

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