Matisyahu and the Spiral of Authenticity

By now you've heard the (apparently earth-shattering) news that Matisyahu has shaved his beard.

Beardless

The pundits of Jewry are abuzz with interpretive chatter -- and no surprise, since Matisyahu was already (in his hassidic incarnation) an icon and byword for all manner of Jewish discourse about culture, religion, and identity.

A very recent case in point: in the most recent issue of Sh'ma, Stuart Z. Charmé uses the hassidic Matisyahu as the denouement to his article, "The Spiral of Jewish Authenticity". Responding with circumspect detachment to his teenage daughter's announcement that she doesn't consider herself Jewish (since slam poetry is her true identity), Charmé notes that, as his research has shown, teenagers and the adults they grow to become have ever-shifting relationships to Judaism:

Ultimately, what I wish for my daughter is a Jewish journey that is intellectually and psychologically honest, vibrant, and creative; one that values questions more than answers, while avoiding the pitfalls of premature closure and rigidity. I trust that she will discover authentic forms of Jewish expression for herself as she redefines her past and plans for the future. I can’t predict whether slam poetry will be part of that process, but if the singer Matisyahu could use reggae to find a sense of Jewish authenticity for himself, then why not?

(Emphasis, of course, is added.) How unlucky for Stuart Charmé, one might think, that merely two weeks after he publishes a piece which uses the hassid Matisyahu as an example, Matisyahu goes and shaves and de-hassidifies.

But in this case, one would be wrong to think so. In fact, Charmé's point regarding Matisyahu not only still stands, but stands even stronger. Much of the article, read in hindsight following "ShaverGate," read as if they were written with the apparently-now-misnagdic Mat(thew? isyahu?) in mind:

I have described the experience of Jewishness over the course of one’s life as a loose spiral. We circle back to revisit a variety of issues related to Judaism and Jewishness; each time, we approach the experience of Jewishness from new perspectives and with new investments and understandings that emerge in response to other changes in our lives.

For many Jews, the feeling of Jewish authenticity involves a sense of connection to a romanticized or idealized image of the past... Much has also been written... about the postmodern freedom to “construct” or “invent” Jewish identity in a myriad of ways ranging from contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy to Torah Yoga and Jewish “mindfulness.”...

It is obvious that claims about authenticity can never really offer a scientific test of purity, a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, or a warranty against change. Some of what is now accepted as authentically Jewish will eventually be abandoned and some of what is now rejected will later be reclaimed. In this sense, each individual’s search for Jewish authenticity is a microcosm of the collective process of redefining Judaism at different moments of history.

The desire for Jewish authenticity, therefore, has both retrospective and prospective dimensions. On the one hand, it situates one in relationship to one’s personal and group history; it provides a sense of existential orientation and protection; and it, thereby, offers a provisional home in the world. But the goal of authenticity is simultaneously a warning to be careful of claiming too much certainty at the present moment — recognizing the permanently destabilizing power of the future to shatter and rebuild the foundations of our world in ever-new ways... There is probably some Zen-like truth to the idea that those who claim most adamantly to have found or achieved Jewish authenticity are also those who lack it in a deeper sense.

For those who responded to Matisyahu's naked face with disappointment, then, as well as for those who responded with anti-Orthodox glee, we might all do well to borrow some of Stuart Charmé's detachment and attention to the long view. Life keeps going on, the spiral of authenticity keeps spiralling, and we might all turn out to be someone a little (or a lot) different tomorrow.

Podcast: Jewish Values, Jewish Interests

Ruth Wisse

This was easily our most provocative event to date.

On Monday, December 5th, Prof. Ruth Wisse and Rabbi Joy Levitt joined BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen at the NYU Law School for a wide-ranging, passionate, broad discussion of how the Jewish community should relate to the outside world.

After a brief ceremony honoring Gail Chalew for her 20+ years as editor of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (the digitization of which on BJPA was the impetus for the event), Rabbi Levitt spoke of her decisions, as Executive Director of the JCC in Manhattan, to reach out to non-Jewish poor and minority communities, as well as the Muslim community leaders affiliated with the Cordoba Center / Park 51 "Ground Zero mosque" now known as Prayer Space. Prof. Wisse spoke of Israel under attack and an American Jewish community lacking in moral confidence, and judging Judaism based on liberal standards instead of liberalism based on Jewish standards. Our fearless leader, Prof. Cohen, acted as moderator, but without setting aside his own positions on the issues.

Click here to listen.

Jewish Camping: Cohen's Comments

In the latest installment of Cohen's Comments, BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen says two new studies prove the benefits of Jewish camping, both for overnight camps and for day camps. Watch below, or on YouTube.

Jewish Jews Need Jewish Friends - Cohen's Comments

BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen says you just can't "do Jewish" without a Jewish social network. Any opportunity for young Jews to make Jewish friends is ipso facto a critical component of Jewish education.

Watch the video below, or on YouTube.

Next month, BJPA will be partnering with New CAJE in presenting a webinar on this topic:

More Jewish Friends: the Key to a Jewish Future
Wed., March 16, 2011 - 6:30 pm EST

More information will follow as the date of the webinar approaches.

Barriers to Jewish Participation: Poverty

Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute addresses the problem of financial need among some unaffiliated American Jews in an article for e-Jewish philanthropy:

At any given time, the majority of US Jewish households are not affiliated with Jewish institutions like synagogues or JCCs. There are many reasons why, perhaps the most important being that the organized community hasn’t made a strong enough case for the meaning and value of being affiliated. There’s a subset of the unaffiliated, however, who already understand the meaning and value – or who, like most affiliated households, simply want or need the services provided – but do not affiliate because of their own personal financial situations. And the size of this subset has likely grown during the recent Great Recession.

The problem, writes Golin, is not that Jewish organizations are unwilling to make accomodation. "[T]here is almost universal agreement among Jewish communal professionals that their organizations will make accommodations," he explains. "However, how that actually works is in no way uniform and in fact represents a serious barrier to participation. In most organizations, those accommodations are not advertised in any way – the impetus is on the financially-challenged to ask for assistance."

 Rabbi Mordechai Liebling made a similar point in 2005 in an article called "Money in Synagogues":

Many congregations state that dues payments should not be a barrier to membership, and reduced rates are available. But studies show that the process of applying for a dues reduction is humiliating. In some congregations the process itself is unfriendly — even to the point of asking for income tax forms.

(A digression: it's comical to me that we need studies in order to tell us that asking for a dues reduction is humiliating.) Rabbi Liebling also points out, however, that the outright payment of dues is not the only way in which socioeconomic status can become a barrier:

How obligated is the institution to help members feel comfortable? Little can be done about the cars members drive, the schools children attend, or the vacations families enjoy. But a great deal can be done about the assumptions that the synagogue makes. The synagogue needs to be very conscious of the underlying economic assumptions made vis-à-vis programs and public statements. Presuming that everyone is at least “middle class” and won’t have trouble spending the extra $10 or $20 for a special program or school event is incorrect.

Celebrations are perhaps the most visible manifestation of wealth differences. Synagogues can set standards or guidelines about the lavishness of a kiddush or even a bar or a bat mitzvah party... Hundreds of years ago medieval Jewry created sumptuary laws to regulate conspicuous consumption; perhaps we need to reconsider them.

To learn more about poverty in the American Jewish community, start with "Economic Vulnerability in the American Jewish Community", a report based on the the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-1. In 2008, the AJC published "The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvement and Barriers". The BJPA also has many more holdings under the topic of Socioeconomic Status.