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.

Tishah B'Av 5771

Hayez

(Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez)

For Tishah B'Av today, excerpts from "Temple and Synagogue" by Rabbi Neil GIllman, from Sh'ma in June 2007:

The Bible knows two models of sacred space. On one model, what may be called “intrinsic sacred space,” God chooses one point on earth to reveal God’s presence. That point becomes axis mundi, the center of the world, around which the rest of the world is structured in descending levels of sanctity. The
source for this model is... the binding of Isaac. Abraham is dispatched to “the land of Moriah,” to offer Isaac as a sacrifice “on one of the heights which I
[God] will point out to you.” Subsequently, in II Chronicles 3:2, Moriah becomes the spot on which Solomon builds the Temple...

...The second model may be called “extrinsic sacred space.” Here, any spot on earth can become the center of the world. In the Bible, this model is illustrated by the Israelite encampment during the desert wanderings. The camp could be located at any place in the wilderness, but wherever it stood, the sanctuary was at its center...

...The Temple, intrinsic sacred space, could only be in Jerusalem. But the synagogue could be wherever a minyan of Jews with their Torah scroll chose to settle. God sanctifies intrinsic sacred space; the community sanctifies extrinsic sacred space.

Jeremiah 29 contains the text of a letter sent by Jeremiah to the community of exiles in Babylonia. It is an extraordinary document. In it, God counsels the exiles to “build houses and live in them, plant fields and eat their fruit, take wives and beget sons and daughters; . . . multiply there. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” Then, “When you call Me and
come and pray to Me, I will give heed to you. You will search for Me and find Me. I will be at hand for you and I will restore your fortunes. And I will gather you from all the nations, and I will bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.”

This letter... affirms the religious legitimacy of extrinsic sacred space. Its theological basis is a statement about God. God’s power is not bounded by geography... One of the traditional names for God is HaMakom, literally “The Place.” But according to the rabbinic understanding of that name, God is “the place” of the world, not the other way around. God does not inhabit space. The exiled community can flourish but it cannot have a Temple; that is reserved for Jerusalem. But it can still worship God without a Temple, without sacrifices, through the words of prayer. “Instead of bulls, we will pay [with] the offerings of our lips.” (Hosea 6:3)

This pattern goes a long way toward explaining the ambiguities of our relationship to Israel, both land and state. For centuries, we prayed and dreamed of a return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Temple; we worship facing Jerusalem; we conclude Yom Kippur and our Passover sedarim with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Yet we remain here. Ironically, it is precisely our religious structures that make it possible for us to live an authentic Jewish religious life anywhere on earth. We carry our religion on our backs. Halakhah enables us to worship God at every moment of our lives, wherever we may be...

 

Jewish American sensibilities, Priv-lit, and Mussar

Rabbi Geoffrey Claussen recently wrote about "The American Jewish Revival of Mussar" for the Institute of Advanced Cultural Studies at the University of Virginia.

To summarize and paraphrase all too quickly, the Mussar movement arose in the early-mid 1800s. It emphasized the development of personal virtue as a Jewish religious value, asking practitioners to devote time and energy to introspection, self-criticism, and the development of a position of humility and service. The original movement was largely wiped out by the Holocaust, but it has recently experienced a revival in the United States, and largely among the non-Orthodox community.

In discussing the attractions and challenges that Mussar holds for modern Jews, Claussen repeatedly refers to the 1998 study, "The Jew Within: Self, Community, and Commitment Among the Variety of Moderately Affiliated," by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen. On the one hand, the personal and individualistic nature of Mussar practice resonate with some of the common values that, the study found, are common among modern and particularly young Jews. On the other hand, the demand for personal sacrifice and subjugation of the individual will to the greater values found in the religious tradition seem to go against the grain of many of the modern tools for personal development - therapy, self-help, empowerment, etc.

Bitch Magazine recently published an emphatic critique of some of these current trends in personal development (particularly focused on women). In "Eat, Pray, Spend", Joshunda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown coin the term "priv-lit" to refer to a certain corpus of modern publishing, encompassing books like the personal memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" to, well, most of Oprah (according to the authors). They criticize a culture that seems to conflate consumerism and personal development, that seems to place an obligation of happiness/personal development on women - an obligation that requires the expenditure of, in these times, increasingly scarce personal income, and which seems to offer personal development as a commodity to a privileged class that can afford to pay for therapy, yoga, and travel.

If there are Jews who are feeling a need for personal actualization and individualistic Jewish practice/identity, and who are also either poor-to-poorish, or riding anti-consumerist trends (and there do seem to be!) the Mussar movement, with its humble, personal approach to virtue-building and character development, seems like it could be a great vehicle for engaging the 'moderately affiliated.'

The Mussar Institute offers a 13 lesson 'Season of Mussar' program for $100 - whether that's more expensive commoditizing of personal development or a cheap investment (that pays overworked and underpaid Jewish professionals) for personal development depends where exactly along the spectrum of wealth/anti-consumerism one stands. In any case, the philanthropic wealth that currently supports all kinds of efforts to engage Jews and support Jewish continuity could probably make opportunities like this (and others) go quite a long way. Perhaps there are some issues about the commoditization of the mussar movement for Jewish outreach to be considered - but maybe it would be good for all of us anyway.