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Rabbis scratch chins over singer’s shave
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Rabbis scratch chins over singer’s shave

Matisyahu’s shearing leads to buzz about tradition and change

It was the shearing heard round the Jewish world. When Matisyahu, born Matthew Miller, the hugely successful hasidic reggae musician, shaved off his beard last week, it lit up the Internet and triggered debate about the significance of facial hair and Jewish traditions.

As a singer of Jamaican-accented dance tracks and as a ba’al teshuva — an Orthodox Jew who grew up in a non-Orthodox home — Matisyahu, 32, has long represented an intriguing mixture of cultures. A good part of his celebrity was credited to his appearance as a bearded, yarmulke-wearing hasid performing for young, secular audiences.

So when Matisyahu told fans he had shaved his beard following a week of spiritual “revelations and realizations,” it set off a flurry of conjecture. Was he leaving Orthodoxy? Had observant Jews lost a role model? Does the beard define the (Jewish) man?

When NJ Jewish News asked local Jewish leaders about the significance of the singer’s shave, some made it clear that they have strong feelings on the subject (whether they were happy to be sharing them was a different story). Others were equally clear that they felt there were more pressing issues at hand than a pop star’s tonsorial transformation.

“I am at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial, about to hear President Obama with 6,000 other Reform Jews, and you ask me about Matisyahu’s beard?” Rabbi Joel Abraham, the bearded leader of the Reform congregation Temple Sholom in Fanwood, wrote in an e-mail. “Anyway, here’s my answer: Religiously, I have no issue. As a bearded person, I find it a stylistic mistake.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz is the clean-shaven, Modern Orthodox associate dean of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth. Though ordained as a rabbi, he chose not to follow in the family tradition of serving as a pulpit rabbi that goes back through many generations, and his clean-shaven visage is also a break from tradition. He politely declined to comment, though, saying that while he does have an opinion on the matter, having chosen to work in education, he preferred not to “encroach on rabbinic turf.”

‘Change and growth’

However, Rabbi Joshua Hess, the bearded leader of the Orthodox synagogue Congregation Anshe Chesed in Linden, was more forthcoming. Asked if he sees wearing a beard as a cultural matter, an individual choice, or conformity with rabbinic teaching, he said it can be all three.

In an e-mailed response, he wrote, “The Rabbis prohibit a person from ‘destroying’ certain parts of their beard. According to Jewish tradition, using a razor to shave a beard would be prohibited. However, using [an electric] shaver, which simply cuts the hair, but doesn’t uproot it, would be permissible.”

Some observant Jews, however, refuse to even trim their beards, often invoking Kabala, or the Jewish mystical tradition. Hess cited an article by Rabbi Aron Moss on Chabad.org that describes the beard as “the bridge between mind and heart, thoughts and actions, theory and practice, good intentions and good deeds.” Letting one’s beard “flow freely” instead of cutting it, Moss wrote, allows it to “open a direct flow from the ideals and philosophies of our minds into our everyday lifestyle.”

In his initial announcement, Matisyahu suggested that he had grown his beard to show his willingness to “submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth.” Shaving the beard, he said, was all about “trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”

Hess scoffed at fans who felt Matisyahu was rejecting Orthodoxy.

“Matisyahu’s quote was blown out of proportion,” said Hess. “In subsequent ‘tweets’ he affirmed his commitment to Orthodox Judaism and all its ritual and ethical precepts. In my opinion, Matisyahu’s decision to shave his beard is based on his desire to grow intellectually and spiritually by challenging himself to evolve as a Jew.

“Truthfully,” he continued, “all of us are required to engage in this process of self-reflection on a daily basis. Sadly, many of us have become too comfortable in our routines and set in our ways, making the process of change extremely difficult.

“Through much self-reflection and Torah study,” said Hess, “Matisyahu gained a new appreciation for his personal religious observance and in the process, reminded us that change and growth is an integral part of Judaism.”

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