For a Singer and a Sect: A Rift Amid the Riffs?

The New York Times/December 23, 2007

Over the last three years, the most visible adherent of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism has been a strapping 20-something reggae singing star named Matisyahu.

After joining the sect around 2001, Matisyahu became a regular guest and performer at Chabad's outposts around the world. In songs and interviews, he frequently mentioned Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the movement's revered spiritual leader. "Youth," the title track of his second studio album, quotes Rabbi Schneerson's dictum that "youth is the engine of the world."

Chabad, which is based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is unique among Hasidic sects for its emphasis on the recruitment of non-Orthodox Jews, and Matisyahu, who goes by a single name, has come to be a sort of unofficial ambassador.

That is why some observers have been shocked over the past few months to see the singer distancing himself from Chabad in a series of public statements.

In an interview in July with The Miami New Times, an alternative weekly, Matisyahu said that he did not "necessarily identify" with Chabad and that he felt "boxed in" by being labeled an adherent. In October, he told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz that he was "no longer identified with Chabad." And late last month, he told The Jewish Week that his affiliation with Chabad "was about becoming part of this machine and feeling like it was taking away from my service of God, not adding to it."

According to The Jewish Week, Matisyahu has begun praying with the Karlin Hasidic sect, a group based in Israel that screams its prayers to God. Although he still lives in the Lubavitch stronghold Crown Heights, he commutes on many mornings to a synagogue in Borough Park to pray, the newspaper said.

Through his publicist, Matisyahu declined to comment on the matter.

The news of his shifting allegiances has provoked a furious response among some Lubavitch bloggers, who accuse Matisyahu of betraying a movement that nurtured him. But among Lubavitch rabbis in New York, many of whom know Matisyahu personally, reaction has been considerably gentler.

"Some people come to Lubavitch to stay, and some don't," said Rabbi Shea Hecht, executive director of a Lubavitch yeshiva in Crown Heights where Matisyahu studied for several years. "We're happy if we can bring any Jew closer to yiddishkeit," or Jewishness.

In part, the tempered reaction of Lubavitch leaders reflects a paradox. Though the mainstream public may see Matisyahu as a representative Hasidic Jew, many traditional Lubavitch adherents do not listen to his music, and thus his departure from the sect is not the soul-shaking challenge it might seem.

"I see him in the neighborhood, on the street and in synagogue, and people don't even know who he is," Rabbi Hecht said. "He wasn't really appreciated from the inside of Chabad. He was more of a bridge to the outside."

Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, the longtime head of Community Board 9, agreed. "No one's ever called me over in shul and said, 'Hey, Goldstein, did you hear Matisyahu bailed out?'" he said. "He's looking elsewhere, and that's that."

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