Mathew Miller never has and never will be a static person.
The current college generation has a unique relationship with Matisyahu. He rose to prominence as we rose to the bimah for our bar or bat mitzvahs. And for many of us, he helped create a connection between the secular world and our Jewish identities. Matisyahu essentially affirmed the identities many of us were searching for.
But who was the Matisyahu that so many of us, including myself, were stuck on? Depending on your opinion, he was either a dichotomy or a harmony of drastically different ideas: Chasidism, reggae, ultra-religious sentiments, and beat-boxing. Many of us fell in love with what Matisyahu represented to the naked eye: the ability to combine Judaism with non-Jewish ideas, as well as faith, belief, and devotion in a medium seemingly unrelated to prayer. He embraced outward contradictions.
Then it happened. Matisyahu shaved his beard, ditched the Chasidic garb and seemingly transformed before our eyes, moving away from both his visual and sound aesthetics. Although it was written and recorded before this big change, for many, “Spark Seeker” marked the end of the old Matisyahu—the one who made it socially acceptable for teenage kids living in the suburbs to listen to reggae. Matisyahu’s music and appearance were changing and for lots of us, it was terrifying. We weren’t able to recognize the obvious driving factor of those changes: Matisyahu, himself, was changing.
The first album written and released after Matisyahu’s departure from the bearded, pais-life was “Akeda,” which borrowed its name from the Torah portion in which Abraham brings his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to be sacrificed for God. Matisyahu describes the concept of the album as taking all the teachings that he had previously reflected outward in his albums—all the Chasidic stories, all the midrashic stories—and begin to reflect them inward.
Matisyahu, in a way, embodied these teachings and related to Abraham’s venture down from the top of the world. The album’s working title had been “The Way Down the Mountain,” emphasizing that in his journey down the mountain, we see an Abraham who, not too long before, had everything. Abraham returns to the world broken: his wife, Sarah, is dying, his son does not leave the mountain with him and he leaves the ultimate sacrifice behind him.
In retrospect, “Akeda” was, and still is, groundbreaking. These songs take sacred Jewish stories and rework them, creating new frameworks in which we house them, becoming a sort of musical, modern midrash. Equally, if not more so, important is the fact that Matisyahu created this style of Modern Midrash sans beard and black hat. Matisyahu wrote Jewish music that he felt reflected his inner self, not something he felt he needed to display to the outside world. As someone now labeled by many as not-ultra-Orthodox, he became a liberator of these ideas, proclaiming that there was no jurisdiction of sacred text and its interpretation.
Serendipitously, I have written two installments of Ha’Am‘s weekly “Taste of Torah” series, giving a lesson on the week’s Torah portion. In my first “Taste of Torah,” I wrote about the Binding of Isaac and how we sometimes unknowingly act as Abraham, binding and ruining relationships—the story of “Akeda.” In my second “Taste of Torah,” I juxtaposed the concept of the “Ner Tamid” described in the Tetzaveh Torah portion with Matisyahu’s song “Aish Tamid,” which plays on the concept of “Aish Tamid” (eternal flame) in the Temple, along with my personal relationship with his music and how it has changed. I would like to amend my previous “Taste of Torah,” in which I rhetorically asked if Matisyahu’s “Ner Tamid,” which represented his essence, his true self, had been extinguished. I never would have thought that, months later, I would be on the phone with Matisyahu, analyzing my openly critical article about him, his religiosity and his creative drive.
He described his opposition to the article and pointed out the lasting impact of the “oil.” He asserted that the fuel of his fire, or the “oil,” which is not seen, is what lasts, rather than the flame. Ultimately, it is a similar oil that gives us the miracle of Chanukah after the destruction of the Temple. It burns and creates the physical flame, what is tangible and seen to the naked eye. Sometimes the flame moves or changes shape, but the oil that fuels the fire remains the same.
This change in the flame can be seen in his current tour, as it blends the jam band improvisational style of his bandmates with the style of the half-Egyptian-Palestinian, half-American Jewish singer, songwriter and hip-hop artist, Nadim Azzam, in an attempt to bridge cultural gaps and prove that some things truly are universal.
Matisyahu’s tour brings him to UCLA on Tuesday, April 12th at 8pm in Schoenberg Hall, and is free for students. I invite anyone, even those who believe they no longer feel the same passion they once did for Matisyahu and his music, to come experience the next chapter in the evolution of a truly unique Jewish artist.