In the current issue of RELEVANT, we spoke with hip-hop star Matisyahu about how his deeply rooted Jewish faith has influenced his music and his life. The full interview can be found in the issue #27 of RELEVANT.
Could you explain for our readers who aren’t familiar with the Hassidic movement some of what it means to you, and maybe some of its historical significance?
Yeah. It started a few hundred years ago, pretty much in Russia, and the spearhead of the movement was Bal Shem Tov, which literally means “master of the good name.” He was kind of a mystic … He represented the idea that each individual, every person, has a very strong connection with God and is capable of reaching out of their situation to connect to this ultimate truth. And he provided a certain way of doing that, certain ideas and things that were all based and founded in the Torah, but it was kind of a revolutionary movement … He had disciples, and then the whole thing spread throughout Old Europe.
Basically, that’s kind of the spirit of what the Hassidic movement is all about. And like any kind of breakaway movement that becomes a mainstream movement, it loses its core idea, what it was all about. So what it became today is a strict adherence to Jewish law. It lost a lot of its fire and a lot of its spirit of what it was all about. But you do find sects of it; you do find this idea; you do find the fire. And that’s kind of what attracted me to it. That and this idea that I had been searching for a long time for a method of getting close to the ultimate, and it seemed to me to ring with truth. So, I kind of got close to it and went through some pretty big changes.
I know that Messianic theology has been shunned by a lot of modern Judaism, but it’s always been very important to the Hassidic movement.
How do you feel about Messianic theology in general, that the Messiah will come and so on and so forth, in a literal sense?
It’s one of the founding principles of Judaism. So I think that it’s an authentic thing, and it’s a real thing. But again there’s obviously, I think, a lot of confusion about how and who and when and all those practical things. And I think that the idea of the Messiah, like a lot of things in Judaism—it’s a real thing, it’s a literal thing and at the same time it’s a spiritual thing. So I don’t think it’s necessarily about closing our eyes and hoping that some Messiah’s going to come and save us from ourselves. And at the same time, I don’t think it’s just about the inner spiritual work, and there isn’t actually a real person [who is] going to come, like a metaphor. I think it’s both. I think it’s really about people getting somewhere in themselves and then some kind of global resurgence of spirituality and then, as a result of all that, a Messiah coming, being born out of all that.
How difficult is it to balance your faith with your music, just being out on the road and living that kind of life, just being in the mainstream music scene? How difficult is it to balance faith with that?
It’s kind of difficult. I mean, it’s definitely easy to get caught up in temptations and things like that, just being human. After I made huge changes in my life to kind of break away from all that stuff, to go back into that world there’s a fine line between how to be there and really be present and really be affecting that world … In order to affect it and really be there, you have to kind of be immersed in it. And it’s definitely a balancing act and something that is a challenge to me, how to really be in both worlds at the same time. And at first, when I really started doing it, I was very removed from it all. I would kind of just show up for the gig, and I’d be backstage studying Talmud or Hassidics or whatever. And then I’d just go out on stage and take off my glasses and sing my songs, and then get out of there as quickly as possible. And I felt that it wasn’t working because I felt that in order to grow, even in my own spirituality, I had to somehow really be there. And then I had a hard time because I started to feel a little bit like I was drowning as I started to move away from that. I felt like I was drowning a little bit and in all that world. So now I’m in this process of trying to figure out how to do both, and I think I’m doing pretty well at it at this point.
Other features in issue 27:
The Face of Homelessness
Through a gripping photo essay and feature from a writer who lived on the streets to better understand the issue, we take a unique perspective on the problem of homelessness.
With critical praise and a devoted following, the singer/songwriter finds authenticity at the core of her career.
The Man Behind Evan Almighty
Screenwriter Steve Oedekerk is the man behind blockbusters including The Nutty Professor, the Ace Ventura films and Bruce Almighty, and his latest film puts faith in full focus.
Q&A with Anne Lamott
With the candidness that have made her books bestsellers, writer Anne Lamott opens up about her faith and getting real with spirituality.