Posted by: Steve Coplan | March 15, 2006

Not exactly a rave review

The Times music reviewer Kelefa Sanneh did not have a good time at the Matisyahu concert last week. I can’t blame him – there were a lot of poorly behaved children of adult age with the kind of self entitlement 21st century America generates. He’s also right to question why someone with a gimmick – he’s a Hasid with a long beard, he sings reggae! – sells better (substantially better actually) than dancehall reggae pioneers Barrington Levy (no relation!) and Eek a Mouse or artists reviving the musical form like Luciano or Sizzla. He was also correct in observing that as a performer Matisyahu is flat and uneven – for every standout track, there’s two medicore ones. But is it entirely appropriate to raise the issue of cultural appropriation given that Matisyahu is white and probably more contentiously Jewish?

The charge of cultural appropriation rears its head precisely because Matisyahu has proven enormously popular on a national scale despite his get up. His success can only be party explained by his ‘reggae lite’ – there’s a remarkable sincerity to his performance than is a mixture of religious convinction and pure joy in making music.

Matisyahu belongs to the Lubavitch or Chabad branch of Hasidut, which unlike almost all other branches of Hasidism actively recruits new (Jewish) members. The Lubavitchers are the most engaged with the modern world in order to do the work of ‘kiruv’ (‘drawing closer’ literally) but have also embraced most enthusiastically the principles of Lurianic Kabbalah – an esoteric branch of an esoteric body of learning. As Karen Armstrong describes in her History of God, Luria espoused a pessimistic theology. Luria modified the Kabbalistic system in order to explain a few centuries of turmoil, arguing that not only was there a ‘firewall’ that separated the truly divine from human experience, the divine presence had in fact concealed itself in ‘shells’ or ‘klipot’ that were the accretion of human evil. By practicing mitzvot, Jews could remove the dull outer shell and release the divine spark. Earlier students of kabbalah had come up with the idea that the some of the mizvot that seemingly had no purpose and couldn’t be described as ‘good deeds’ – tefilin, mezuzahs and shaking the etrog for instance – had metaphysical components that as one of my contemporaries pointed out “rearranges the spiritual furniture”. This idea arose mainly as a counterpoint to Neo-Aristotlean Maimonides who argued taking a rational approach to the Torah on the basis that human reason is a divine gift. Although Maimonides was clear about the centrality of faith to Judaism, his position that rational inquiry could unlock the secrets of the Torah was seen as a major threat by more conservative elements.

The Lubavitchers took Lurianic Kabbalah even further, arguing that the more miztvot were performed, the more likely the messiah (or the moshiach just like that enormous billboard on the West Side Highway and 42nd) would be to arrive. As an aside, the messiah is not actually a biblical concept at all , and is probably the result of Jewish contact with Zorastraniasm in the time of the Babylonian exile. In that sense, Jews are simply vehicles for the practice of mitzvot, ideally with intensifying degrees of ‘kavannah’ or concentration on the particular metaphysical ramifications of an act relative to the ten ‘sefirot’.

Now the fact that an artist like Matisyahu can gain a national following based on songs replete with the mystical symbolism (King Without a Crown) is probably worth more than a cursory review.

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