Friday, January 6, 2012

The Great Shave

It's been a few weeks since our last posting.  But while I was gone (happy 2012 by the way!), there was major news for our American Jewish community.

Many of you will have perhaps heard, by now, that the acclaimed American Jewish musician Matisyahu shaved his beard in mid-December.  It might not seem like big news.  But JTA (the 'Jewish Associated Press') thought it was important enough to mail the news out to its thousands and thousands of subscribers via a BREAKING NEWS ALERT that is typically reserved for things like news of a devastating terrorist bombing.

But no...this was a bomb of a different sort.  And it caught everyone off guard.

As background, click here for an introduction to the role of male facial hair in Judaism.  And see below for an illustrated guide to contemporary American beards:

I am curious as to whether our interest in Matisyahu as a musician should change in light of this recent move.  Although I am not the world's biggest Matisyahu fan, I can appreciate that his beard was a key part of his image.  It was a very tangible way for him to broadcast to the world that his music, and his identity, were rooted in traditional Judaism.  The beard was a central component of his projected Jewish authenticity.
Should we like his music less because of his choice to become 'less' Jewish?  (Ordinarily I wouldn't describe beard-shaving as being less Jewish...but in this case he himself has indicated that the shaving reflects a desire to move beyond the confines of Chassidic Judaism.)

I'm not sure that I have an answer to that question.  I guess you should like him if you like his music, and you shouldn't like him if you don't like his music.  Leave the beard out of it.

But here's what I am sure of: when we think about the kind of musicians that we do like, there should be space for us to ask ourselves: what values does this person/group embrace and represent?  And are those my values?  And if they aren't my values, should I allow myself to enjoy that music/art/etc?

I thought about that over Hanukkah a few weeks ago, when everyone was emailing around again (it debuted in 2010) the link to the Maccabeats' song "Candlelight".  Do take the time to watch the whole's a catchy song!  But if you watch the whole thing, you'll note that there are no women that are featured in it at all!

No offense is meant here to the Maccabeats or their (admittedly good) music.  You have a group of guys that want to form an all-male acapella group?  You've got no objection from me.

My concern here is really about the Orthodoxy with which the Maccabeats are affiliated (literally: they're a student group at Yeshiva University).  Now it's not the same Orthodoxy that Matisyahu used to be connected with.  Note that most of the Maccabeats don't sport beards!

Nonetheless, their Orthodoxy prevents them from singing with women.  Because traditional Judaism believes that kol ishah - the voice of the woman - is sexually tantalizing and therefore inappropriate in the public (mixed gender) sphere.

For me, there's a basic disconnect between my own progressive Jewish values (which do not at all object to female singing), and the ones being promoted by Orthodoxy (perhaps not consciously but subconsciously in the Maccabeats' music).  And that affects my opinion about the Maccabeats and their music. 

I'm not trying to be a party pooper here.  People have a great deal of Jewish pride when they encounter this kind of Jewish music.  There's nothing wrong with that.  Jewish pride is a powerful thing.  (Read about it here, in this Shmuley Boteach article about Matisyahu and the beard shaving.)  But, for me, the price to be paid for that pride is a bit too high.

I'd love to hear your thoughts...about Matisyahu and The Shave.  And about whether or not the values (religious or otherwise) of a musician/actor/etc should impact the degree to which we "like", promote, and pay for the art that they produce.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

  1. It does upset me that the ultra orthodox movement does not accept women singing- being the mother of a female theater/music student brings home the point. Also the recent incident in Israel where male orthodox Israeli soldiers walked out of a musical event where female soldiers were singing angered me too. It's hard to watch and hear about.