I've basically avoided the whole Matisyahu issue. But Rolling Stone has an interesting piece on Chabad's very own Rasta. It opens this way:
Walking home recently from morning prayers, Matisyahu -- the Hasidic reggae MC -- got a call from his manager: Madonna wanted to invite him over for Passover Seder. A follower of the Jewish mystical tradition Kabbalah, Madonna promised to follow all the strictures of Matisyahu's faith, but he remained suspicious. "I don't know if I can go," he says. "I'll have to check it out with, like, multiple people, to make sure it's kosher."
And who exactly is Matisyahu?
It's a world away from Bend, Oregon, where Miller got his start. After he struggled with drugs and dropped out of high school to follow Phish, his parents sent him to a hippie-ish drug-treatment center where teens go on "vision quests" in the woods. He started beatboxing and singing at coffeehouses as MC Truth, alongside a dreadlocked friend, MC Mystic, playing Rick James covers and reggae classics. "He was a cool guy, a total stoner," says Rob Ainsworth, who lived with Miller in Oregon. "He was a little burnt out, but music was incredibly important to him. You could tell he was talented."
Sitting down to sip soup at a kosher restaurant, Matisyahu recalls his shows as MC Truth. "It was wild," he says. "We would drink a big pitcher of mushroom tea, and I'd come out with a turban on my head and a huge Israeli flag, and we'd walk around throwing sage on people."
So here's my two cents worth: Matisyahu trades on the current Kabbala craze and Chabad mysticism. A large part of his fame is based on that, not on talent. This does not mean he is not talented. It simply means in a business flooded with talent, you need extraordinary good luck and a great hook to end up on top. Mattisyahu's hook – and a significant portion of his early promotion, media, and PR – is Chabad.
On the other hand, Chabad gains greatly by promoting Matisyahu. It helps them raise money. It buys them a hip image. And it brings in new recruits. But is it kosher?
As someone who once (stupidly) turned down the opportunity to work on my own songs with a producer at Prince's studios, I have some understanding of the business. And I also have some knowledge of the interface between it and halakha.
What Matisyahu does is unseemly. Few, if any, significant poskim (rabbinic legal scholars who rule on halakha, Jewish law) would approve. But what bothers me more is blatant trading on Kabbala and Hasidut to make money. that this does not bother mainstream Chabad may be because this is what mainstream Chabad has itself done for years.
I also know of other, far more talented, musicians who were given rabbinic advice that effectively destroyed their careers. Some of that advice came directly from the Rebbe. People work in camera stores today or paint signs, in large part because they were not allowed to do the things that Matisyahu now does (with much less talent) to great acclaim. It is this that bothers me far more than Matisyahu's newbie ignorance of parts of halakha, his naive understanding of Judaism, and his pandering.
While Matisyahu may inaccurately represent Judaism, he accurately represents today's Chabad – all shiny surface, little inner truth.
[Hat Tip: Dovid Lerner.]