First what he said:
"I am no longer identified with Chabad. Today, it's more important to me to connect to a universal message. While they were playing on stage and I closed my eyes, I was thinking that what we do is not at all about Judaism and not about Chabad. It's much bigger than one religion or another. It relies on something real that can speak to anybody. It's about truth and memory."
What his friends say:
…Two of Matisyahu's friends live in an apartment in Nahlaot with two framed pictures of Bob Marley and the Baba Sali, a Moroccan Jewish sage, hanging side by side. Matisyahu's friends introduce these sources of inspiration as "The Bob and the Baba." Many members of their community of American immigrants sheared off several kilos of dreadlocks in their path to spiritual redemption. One of them saved two dreadlocks as a tribute to his former membership in Seattle's reggae community. They hang from his temples beside a traditional pair of payot.
"Matisyahu encountered a form of Judaism here that spoke to him. It was new to him and I think he liked the fact that you don't have to surrender your original sources of inspiration," they said. "There were Chabad rabbis who supported him at first but, recently, they've criticized him for continuing to appear in front of an audience of men and women and also in front of non-Jews. It's important to Matisyahu to appear before non-Jews. The advantage of Bratslav is that it's less centralized, there isn't one rabbi, and it speaks more to the soul."
Chabad and its deceased leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, have greatly defined Matisyahu's identity and he has mentioned them in an endless number of shows and interviews. Although he was not an official representative of the movement, he was invited to appear at their conferences. His friends say that he has remained a pious Jew and that he bears no animosity toward Chabad. They say he has no intention of switching the Chabad Lubavitch flag for the flag of the Bratslav Hasidic movement and "is actually searching for freedom from a pronounced identification with one specific group." …
And how does [Matisyahu's close friend, Saxophonist Daniel] Zamir, who was attracted to Chabad because of Matisyahu, respond? "I respect it, but I have remained absolutely attached to Chabad. I hold a truth in my soul. It is a powerful blessing. When I am on stage, it is important to me that a Jew connect to his own soul. I see that as a beautiful thing. Long live the King Messiah [a reference to the Lubavitcher Rebbe]."
What Chabad says:
…"It is as convenient for Chabad as it is for Matisyahu," comments a senior Chabad member in response to Matisyahu's new religious orientation. "Matisyahu was never a part of the movement's conventional line. It's possible that he felt that his membership in Chabad caused him to be scrutinized. He may have received a negative comment here or there within the Hasidic movement, and, perhaps, he felt limited. I do not believe that this was caused by his appearance before a mixed audience, because [international, Chabad singing star] Avraham Fried appears before women as well. This is a case of an inflamed audience in nightclubs and discotheques where Matisyahu gets boys and girls dancing."…
Here's what I think this all means.:
- Matisyahu is an opportunist. He traded on Chabad's name and it's PR to propel his rise to the top.
- Now that he's up there, he doesn't really need Chabad anymore.
- Being Orthodox requires observing certain strictures. Encouraging mixed mosh pit dancing would be one of those.
- So Matisyahu dumps Chabad just like he dumped JDub Records, the small Jewish-owned nonprofit lable that made him a star.
- For its part, Chabad used Matisyahu. It pimped him to get media attention and increase donations.
- But pimping a man who, for all his good points still does things in every performance that no real posek, haredi, Chabad or Modern Orthodox, would ever allow caused problems, both internal and external, for Chabad.
- Eventually, Chabad hasidim repulsed by Chabad's apparent endorsement of Matisyahu's questionable behavior brought pressure on Matisyahu's Chabad rabbis. At the same time, haredim friendly to Chabad challenged Chabad's apparent endorsement.
- Internal Chabad pressure to "frum up" helped to propel Matisyahu out of Chabad and into the arms, in part, of the hippie splinter offshoot of Breslov.
- But Matisyahu won't rest long. He'll keep moving, "searching," trying new things and new approaches, perhaps even leaving Judaism all together.
- Why? Because Matisyahu was a poseur all along. It's not that he doesn't feel some connection to Judaism or hasidut – it's that he set out to use that connection for his own personal gain, to help him stand out from the crowd and get noticed. His kapote and fedora-wearing stage costume was just that – a costume. And when one costume gets old, he'll find another.
A couple of months ago a ran into the wife of a senior Chabad emissary. She mentioned Matisyahu. I told her the Rebbe never would have allowed Chabad to be used that way and that Matisyahu did things every performance that the Rebbe absolutely opposed. I also mention Chabad pro-boxer Dmitry Salita in this regard, especially the crowds of bochrim (yeshiva students) attending his fights and hanging out while bikini-clad ring card girls parade in a few feet in front of them.
What was her response? She said she agreed, but times had changed. And so they have.