Matisyahu's Modern-Day Mantra

Matisyahu's Modern-Day Mantra

What does it mean to have religious lyrics in secular pop music? Scholars of religion have attempted to answer this question in a variety of ways. They have described the rock concert as a religious experience and sing-alongs as part of an age-old ritual of mantra recitation. Indeed, "The Boss" himself, Bruce Springsteen, speaks with a Christian inflection when he welcomes his audiences to the "Church of Rock N' Roll."

In mid-August, we had the chance to think about this question in a new way when we listened to Matisyahu in concert in Raleigh, NC. We knew Matisyahu as the Orthodox Jewish reggae musician who has held audiences captive with his mix of rastaman, rock, and Jewish rhythms, all infused with Jewish mystical lyrics. Born Matthew Miller to a secular Jewish family on Long Island, he adopted an Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle in his early twenties, and yet continued to pursue and excel in his pop musical career at the same time. We also knew that in December 2011, Matisyahu shaved his beard and shed his Orthodox attire, including tsit tsit (fringes of a prayer shawl) and suit. He nonetheless remains an observant Jew.

To get to know Matisyahu is to get to know the marriage of Jewish mysticism and contemporary pop music. His lyrics suggest a deeply held kabbalistic world view. Following in the steps of Shlomo Carlebach, the "singing rabbi" who inspired audiences from a wide range of Jewish denominations until his death in 1994, Matisyahu was profoundly affected by Carlebach's legacy of bringing Jewish music into the popular arena. But Matisyahu goes one step further in creating authentic fusion between the two. As he tells us in an interview in 2006, "The world that I come from is the world of raves, hip-hop clubs, and rock and roll." And yet the world he chose to inhabit as a young adult is one of texts, religious study, and observance in an Ultra-Orthodox setting of Lubavitcher Chassidim. As he put it, "I made a conscious decision to immerse myself in the religious world for three years. . . . Then I decided to re-incorporate the two worlds together. The life style I live is connected to both worlds—drawing from my old [music] world and living by the [Orthodox] rules."

While Carlebach's audiences were far ranging—encompassing Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, secular, and Orthodox fan bases, they were largely, if not exclusively, drawn from the Jewish world. And Matishayu's documentary suggests that his main audience would also be a Jewish one. Most of the footage is from a concert in Jerusalem, and Matisyahu himself is interviewed from the steps of the old city where Chassidim casually stroll by, unfazed by the young musicians drumming and chanting in their vicinity.

Matisyahu's lyrics draw on the Hebraic element already present in Rastafarianism and reggae music, but place those elements in an even more Jewish context. The song "Heights" is an excellent example:

With brothers coming home at last/Fighting together for light/Sons and daughters of Abraham/ Lay down to a higher command/Don't be tricked by the acts of man/ G-d's wisdom revealed in a holy plan/ A chance to unite the past.// To Zion we roam/And we're not all alone/ Unite and purify.

This song, among many others, contains phrases and ideas that are, short of being in Hebrew, the most specifically Jewish one could imagine. Most of Matisyahu's lyrics are inflected with Yiddish as well as English, explicitly Zionist, and kabbalistically mystical at the same time.

For these reasons, as we drove up to an outdoor venue next to the Lincoln Theater in Raleigh, we were expecting a Jewish ambience. We ourselves knew that Matisyahu, as an observant Jew, would not appear until three stars shone in the evening sky—the sign that the Sabbath is officially over. And we would not have been surprised if most of the audience was drawn from the Jewish population in the Triangle area.

What we encountered, however, was far different. The park was filled with hundreds of young people from a wide variety of backgrounds—no different than any other rock concert. They were drinking, flirting, eating, shouting, and singing. They waved their cell phones to the beat as the immediately previous generation waved their lighters. Children were being hoisted onto their parents' shoulders, and screaming young men and women hoisted themselves up onto the terraces of nearby buildings to get a better view.

And, like any other rock concert, most of the people seemed to know Matisyahu's lyrics—Jewishly specific as they were. Concertgoers pumped their fists at key moments in the songs. And the lyrics they favored surprised us. The song "Jerusalem: Out of Darkness Comes Light" was a particular favorite with this highly secular and diverse crowd. The song is filled allusions from the Psalms (137:5):

Jerusalem, if I forget you/ fire's not gonna come from my tongue/ Jerusalem, if I forget you/let me right hand forget what it's supposed to do./

Later the song explicitly reflects contemporary Zionist perspectives:

Three thousand years with no place to be/ and they want us to give up our milk and honey/ Don't you see it's not about the land or the sea/ Not a country, but the dwelling of his majesty./

As Matisyahu twirled and leaped on the stage with these words, the audience sang along exuberantly. Children chanted the words with their parents, stomping their feet in tune to the music. Long lines of concertgoers locked arms and swayed to the music. One young man, clearly inebriated, signaled that he was going to climb a small tree in order to express his enthusiasm. We all watched, holding our breath, as he swung his bulky frame onto the young and fragile branches of the sapling, swaying in time to the music.

At one particularly ecstatic moment in the same song, Matisyahu referred to the Holocaust:

Rebuild the Temple and the crown of glory/Years gone by, about sixty/burned in the oven in this century/And the gas tried to choke but it couldn't choke me./

There was no indication that these words were understood as particularly Jewish or historically relevant to the crowd on hand. There were no yarmulkes, no Yiddish, no conversations amongst the participants that we heard that had specifically Jewish content. But the people were obviously deeply moved by the words and the music.

How do we account for this phenomenon? Previously, songs of a less specifically religious nature were the songs that had a wide appeal, a cross-over appeal. No one could mistake the hyper-accessible lyrics of "We Are the World" for being religiously specific in nature. Why is it that references to the Psalms, the Holocaust, and Kabbalah, all contained within a single song, could have the same, or an even more powerful effect, for a secular audience?

We concluded that we might well call this phenomenon "modern day mantra." Scholars of religion have long debated about the use of mantras and other verbal formulae in rituals: how and when do people use efficacious words that they may not understand in order to bring about a change in themselves or in the world? These words may be nonsensical, such as abracadabra or hocus-pocus. Or they could be words that are meaningful in one context but not in another. Matisyahu's lyrics belong to the second category; they are most meaningful in a highly specific Jewish context, and could not have the same meaning for a secular audience as they do for a Jewishly-educated one.

Yet clearly the words had significance for everyone there—the sober and the inebriated, the secular and the religious, the ethnically specific and the ethnically unidentified. This phenomenon might indicate a new tolerance of cultural difference. Previously, songs of uplift, such as "We Are the World," were best mediated through generic lyrics or secular terms. Yet Matisyahu's songs are not mediated at all. They remain squarely within a Jewish idiom—resolutely un-translated into the generic secularity that is the hallmark of American culture. And yet, although they remained specific, Matisyahu's lyrics contained a message of uplift and spirituality that "crossed over" to a more general audience.

Hence the modern-day mantra of Matisyahu: a musical language that is accepted in all of its difference and embraced by the concert-going public. Matisyahu's fans may not know the specifics of the Psalms, or the geography of Jerusalem, but neither do they demand that such phrases be explained in detail. Even if their meaning remains obscure, Matisyahu's lyrics are experienced as inspiring and his music as uplifting all the same. We do not need to know that it was the Psalmist who first agonized about forgetting Jerusalem in order to sing along.

This article originally appeared on Patheos, and can be accessed at: