Do you ever question your beliefs about Judaism? Do you question God’s word, the value of the commandments, the teachings of the forefathers and rabbis, the meaning of the rituals and prayers?
They say the Jewish people are God wrestlers. We don’t always accept God’s word or anything to do with our religion without questions, without wanting to understand why, without pondering the value, the validity, the truth of what we are told or asked to do.
Yet, sometimes we get stuck in fear—fear that if we don’t listen to God’s word, believe every single word we hear and do as those words command—something bad might happen. We might be struck down by lightning, fall from grace, not live another year, not receive God’s goodness. Then we stop wrestling with God.
It takes a lot to move out of that fear and to begin questioning again, wrestling again.
I was pleased this week to find a current example of someone who moved through that fear and began God wrestling—and did so in the public eye. Chassidic reggae musician and singer Matisyahu publicly shaved off his beard and peyes and uploaded a picture of himself clean shaven on Twitter on December 13. Along with it, he posted this message:
“This morning I posted a photo of myself on Twitter.
“No more Chassidic reggae superstar.
“Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias. When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality—not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.”
The next day, December 14, he explained this decision in more detail during an interview WNYC’s Soundcheck. He began growing his beard when he became religious. The decision not to shave was based on a teaching from Kabbalah that the beard is a manifestation of the 13 divine attributes of mercy, he explained. (Learn about the 13 Attributes here.) He feared that if he were to shave the beard, he would no longer be privy to those blessings of mercy.
Recently, however, he asked himself, “How can [God’s mercy] possibly be connected to me shaving or not? And I began, over the last few weeks, I went through a pretty major transformation, probably bigger than any in my life, due to several things, but a lot of revelations and a lot of realizations started coming clear to me, and I realized just like these fears that I have, the idea that God’s mercy is connected to whether I shave or not is ludicrous. And I just need to trust myself, and that if I’m deserving of God’s mercy, I’ll get it regardless.”
That’s a big jump…to trust your own goodness and to trust God to be merciful whether you follow His commandments or not. Orthodox, or observant, Jews, live within the confines of God’s laws, God’s mitzvot. They offer structure. They offer a way of life. They offer a means by which to be a good Jew, a mensch.
Yet, here we see someone coming out of that world and saying, “I think I can be a mensch, I think I can be a good person, a spiritual and religious person deserving of God’s grace and mercy without observing every single mitzvah—every commandment.”
And haven’t those of us who are not that religious wondered what would happen—in the reverse—if I suddenly became more observant? Would God be more gracious, more merciful? Would my prayers be answered?
But maybe it’s simply about being a good person, about being deserving—beard or no beard.
What about you? Do you wrestle with God? Do you question your beliefs? And do you occasionally shave your beard—metaphorical or real—to see what might happen?