The point, though, is not which Isaac Madonna is singing about but that she’s singing about an Isaac to begin with. Do we really want our pop stars to be God brokers, torch bearers of Testaments, Old or New? When Bono showed up at President Bush’s National Prayer Breakfast a few weeks ago, he sure seemed to think so. He stooped to God talk when he pleaded with 3M to remove policy restrictions that keep poor countries from accessing necessary medical supplies. “God will not accept that,” he said. “Mine won’t. Will yours?”
Madonna shouldn’t be singled out for her mystical awakening into the cult of the red bracelet when Bono is busy debating religious relativism with the president of the United States. But the fact that you can hear her Jewphilia on a pop station and then flip to alt-rock radio and hear Lubavitch Hasidism’s first Billboard-charting superstar, Matisyahu, demanding “Mosiach now!” on his “King Without a Crown” begs a larger question: how has Judaism become the new Christianity?
On “Roots in Stereo,” a duet between Matisyahu and Christian rap-rockers P.O.D. on the metal band’s latest Atlantic release, Testify, there doesn’t seem to be any difference between the two religions. In the song’s spliffy rude-boy blur where we’re all “the blood of God’s veins,” Jewish redemption and Christian redemption turn out to be the same thing after all.
Not that anyone seems to be listening too closely to what Matisyahu — once a Phish-following burnout named Matthew Miller who traded in his white-boy dreads for ultra-Orthodox Judaism — has been singing about. (Or for that matter, whether he’s even been on key.) He’s a Hasid on the mike! A black hat down for the boom bip! Just check the come-one-come-all circus-freak headlines: “Rebbe Rudeboy,” “Where Peter Tosh Meets Mazel Tov,” and of course, Stuff’s call to “check his circumcised rhymes.”
Matisyahu’s novelty has overshadowed the fact that this “next-big-thing” is a convert to a hard-line, messianic branch of Judaism committed to strict interpretations of Jewish ritual and law. Lubavitcher Hasidim have their roots in late 18th-century Russia but have made the most noise in 20th-century Brooklyn under the leadership of their late rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (who many of them believe is the Messiah, due back on earth any day now). Matisyahu’s brethren aren’t just devout believers, though, they’re devout spiritual enforcers, best known for their aggressive attempts to get non-Orthodox Jews to come back to the fold and re-discover “real” Judaism. The pope has a car, the Lubavitch have vans: “Mitzvah mobiles.”
On Youth, Matisyahu’s eagerly awaited third album (out this Tuesday on Epic), there’s no listing of Orthodox law, no Sabbath candle-lighting checklist. But it is most certainly a product of someone who believes God, or G-d, is everywhere and ready to intervene. Bathed in surprisingly hollow production from Bill Laswell, Youth is loaded with standard born-again, Orthodox speak: man is weak, “the reflection of imperfection” and in need of God’s help; substance abuse should be avoided (i.e., “treyf wine clouds the heart”), and “God’s wisdom [is] revealed in a holy plan.”