Arts and Culture | Columns | First Person

“Rabbi, Matisyahu shaved off his beard! Should I shave off mine?”

NEW YORK (JTA) — As if the Jewish world doesn’t have enough problems with Iran on the brink of starting a nuclear war and the radical Muslim Brotherhood making gains in Egypt’s phased elections.

This week we were rocked by another close shave with disaster: “Chasidic reggae superstar” Matisyahu got rid of his facial hair!

Full disclosure: Matis is a friend and I’m a fan. However, I always feared the label “Chassidic reggae superstar” was a heavy burden for someone who became so “frum so fast.” It seems that the beard became a symbol of that burden to Matis, and he felt he had to do something drastic to free himself from other people’s expectations and demands.

I can’t begin to imagine the pressure of being the most famous bearded Jew on the planet. People in Japan may not know who the chief rabbi of Israel is, but you’d better believe they know Matisyahu — especially if they’ve seen him live in concert.

I’ll admit that I’m taking Matisyahu’s decision to go clean shaven a bit personally. Having such a prominent Jewish celebrity embrace the beautiful dictum of letting the hair on the face grow made me look cool, too, and allowed me to relate better to my students. (At least that’s what I told myself.) But herein lies the root (pun intended) of the problem. I for one am guilty at times of using his success to encourage other young people to become more involved in their faith. My intentions were always pure, but there is always a danger that we’ll mix up the message with the messenger.

In a world where pop culture is so ubiquitous and real life can feel sometimes like a struggle, we can start to live vicariously through celebrities, making them into idols.

I received a call from a young man distraught that his musical and spiritual hero Matisyahu had shaved off his beard. The young man actually asked me if he should follow suit. I gently told him he needed to learn more Torah and then decide, adding that I’d be happy to learn along with him. Yet the truth is, anyone who grows a beard because a “Chasidic reggae superstar” has one probably wasn’t mature enough to grow one in the first place even if they were able.

We place too much of our own hopes and dreams into the hands of Jewish celebrities. Take the sporting arena: What happens when your favorite kosher-eating, kipah-wearing “Chasidic celebrity boxer’ loses a bout? Do you suddenly stop wearing a kipah and keeping Shabbat?

I’m certainly not an A-list star in the constellation of “Chasidic celebrities.” I’m probably a D-lister (on a good day). One of my best-selling books is about the Jewish influences on the creation of classic comic book superheroes. Over the years I’ve received numerous e-mails from overly enthusiastic readers eager to share their “deep” theories about the “spirituality of Superman” and such. It’s flattering, but also disconcerting. I wanted the book to inspire readers to go on to further explore Jewish philosophy, not obsess about comic books. I’ve started writing back, “I think it’s time to turn off the laptop …”

I’m grateful for celebrities who choose to observe Jewish tradition in the public eye. We can salute them and admire them, as long as we never forget that they are people, not prophets. To treat them otherwise is unfair to them and us. In the wise words of Monty Python, Matisyhau is “not the Messiah.”

It’s going to be a cold winter, especially if you don’t have a lush beard anymore to warm you. Let’s let the lights of the Chanukah candles warm our faces — bearded or not — and look up to a real hero: Matisyahu the Maccabee.

In the meantime, like facial hair on a beardless face, “we all have room to grow.”

Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is a best-selling author who recently was voted “New York’s Hippest Rabbi” by PBS-Ch. 13. His forthcoming book on demography is titled “The Case for Having Kids: Why parenthood makes you (and your world) healthy, wealthy and wise.”