Bob Dylan - The Zemanim they Are a Changin

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October 16 2006

The world of Bob Dylan’s songs bring to life a dynamic array of characters, themes, and melodies. But the one constant throughout Bob Dylan’s career, is G-d. While in real life (outside of the printed lyric that is) Bob Dylan’s commitment and connection to Judaism is in some ways mysterious, mercurial, and marginal, as far as his feelings go, Bob Dylan is a religiously inclined individual. He is a man that shows a face interested in the mystical underpinnings of Judaism. He is a man that emerges with ideas that often run congruous to basic Jewish philosophies. He is a man whose yearnings hover surprisingly close to mainstream Orthodox Judaism.

In the 19th Century, Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin, better known as Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, fathered the Mussar movement. This brought a strong and overt focus on ethical development to Judaism. This also meant that one’s flaws were to be highlighted in order to find room for improvement. Maimonides, in his Mishnah Torah, already preempted the overt style of Mussar by noting that the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah was the instrument by which we tell each other – "עורו ישנים משנתכם" – “wake up you sleepers from your slumber.” In the song “Sugar Baby” off of the Love and Theft album, Bob Dylan gives us spiritual council – “Look up, look up - seek your Maker - 'fore Gabriel blows his horn.” This is classic Mussar – reproach in its most raw form.

One of the most philosophically challenging issues in Jewish philosophy is the issue of Divine Providence, or G-d’s interaction with humans in their present state. Many of our great sages have debated the level and intensity of Divine intervention. Rav Eliyahu Dessler has argued that hashgacha pratis (Divine guidance) can be broken into two components – that which is evident by the external eye and that which is evident by the internal eye. The external eye seems to tell us that this world is controlled by G-d in every sense. Every move we make, every animal that grazes, every flower that wilts is controlled by G-d. Our internal eye lets us feel that we still have some control, G-d lets some things just be. Rav Dessler further develops the reasoning as to why both perspectives are necessary. Bob Dylan is also stranded between this tension of the internal eye and external eye. This duality is clear in several of his songs. Bob Dylan’s apocalyptical “Masters of War” portrays a demagogue that is physically capable and free to cause havoc upon the world. Still, Dylan realizes the eventual “judgment” awaiting the tyrant as he faces a time of reckoning before G-d. “Idiot Wind,” which is a play on the Talmudic concept of a “ruach shtus,” also works within the balance of this fine line between apparent Divine Determinism and Free Will.

What prolific Jewish author can fairly leave out some treatise on personality traits – or what we call Middos? Bob Dylan spends a considerable amount of time weeding out the traits that distance us from both humankind and our Creator. In the haunting “License to Kill,” Dylan preaches – “Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool And when he sees his reflection, he's fulfilled.” This loaded line has dual meaning; it is both an ode to the Vilna Gaon’s statement of stagnancy – “if you are not going up up you are going down down,” and it is a reference to self pride, Gayva, if you will. Dylan’s distaste for depravity continues in his classic “Blind Willie McTell,” – “well, G-d is in heaven And we all want what's his but power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.”

We also believe that our imperative for becoming good people stems from the Divine that is within us – the צלם אלוקים. The fact that we are created in the image of G-d mandates a certain level of dignity that is due to other human beings. The Talmud in Tractate Brachos deals extensively with the concept of kavod habriyot – honor that must be accorded other human beings due to human dignity, even if it at times warrants the suspension of certain Mitzvos. Bob Dylan is no stranger to the concept of Dignity as he belts into his piercing soliloquy – “Somebody got murdered on New Year's Eve. Somebody said dignity was the first to leave. I went into the city, went into the town, went into the land of the midnight sun. Searchin' high, searchin' low Searchin' everywhere I know, askin' the cops wherever I go have you seen dignity?”

According to the Rambam, one of the tenets of our faith is that we believe in an afterlife, olam habaah – The World to Come. While our sources are not hung up on this concept – it is a latent assumption that runs throughout our holiest works. Bob Dylan is in many ways fascinated with olam habaah. He has light references to the afterlife as is evidenced by the song “In the Summertime,” and he has stark references as portrayed in the song “Are you Ready?” but the most sensitive and most Judaic reference is that which is stressed in the song “Trying to Get to Heaven.” Dylan humbly claims – “You broke a heart that loved you. Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore. I've been walking that lonesome valley trying to get to heaven before they close the door.” One cannot help but envision the powerful imagery of the end of Yom Kippur service, Ne’ilah, where the gates of prayer are ever so gently closing.

If we are going to trust anybody with Jewish values there needs to be some sign that the content is rooted in our Bible. References to Biblical verses run aplenty in Dylan’s songs. The lyric “I and I, One says to the other, no man sees my face and lives,” is a reference to G-d’s comment to Moses. In the song “The Wicked Messenger” Dylan waxes a little more Biblical when he states that “Until one day he just appeared with a note in his hand which read, ‘The soles of my feet, I swear they're burning.’” This ending refrain was expressed first by the prophet Ezekiel. There are echoes of Leviticus (see “I Pity the Poor Immigrant”) and variations of Isaiah (see “All Along the Watchtower”).

In what is perhaps Dylan’s “most Jewish” moment, he pens a song that summarizes much of our history in only several stanzas. It is the blunt “Neighborhood Bully” that so eloquently expresses the isolation felt by our people who are so frequently deemed the aggressor and the troublemaker when in fact we are simply trying to stay alive. Dylan himself once said that his favorite stanza in the entire song is: “Well, he's surrounded by pacifists who all want peace, They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease. Now, they wouldn't hurt a fly. To hurt one they would weep. They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep. He's the neighborhood bully.”

We couldn’t agree more, Bob.

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