The Cinch Review

Ron Rosenbaum on Bob Dylan, Judaism, Christianity etc

The writer Ron Rosenbaum—who is working on his own biography of Bob Dylan—was interviewed by JWeekly.com. He had recently given a lecture at Stanford University called “Bob Dylan’s God Problem—and Ours.” He’s asked in the article whether he thinks Bob Dylan is an observant Jew or not.

“It’s a difficult question to answer,” Rosenbaum said. “If you read the Internet, there are all sorts of sightings of Dylan at Chabad-Lubavitcher services. Does that mean he’s become one of them? I don’t know. Does that mean any of [the sightings] are verifiable? There are enough of them to make you think there’s something to it. But who knows? He could be exploring, experimenting, whatever. He’s certainly no longer the scolding Christian that he was for a few years.”

[…]

Dylan’s departure from Christianity “was sort of gradual,” he said. “It’s not like he formally abjured it. It just seemed to slip into the past.” In fact, Rosenbaum sees a profoundly Jewish thread woven throughout Dylan’s life, including the ’60s years.

It’s kind of amazing, when you think about it, that it even needs to be said that there is a “profoundly Jewish thread woven throughout Dylan’s life.” Isn’t that pretty hard to miss? But then the Jewish experience in America includes the phenomenon of those who try to run away from their Jewishness, in a variety of senses, and Dylan has given some reason to believe that he might be doing this at different times. This article also includes a quote from an interview Dylan gave to Rosenbaum in 1977, where he said, “I’ve never felt Jewish. I don’t really consider myself Jewish or non-Jewish.” That sounds like a flat-out rejection, but I would suggest that (aside from Dylan’s knee-jerk hatred of labels) it was more an expression of frustration at that particular time with his failure up to that date to find answers in Judaism as he then knew it, based on his upbringing and life experiences. The whole subject of faith in Dylan’s life was to undergo an earthquake not long thereafter, and comments from him that touch on his Jewishness post-1979 are quite different.

Ron Rosenbaum’s observations also provide another example, I think, of how secular or non-believing commentators on Bob Dylan—of which there are so many because of Dylan’s place in our culture—tend to find the subject of faith in Dylan’s work and life to be very mysterious and perplexing. I think on the other hand that listeners who themselves have religious faith can generally pick up on how Dylan is expressing his, and living it, in his songs. In particular, I think it’s clear to many such listeners that since 1979 Dylan’s work has been absolutely teeming with the reflections, questions, struggles and the blessings of someone going on his journey through life guided by faith in and love for God. Certainly, he’s avoided writing obvious “Jesus” songs since Shot of Love, but the language of faith has remained very strong if more oblique, all the way from Infidels to Together Through Life. (I’ve written enough on individual songs before, as have others, so I’m not going to belabor that now.) Underlining the centrality of those themes have been songs by others that he’s chosen to cover, live in concert and sometimes on record: “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior,” “Rock of Ages,” “Somebody Touched Me,” “Rank Strangers to Me,” “Lone Pilgrim” … his rewrite and rerecording of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” and so on and on. And, um, Christmas In the Heart was a little bit hard to miss (though maybe not for some).

I understand the fun in the whole argument about whether Bob Dylan is an observant Jew or a Christian, based on counting anecdotal reports and the parsing of comments Dylan has made during interviews with rock journos (who generally don’t understand the subject matter themselves and are easily deflected). But in 2011 it’s also a little wearisome. While others see a conflict and an either/or situation on this subject, it ought to be clear by now that Dylan personally does not. His work is filled with references to the Scripture of both the Old and the New Testaments; he attends Yom Kippur services and sings Christian hymns (though not at the Yom Kippur services so far as anyone knows); he goes on the Chabad telethon and sings a Christian song by Hank Williams … and so on. He believes in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and he continues to attest in his now-not-fire-breathing-way to faith in that man full of sorrow and strife, the one who promised to make all old things new again: Jesus. It’s all there. Some people may find it unacceptable for their own philosophical or theological reasons, but I think that they’re better off leaving their own conflicts behind when it comes to Bob and just enjoying what they can get from the music.


In saying that people of faith more easily pick up on these things in Dylan’s work I don’t mean to suggest that non-believing listeners or critics can never understand Dylan—because some have brilliant insights—but just that the absence of a feeling for the language of faith can sometimes spread confusion in those ranks.

I’m not making a presumption about Ron Rosenbaum on that score, I hope; the article does include this:

As far as his own Judaism, Rosenbaum, who grew up Reform on Long Island, N.Y., “came to love everything Jewish,” but he is not an observant Jew. “Those who do believe fervently should be offering better answers. I’d like to be persuaded.”

Both the Jewish and Christian traditions now stretch back thousands of years, with so many great teachers, great books, great art, great examples of belief and of living … but some are still waiting for those “better answers” to come along and break down the door. But being open to being persuaded is at least a positive stance.

Not to be heavy-handed, but one of those reflections on faith from Dylan’s “post-Christian” period is irresistible to me at this point.

Maybe someday you’ll hear a voice from on high
Sayin’, “For whose sake did you live, for whose sake did you die?”
Forgive me, baby, for what I didn’t do
For not breakin’ down no bedroom door to get at you
Always was a sucker for the right cross
Never wanted to go home ’til the last cent was lost
Maybe someday you will look back and see
That I made it so easy for you to follow me

(From “Maybe Someday.”)

10 thoughts on “Ron Rosenbaum on Bob Dylan, Judaism, Christianity etc

  1. Dylan once said that it would be a hundred years after his death before anyone understood what he was getting at with his songs. (I think an interview in the 1980s.) For the rock journalism world it might even be longer!

  2. Observant Jew?

    The portion of the Torah read in synagogues around the world yesterday began with Genesis 12:1 – God’s command to Abraham to leave Ur-Kasdim. So many commentators pick up on the strange wording of that command – in Hebrew the words are “Lech lecha” – which translates as “Go to yourself”. Not to equate the two personalities, but some would say that over the course of his life (may he continue until 120) Mr. Dylan has tried to follow that directive.

  3. Dovid: That’s very interesting, that “Go to yourself” idea of Genesis 12:1. Obviously that’s not the way it’s usually rendered in the English translations so I’d never heard it. But it can’t help but remind me of something from the New Testament, in the parable of the Prodigal Son. After demanding his inheritance early, and wasting it, and becoming bereft, the story continues with this phrase in Luke 15:17: “But when he came to himself …” And then he returns, contrite, to his father who welcomes him.

    It raises the question of what “going to yourself” means, ultimately. One of Dylan’s greatest strengths as a songwriter has been his effort to be true to himself – no matter how inconvenient or controversial that’s been at various times. (It’s easy to dismiss that with hindsight, now that he’s had all this success, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that he’s been berated, mocked, accused and condemned many times over for simply writing and singing what he felt like writing and singing — and he could have gone an “easier” route instead by doing what people expected of him.)

    To get back to the different perspective one might bring along as a person of faith: Being true to oneself in that context should go beyond the idea of just doing your own thing in a kind of careless or self-absorbed way. It ought to mean being true to the deepest truth you can know within yourself. And that leads to the territory of Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Insight: sight within. Seeing inside yourself. Going to yourself. I think you and some others would agree that Dylan’s work has always had an awareness of God and of eternity at some fundamental level. I think that has something to do with why he’s almost always written songs which sound timeless versus songs which appear trapped in their moment, or which become dated. Anyway, “Go to yourself,” interesting, thank you!

  4. Hi Sean:

    I very much liked your response to the article by Ron Rosenbaum. And your added comments below it.

    There is a tradition in Judaism called “t’shuvah” to return – or as the late great Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach sang – “Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul. Return to who you are, return to where you are, return to what you are, return to the land of your soul.

    How one achieves this, or even starts on the journey constitutes for all of us a major challenge. Dylan’s introspection, humor, and many wanderings, help us to engage on this life-sustaining trip.

  5. Dylan is clearly still a Messianic, completed, Jew who love Jesus Christ…..Many Jewish people have a hard time even uttering the words Jesus Christ. Dylan was opening every show just last year speaking of Jesus coming for His jewels. Dylan also makes it clear in Thunder on the Mountain, ‘dont need to confess i already confessed.;, The video clip of that tune shows him with the Slow Train Coming/Saved Band, in 1979/1980….He certainly did confess Jesus during that tour. he still does…

    In Thunder he also sings, “stand beside my King.” Another reference to Christ.

    I know Roman Catholics, and other Christians who would welcome a Chabad service… The Lubavitz are beautiful, believing people. They don’t denounce Jesus Christ….as far as i can see. They are waiting for the Lord to come…

    Dylan would say like he sang almost 50 years ago…’whats the sense of talking to me, its the same as talking to you.” Something like that…In other words, we are all valuable….get your own salvation package in order….prepare to die and meet the Lord.
    Lets all try to live holy lives close to God…..We will find out the full truth at death. Love covers a multitude of sin…..

    Divine Mercy of Jesus Christ, bless us all.

    Thanks for your work Sean

  6. thanks for quoting from Knocked Out Loaded! I confess I always heard “cause”, not “cross” but I just confirmed the lyrics at bobdylan.com which of course, in addition to religious meaning also brings to mind:

    Cross
    A cross is a power punch thrown with the boxer’s dominant hand. It’s also called a straight right, right or straight punch.

  7. To question what or whether Bob Dylan believes as though there is a valid and conclusive answer is to place oneself in exactly the kind of airless philosophical box that Dylan’s work has been a decades-long escape from. Among the many gifts Dylan offers listeners is the invitation to thought and feeling through religious language that is playful, provoking, and visionary–exactly as true and as false as the richest myths we have ever invented to inspire us. Asking what Dylan believes is as puerile as asking whether Milton really believed in Satan. When Dylan briefly left his own mythmaker behind and spoke the language of prescriptive evangelical Christianity, he gave us the shibboleth of the narrow philosophical world we seem to be living in now, where we must either have faith or unbelief. There is laziness and cowardice in that narrow space, and powerful spiritual art (and there’s not much better than Bob Dylan’s) can lead minds out of that either/or space into the kind of profound, inventive, enduring experiences that Dante or Milton provide us. From Gates of Eden to Dirt Road Blues to Red River Shore–let’s ask how these spiritual spaces enhance being human, and let’s stop stalking Bob Dylan to Yom Kippur services. I’m sure his Yom Kippurs are not very different from anyone’s: in between moments of being moved and reflective, his mind wanders and his stomach growls. Our business is the work he gives us.

  8. Nice, but I alwys thought Dylan’s ‘Religious Period’ started with John Wesley Harding? I bought it when it came out, at 16, and have marveled at the Biblicalness of it since.

  9. As one who converted from Christianity to Judaism and who now lives in ‘The Promised Land’ (no, not LA:) I found the above to be Interesting stuff. One thing that I’d like to point out is that in singing his re-worked ‘Gonna Change My Way of Thinking’ at Ramat Gan Stadium in Israel on 20 June 2011, Bob did not utter the name of ‘Jesus’ but purposely moved away from the mic for the first syllables of his name so all you heard was ‘..sus is coming’ ………. you make of that what you will:)!

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