I recently attended a talk on the spiritual journey of Bob Dylan given by a well respected Jewish expert on the life of this famous singer/songwriter. The goal of the talk was to demonstrate that Dylan is Jewish despite his seemingly public non commitment to being a member of the Tribe.
As you know from my comments several weeks ago, I have been fascinated by Dylan’s years when he was a believer in Yeshua. He most likely would have been considered as having converted to Christianity for that time period rather than having become a Messianic Jew since, during the late ’70s and early ’80s, Messianic Judaism was not as well defined as a form of Judaism. There were less Messianic Jewish synagogues that embraced Yeshua through services characteristic of mainstream Jewish services and many Jews observed their faith in Yeshua by attending churches.
What I found striking about the hour long presentation was to what great lengths the speaker went to give a talk on the spiritual journey of Bob Dylan, what detail he went into to prove Dylan was a Jew, and how uncomfortable he was with “those years” when Dylan was a believer in Yeshua. In fairness, this fact was mentioned a couple times, but always with a side comment not at all in keeping with the otherwise very scholarly presentation. The Yeshua years were the one piece of the story the speaker had to include and yet one that he just couldn’t do with the professionalism and historical honesty he clearly set out to achieve.
The point of the beginning of the talk was how many different identities Bob Dylan has as demonstrated by his lyrics – Dylan the ballad writer, poet, folk singer, protester, pop star, rock star, humorist, easily 12 other sometimes even humorous labels including “cowboy” narrated each slide. And yet, that overview never mentioned the Christian song writing era of at least clearly 3 or 4 years, where a choice of label appropriate for that time from the speaker’s perspective would have been “Christian”. I, as a listener, would have preferred to struggle with even that verbiage than to simply have the fact be ignored at all.
The presenter goes through a chronological discussion of Dylan’s public persona vis-à-vis his religion. He explains how Dylan changed his name from Zimmerman (a clearly Jewish name) in order to not be perceived as Jewish. It was only years later that media coverage “outed” him as a Jew. The speaker notes how Dylan never self identifies as a Jew and yet vignettes are presented to show he considers himself as such. So with this trajectory of thesis, when the time frame of the late ’70s and early ’80s came up, which is when Dylan accepted Yeshua and produced a number of what are often referred to as Christian inspired albums, the speaker literally said, “We’re not going to discuss this.”
Seriously!!! I’m at a talk on “Bob Dylan’s Jewish Blues” and “we’re not going to discuss this!!??” Even on the speaker’s agenda it seems this walk into Yeshua belief from a Dylan historian’s point of view not only is intriguing, related to the topic, but is right on the point of the lecture! From the speaker’s perspective, how much more Jewish blues could a nice Jewish boy embrace than to believe in Yeshua?!
In fairness to the speaker, Dylan’s belief in Yeshua is alluded to lightly. He shares a cartoon referencing Dylan’s time in our faith as well as a poster “Jews Kick Ass” showing celebrity Jews we don’t often think of as Jewish to prove his point that Dylan is Jewish. I love the fact that one of those depicted on that poster is, yes, Yeshua! (a point the speaker downplays under mumbled breath).
The presenter is a recognized authority on Bob Dylan, so much so that he is quoted in biographies of Bob Dylan. And yet, he could not comfortably discuss Dylan’s clearly public times as a believer in Yeshua. For to do so would not fit into the speaker’s agenda to show Dylan as a Jew. Ironically, if the speaker could understand that Jews who believe in Yeshua are still Jewish, his talk would have been internally consistent with his thesis. Unfortunately, he does not understand Messianic Judaism. Nevertheless, the facts are what they are and an honest discussion of history requires the truth. I have to give him credit for the references, such as they were, to Dylan’s Yeshua years, but their paucity and tenor spoke volumes.
A question from the audience was how would the speaker compare Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen on the topic of identification as a Jew. His answer was that Leonard Cohen never hid his religious beliefs, whereas, Bob Dylan hides behind a mask and won’t publicly reveal who he really is. One just has to piece it together by his actions. I’m no expert, and I see that Dylan’s son was bar mitzvahed and that Dylan supports Chasidic causes. But I also see even recent albums reviewed by Christian publications noting his lyrics show he is still a believer in Yeshua.
It seems Jews and Christians both want to claim Dylan as their own. Truth is Yeshua already has.