Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize Committee  awarded  Bob Dylan the 2016 Prize in literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Dylan however is worthy of this esteemed prize for a multitude of reasons, within and beyond the committee’s summary statement.

His works include beautiful poetry that take the listener “Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves. The haunted frightened trees, out to the windy beach. Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.”

It takes us to heavenly places where “fishes will laugh as they swim out of the path  and the seagulls they’ll be smiling. Where the rocks on the sand will proudly stand – the hour that the ship comes in.”

Dylan also beautifully and painfully provides a multitude of songs of conditions of the heart; both  lovestruck and broken.

The true value of the corpus of work of Dylan, however, is brought out by his many works expressing yearning for the most ethical and sought after of human ideals: peace, freedom,and justice.

Bob Dylan now joins the list of some  197 Jews who have won  a Nobel prize.

The Jewish people who comprise less than 0.32% of humanity are recipients of 22% of Nobel prizes.  Why, one might ask? The simple answer may be that we are the People of the Book. And “The Book” is of course our Torah.   And our Torah teaches us “Tikun Olam”-To fix and repair the world.  It teaches us to pursue Justice   “Tzedek, Tzedek Tierdof – Justice, Justice you shall pursue,” we are told.

Our Torah teaches us to follow the example of Aharon the Kohen, Our High priest, Brother of Moses who was an “Ohev Shalom veRodef Shalom” – A Lover of Peace and a Pursuer of Peace.   It teaches us to cherish freedom.  One way it does this is by obliging us  to remember, on a daily basis,   that we were slaves in Egypt.

Additionally, as “People of the Book” we are instructed to study and learn and teach and question.   This sharpens and develops the intellect. Equipped with a moral compass and a sharpened intellect, the people of the book have contributed greatly to their world.

This is how and  why Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Milton Friedman, Hans Krebs, Nelly Sachs Baruch Blumberg, S.Y.Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stanley Prusiner, Elie Wiesel, Menachem Begin, Bob Dylan and other members of our tribe have received a Nobel Prize.

Bob Dylan’s music, poetry and actions reflect this moral compass, as he yearns for peace, freedom and Justice..  One might argue that these may be reasons that  Dylan, like author Elie Weisel should be considered for a Nobel peace  prize , rather than, or in addition to the one for literature.

Dylan  screams out for Justice in  the telling of the tales of Davey Moore, a fighter who died in the ring  “ Who killed Davey Moore, why and what’s the reason for?” he laments.  He also cries out against “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol” a barmaid caned to death by The aristocrat William Zanzinger, and the “Death of Emmett Till” a black youth murdered in Mississipi.  He screams out about   the Murder in Prison of “George Jackson” jailed for a 70$ robbery. He protested the involvement of murderers who used a pawn/killer in the shooting of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers.  Famously, Dylan  took up the cause of the  wrongful conviction and  imprisonment of “The Hurricane” Rubin Carter.  Carter, who after his conviction  was overturned, lived in Toronto, credited Bob Dylan with playing a key role in his achieving  Freedom.

Importantly, Dylan sang out strongly against the terrible injustice done to the State of Israel in it being inappropriately labeled “The Neighborhood Bully”

Not only has Dylan pursued Justice, but Justice has pursued him.  A 2007 study of U.S. legal opinions and briefs found that  his lyrics were quoted by judges and lawyers more than those of any other songwriter, 186 times versus 74 by The Beatles who took  second place. The most widely cited lines were  “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” and “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

Dylan, like Aharon the Kohen is an “Ohev Shalom ve Rodef Shalom – A lover of peace and pursuer of peace”
“ How many times must the cannonballs fly,   before they’re forever banned”

Dylan  laments and queries in the song  “Blowin’ in the Wind”, a song regarded by many as an anthem of the peace movement”  He scorns the “Masters of War” and tells the sad tale of  “John Brown” who had his face blown off in what his Momma who “sure was proud of him” regarded as a “Good old fashioned War”

Bob Dylan has yearned for Freedom for himself and  his fellow man in “Chimes of Freedom”, “I shall be released”   “I shall be free”, and many other songs.

Dylan and his poetry and music  have been significantly influenced by and/or reflect  traditional Jewish sources, in a number of ways.   He has echoed the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) where it states “Whoever doesn’t increase, decreases”  with his inspiring declaration that “ He not busy being born is a busy dyin’” and his warning that “You’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone”
Of course for many Jewish people, Bob Dylan was born one time too many for their liking. His “born again” period is troubling to us. Dylan is a man who struggles. Like other genius artists such as Pablo Picasso, he has a complex mysterious personality.. This is why author David Yaffe entitled his 2011 biography  “ Bob Dylan: Like a complete unknown.”

He appears to have returned to Judaism, according to a number of fan sightings and reports. His connection to Torah and  Torah values is obvious and perfuses and permeates his songs.

Dylan is an ethical Monotheist. He declares in song that “God is one” He mentions God in many of his songs. He told 60 minutes in 2004 that he continues on his “Never ending tour”

(continuously circling the globe, doing about 100 shows per year, for the past 25+ years) because he has a bargain with the “chief commander-in this earth and in the world  we can’t see”
He has made it crystal clear that he believes in heaven and the afterlife, directly in interviews and through many songs such as “Knockin’ on Heaven’s door”  and “Death is not the end.” His poetry significantly contains references to the Jewish bible,  such as his “Gates of Eden”.  The Flood at the time of Noah  seems to have been an event of some importance to Dylan in that he has entitled an album “Before the Flood”.

He like Noah has warned that “ a hard rain’s gonna fall” in response to evil in the world

The sacrifice of Isaac is the opening story of “ Highway 61 Revisited” with the lyrics

“God said to Abraham, kill me a son”  This may have been a personal story for Dylan whose father’s name was Abraham. In his prayer/ love song for the wellbeing of his son Jacob, Dylan prays  “May God Bless and keep you always” and hopes that his son will “build a ladder to the stars”, an obvious allusion to the ladder of the Patriarch Jacob..

In the beautiful song “When the Ship comes In” Dylan’s lyrics include the phrases:

“when the sea will split”  as well as  “like Pharoah’s tribe they’ll be drownded in the tide and like Goliath they’ll be conquered”

Dylan has not only  spread the message through song and poetry, but also through his actions. In the small city of Rochester Minnesota, home of the Mayo clinic There is  a Chabad house that serves as a “shelter from the storm” for many Jewish families from all over the world whose loved ones have come to the world famous medical centre for specialized surgeries, cancer treatment and other therapies. These families need a place to stay and have Sabbath  meals nearby their loved ones.  On the wall of  the well stocked library in that house is a plaque stating that the  Chabad house had been built and dedicated to the memory of Abraham Zimmerman.  The donor is not mentioned.  The Rabbi, however  when specifically questioned, revealed who it was that donated the property and all of the  money for the facility.  With this donation, Bob Dylan contributed to and/or fulfilled  many of the Mitzvot/obligations of the Torah: Giving charity, visiting the sick, hosting guests, honoring Sabbath and studying and enabling study of Torah, to name a few.

In addition to the quality of his song writing Bob Dylan was rightly considered for this Nobel prize based solely  on the size of the corpus of his work and it’s influence.

“Ain’t nobody ever gonna catch that guy” declared Canadian Folk legend Gordon Lightfoot on Dylan’s 60th birthday.  And Lightfoot is almost certainly correct.

In his 57 year career, Bob Dylan has made 69 albums, written about 560 songs and  sold over 100 million records, possibly the largest amount for any artist.. His songs have been covered by 100s of artists representing many genres, including artists  those whose successful career may have depended on these works. In the sixties, Elvis  Presley enthusiastially covered Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, and more recently the Millenial sensation Adele has offered a beautiful rendition of  his  “Make You Feel My Love. ” Dylan has won Emmy’s, an Oscar, a  Pulitzer prize and a Golden Globe. His song “Like a Rollling Stone” has been declared by Rolling stone magazine to be the greatest Rock and Roll song of all time.

He has  been awarded Doctorates and been presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. The Nobel prize  will not be lonely in the trophy case.

Dylan’s craft at combining his poetry,stories, yearnings and ballads with his music is  certainly  a key to his influence now and into the future.

Several  weeks ago, Rabbi  Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote a piece about the weekly Torah portion Haazinu entitled “The Spirituality of Song”.  In it he describes the songs of the Jewish People throughout the Torah, at key moments in their history, and the enduring influence and usage of song in Jewish prayer, learning, chanting, cantillation and storytelling. He states that “The History of the Jewish Spirit is written in song” Dylan as well has used the vehicle of song  to deliver his messages. The guitar is  to Bob Dylan  what the Harp was to King David.  Rabbi Sachs, in his discussion of the Torah portion of Haazinu, notes the song that Moses sang to the people of   Israel just before his death. Rabbi Sachs  states that “We lose physical possessions, but not spiritual ones. We lost the physical Moses, but we still have the song” When the sad day comes that Bob Dylan is “Knockin’ on Heaven’s door” we will still have his music and poetry   to inspire us. May his song always be sung.

Warren C. Goldstein

About the Author
Warren C. Goldstein is a Neurologist who lives in Toronto, Canada. His three children and six grandchildren live in Israel.
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