14 October 2016
12 Tishrei 5777
After the news broke about Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, my inbox and social media were filled with messages. Any Nobel Prize announcement is an historic moment, but when the recipient is Jewish, it is an “important moment in Jewish history” (as the subject line read of one email I received) and an opportunity for us to ask important questions.
Giving the prize to a singer-songwriter has set off a great social-media debate about whether he deserved the prize and what the implications are for how we interpret “literature” now and in the future. More broadly, what constitutes the literary canon of contemporary American life? When is a singer-songwriter a poet-author? As I considered these questions, two things came to mind immediately. The first was my educational and spiritual inclinations to break down rigid disciplinary boundaries and to broaden our definition of what we see and interpret as “texts”. The second was the fact that, like many of you, I have spent three of the past 10 days reading and studying, praying and singing words and texts from our Jewish canon—the music and liturgy of our High Holiday services.
For many in the Jewish community, this is a moment to celebrate and claim our shared peoplehood with Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency published a piece about Dylan’s “5 most Jewish moments”. Another piece reprinted from South Africa’s Jewish Life magazine describes Dylan’s Jewish journey and cites the Jewish sources behind the classic song, Forever Young:
“The song is, by all appearances, an adaptation of the blessing that Jewish parents traditionally give to their children on Friday nights and festivals that was written by Bob for his young son, Jacob . . . It even opens with a line straight from the Priestly Blessing: ‘May God bless and keep you always’ and includes an explicit reference to the (Biblical) story of Jacob’s dream (‘May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung’).”
Bob Dylan and his unique, American Jewish story challenge us to consider our beliefs and assumptions about Judaism and Jewish tradition, values, and culture. What makes a person Jewish? What defines Jewish music, art, and literature? Who are our Jewish heroes, and what makes someone a Jewish role model? Which Jewish journeys and expressions of Judaism do we validate, honor, and celebrate? Which voices do we privilege in our communities and why?
Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, a champion of secular Jewish culture, weighed in on who might be a Jewish role model in his provocative op-ed earlier this year:
“Our story cannot be limited to a tale of rabbis, Jewish institutions and denominations. Our full story reflects the fact that from the beginning, Jews have embraced opportunities to contribute to the greatness that is the American experiment. . . Day schools are the home of Jewish values and we need to teach them — not as a subject divorced from the modern world, though, but integral to it.”
As a “new school for an ancient people,” Gann has always recognized that “the times they are a- changin’”, and our students clearly feel a connection to both Jewish tradition and the modern world. The words of Bob Dylan recur year after year in the reflective paragraphs that our seniors include in their graduation book. A recent graduate chose a Bob Dylan quote as the inspiration for his reflections on his own Gann Jewish journey: “Though I came to Gann an angry atheist, thanks to my teachers and peers, I leave a confused, but tolerant, agnostic Jew. Thanks to my teachers and the staff for creating the safe and nurturing place where I began learning who I am.”
As a model of the interconnectedness between Jewish people and ideas across time, our newly designed lobby includes the words of the Tanach (Bible) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel alongside the words of Bob Dylan. If we are going to inspire our students to contribute their unique voices to a timeless Jewish conversation as well as an American one and a broader human conversation, we need to help them see the breadth and depth of Jewish culture and the remarkable, sometimes unlikely, ways that our Jewish ideas and values find expression through the diverse voices of our people.
How appropriate for us to celebrate Bob Dylan and wrestle with these big questions on the eve of Sukkot, a Jewish holiday whose essential themes include a celebration of the diversity of the Jewish People and Judaism’s aspirations of hope and peace for all the world’s peoples.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Marc Baker