Most people who know me well know that I’m a life long fan of Bob Dylan. I may have even mentioned it here once or twice. A friend recently pointed out an interesting piece about, as she said “Dylan and God”, that I might enjoy. I found it interesting, food for thought, and as you might expect, grist for this blog mill.
You can read it at the link above, but essentially it is a long apology by a writer, who is in the process of writing a book about Dylan for a Jewish scholarly series, who felt he hurt the feeling of an elderly rabbinical scholar who attended a lecture he gave that ended up chastising the Jews for continuing to believe, after the Holocaust, in a Jewish God who looks out for and protects the Jews. Somehow he used something written by Dylan as a jumping off point for his lecture, but ultimately, that’s all it was – a spark for his answer to the ultimate question of theodicy. He was completely blown away by a two line, eight word section of Dylan’s strange 60s novel Tarantula, to wit:
hitler did not change history.
hitler WAS history … “
You’ll need to read the piece, because I’m not going to explain here how that affected his thinking, or ultimately his lecture, or why he felt he needed to apologize to the old Jew. I want to talk about two other things – Bob Dylan and Theodicy.
First, Dylan. Dylan is a genius, but not someone who I would go to for theological or historical advice. He is an artistic genius, having a command of the English language, and an ability to put concepts and emotions and feelings into words that rival, in my humble opinion, that of Shakespeare. He’s called the Bard of Our Times for a reason. And to boot, he’s able to put those words to music. Memorable, sing-along, music that gets better with repeated listening, not boring or outdated. Of course, like all art, that’s a subjective opinion, but it’s one held by many. And I, for one, would much rather hear him sing his own songs than anyone else. Your mileage may vary.
But I don’t admire him for his theological or historical acumen. This is a man who, like his song, has traveled personal theological paths seemingly blown by the wind. Raised a Jew, (real name, Robert Zimmerman) he didn’t emphasize his spiritual beliefs until the late 70s when he became (to my horror) an evangelical “born again” Christian. He’s since given that up, returning to his Jewish roots, especially in family matters, but outwardly is areligious. Music is his religion.
The problem with putting stock in Dylan’s words is not so much that they seem enlightened, but that he has such a large body of work that, like Christians’ reliance on the Bible, one can find support for almost anything one wants to believe somewhere in something he wrote over the past 50 years. He has always disclaimed any notion of being a prophet or a “spokesman for his generation”, and for good reasons. I think he has no problem allowing people to read his work and use them to come to their own conclusions, as any artist would, but to impose on him some intent that those words are the gospel truth, he would dismiss as total and absolute nonsense.
Rosenbaum, in his essay, says:
Whoa. Those eight words: “… hitler did not change history. hitler WAS history”! Where did that come from? In the 10 years I spent writing a 500-page book called Explaining Hitler (Random House, 1998), not one of the historians, philosophers, artists, or other sages I spoke to or read ever made as white-hot an indictment of humanity as that. An indictment, implicitly, of God as well.
That seems a bit hyperbolic to me. When I read those words, I thought “well, d’uh”. Of course, no one changes history. That would assume that history has already occurred and one could go back in time and change it, a temporal impossibility. Every person of historical prominence is only a part of history. They create history, but once created, history just is what it is, immutable and unchangeable (except to the extent that historians interpret and reinterpret it, so that we have a fluid understanding of it). Give Dylan credit for stating the obvious, not for any earth shaking insight.
Now, the second topic – theodicy. Rosenbaum defines it, but I’ll repeat it for the reader.
…it is rather a subdiscipline of theology that deals exclusively with the question of evil and God: How can a God who is worshiped as an all-powerful, all-knowing, and loving deity who is able to intervene in history be reconciled with the vast amounts of murderous suffering and evil that God permits to prevail on this earth?
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
Rosenbaum looks at theodicy, and frankly questions the existence of god himself, (god is a “a nebbish”—a hapless and useless fiction) because the Holocaust seems to represent the epitome of the Epicurean paradox. And any Jewish scholar who continues to believe that the Jewish God continues to protect the Jews as the chosen people after Hitler, is simply rationalizing their beliefs because they
… wanted [their] God, [they] wanted the consolation of a God, [they] needed to pray to him, and I had said doing so was robbing the graves of the dead.
So Rosenbaum apologizes because it hurts the old man’s feelings? What blatherskite! He alludes to various apologetics that lets God off the hook, from “the Holocaust was designed to hasten the formation of the State of Israel” to “God was in every death camp, in ‘every act of goodness and self-sacrifice the camp inmates showed one another’”, thereby removing the humanity in those acts of goodness, replacing them with god and, metaphorically “robbing the graves of the dead” of their acts of humanity.
Why not simply apply Occam’s Razor to the issue of theodicy? Why not pick the simplest, most parsimonious explanation that relies on the least complex set of facts? And what is that explanation for why the Holocaust happened and God ignored his chosen people? Why, in fact, did God allow six million of them to die, while even more died in the war surrounding the Holocaust?
It’s quite simple. There was no god to ignore them. Isn’t that the answer to the Holocaust, and the best choice of the Epicurean Paradox? Doesn’t that make the simplest, cleanest sense of a horrible occurrence? It doesn’t explain Hitler, it doesn’t explain any particular individual act of evil, but it does explain why God stood by and did nothing – because God. Doesn’t. Exist. At least not the god that the major Abrahamic religions subscribe to.
Rosenbaum feels bad suggesting that this might be true.
Hitler is dead, and I had nonetheless hurt the feelings of an undoubtedly good man to make a point about Hitler, God, and Bob Dylan.
Well, too bad. We should allow people to cling to delusions because it allows them to feel better? Rosenbaum was entitled to come to his own conclusions on his own observation of the same set of facts available to the old Jewish rabbi. He was asked to share them. If he upsets people, well, is what he said more upsetting than what the families of the Holocaust victims, or the victims themselves, experienced with their deaths, deaths which were engendered in part in the same religious milieu that the rabbi sought for spiritual comfort? And don’t forget that Hitler was a Catholic, and believed in the same god that the victims of his anti-Semitic, genocidal actions believed in.
No, he should not apologize for speaking what he believes is the truth. Feelings can be mended. Lives can not be brought back from death. Belief in foolish religious nonsense has almost always resulted in more of the latter than the former. His instincts were correct.
Call foolishness where you see it and let the chips fall where they may.
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it
Visions of Johanna – Bob Dylan