When the Ron Rosenbaum was researching his upcoming biography of Bob Dylan—to be published as part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives Series—he came across an obscure quote. In the mid-‘60s Dylan had written an experimental novel almost impossible to read. But being a diligent journalist, Rosenbaum muscled through the novel (“Tarantula”) and found a poem that included these lines: “hitler did not change / history. hitler WAS history.”
That was all he needed to stake a provocative new interpretation of Dylan.
Most often Dylan is placed in the context of a forgotten, prophetic folk tradition in America—the backwoods charlatan, half-crazed, half-wise, who reveals shocking truths to his countrymen. It’s a thesis made famous by the eminent Dylan biographer, Marcus Greil, and one that’s only been seriously challenged by Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian and not-so-secret Dylan junkie. Wilentz recently argued in his Dylan book that the folk singer drew upon popular-front activism of the 1930s, a liberal, progressive tradition that Jewish immigrants played a large role fomenting.
But Rosenbaum sees something different. Dylan, he argues in a new teaser essay of the book, was something else entirely. He was a child of urban, 1960s “black humor”—“black” in a dark, cynical and existentialist way, not racially. Rosenbaum’s evidence is in part that rare Hitler reference in “Tarantula”, which Rosenbaum sees refracted in much of Dylan’s other poetry. The quote, as Rosenbaum reads it, essentially means that Hitler isn’t what changed history, it’s that our entire Western civilization allowed him to. Rosenbaum, no slouch on Hitler-ania (see: “Explaining Hitler”), argues that Dylan understood that the world allowed Hitler to murder 6 million Jews, and five million more. That’s even after the whole world knew what he was doing. It’s profound indictment of humanity, Rosenbaum argues, not just Hitler.
That worldview—that humanity, even recently, even still—allows preventable human suffering is a crime we all are responsible for. It was Dylan’s understanding of that truth, and his willingness to put in poetry, that made him who he was. Moreover, that worldview is nothing if not a Jewish one, particularly one born and bred in the secular, urban Jewish circles of the 1960s. If you want to understand Dylan, in other words, spend less time in Appalachian woods and more in the Big Apple.
But that’s only half of Rosenbaum’s essay. The other part—moving, honest, essential—is about how Dylan exposes a problem Jews have still not managed to confront fully. It’s the problem of theodicy, especially in the Holocaust. Theodicy—the name for the problem of how an all-powerful, loving God can allow evil to happen—Rosenbaum believes, has had no sufficient explanation after the Holocaust. And part of the shame of American Jewish leaders, sages, and rabbis has been, as he says, their cowardice or intellectually meek attempts to explain the problem of how God let the Holocaust happen.
Rosenbaum runs fairly quickly through the outright absurd and obscene explanations—Hasidic rabbis who said it was God’s punishment for Jewish secularism, or Jews who say that the Holocaust was necessary for God’s redemptive gift of the Jewish state.
But he reserves, more interestingly, special wrath for liberal, progressive Jewish answers. As he writes: “I reserved my greatest contempt for those, including many intellectually ‘progressive’ rabbis who try to get away with the sophistry that ‘God was in the camps,’ that God was there in every act of goodness and self-sacrifice the camp inmates showed one another. Doubly obscene. It steals from those brave souls the credit for their selfless acts and gives the credit to an absent God. Virtually robbing their graves for the sake of making God look better.”
Rosenbaum doesn’t backtrack from these answers. But by the end of his essay, he reveals a moving truth: for those who suffered through the camps, and still find it necessary to believe in God, what he argues may be totally offensive. In fact, when he was making these points at a recent lecture at Stanford, a Holocaust survivor, scholar and rabbi confronted him about his polemic against God. “He wanted his God, he wanted the consolation of a God, he needed to pray to him, and I had said doing so was robbing the graves of the dead,” Rosenbaum laments.
“I believe my feelings were as legitimate as his feeling of faithfulness, my anger as legitimate as his desire to continue a lifetime of belief and consolation. But who knows what losses he endured and how he had continued to love God?” The point, he goes on, is not that he should apologize for his views, but that he should apologize for the pain it caused this poor man. It is an important distinction: realizing that ideas have incredible power—and can cause incredible pain—but that we must not use that pain as a reason to change them. What we can do, however, is argue those points in less antagonistic ways, deflated of bombast and pretension. We should go on arguing, in other words, but argue with care.