This is a post about Bob Dylan and Judaism.
Were Dylan more of an ordinary person, an ordinary analysis might suffice. Such an analysis would include the normally revealing facts that Robert Zimmerman was born to Jewish parents, raised as a Jew, given a lavish Bar Mitzvah, and attended Camp Herzl in Webster, Wisconsin for four consecutive summers, from 1954-1958. As the camp's name suggests, it was Zionist, no surprise given that both Zimmerman parents were active in Jewish organizations. When Bobby Zimmerman first went to the University of Minnesota he stayed at the house of a Jewish fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu. His first marriage was to a Jewish woman. He visited Israel's Western Wall and reportedly sought to live on a kibbutz. He remains connected to the Lubavitch movement.
Dylan, that is, sounds like a middle-class Jewish success story, that of a man who, because of his enormous talent and hard work, was on extraordinarily intimate terms with both America's musical traditions and the English language. But there was also an inner religious torment unnoticed by the surface analysis. All minority group members must navigate the general human struggles of maturing, but minorities must add sometimes multiple struggles about such issues as self-acceptance and desiring the sometimes contradictory goals of acceptance by a wider group and maintaining the born self. Bobby Zimmerman's self-administered ethnotherapy was to develop an American self, "Bob Dylan."
It would be cheap and easy to claim that Dylan's religious search came solely because his efforts to deal with anti-Semitism and minority status led at one point to his dealing with what he saw as the contradictions of being both Jewish and American by denying his Jewish self and fiercely embracing some sort of fundamentalist Christianty. Dylan's religious search was genuine. He deserves to have his quest taken seriously. But, ultimately, his attachment to Christianity was as problematic for him as his attachment to Judaism.
It is not possible to say precisely what his religion is, or what mixture it is, or what its shape is. All we can say is that Dylan orients his life toward a sacred reality. He seems to feel a personal, direct relationship to God, perhaps even to have "conversations" with God. He seems to feel guided by God, blessed by God, and morally indebted to God.
The ancient Israelites introduced the world to the idea of a single, personal, moral God. In that basic sense, Dylan is certainly Jewish. Additionally, the word "Israel" means someone who wrestles with God, not someone who obeys God or even believes in God. Has anyone more publicly wrestled with God than Bob Dylan? The wrestling has sometimes produced untraditional and even questionable results, but no one can doubt that it has also produced an enduring and uniquely magnificent body of art.