Highway 61 Revisited was the sixth and possibly most influential album produced by Bob Dylan. The title song, Highway 61 Revisited opens with G-d asking Abram to kill his son, Isaac on Highway 61. All Along the Watchtower, another one of the most popular and reproduced Dylan songs is loosely based on a passage of Isaiah, and Neighborhood Bully, his most openly Jewish song, is a defense of Israel’s right to exist.
Although Bob Dylan would often mythologize his youth and worked quite hard on distorting his upbringing to the press, Bob Dylan, AKA, Robert Allan Zimmerman, AKA, Shabsi Zissel, who last week became the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize of literature, was most definitely Jewish.
Obviously he was not exactly an observant Jew by any stretch of the imagination, but, he almost became one. I want to share with you how that almost happened, the story of Bob Dylan’s visit to Shor Yoshuv Yeshiva in Far Rockaway.
Shor Yoshuv was and always will be a very special place. It was a Yeshiva started by a man named Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld who envisioned a place where men of all ages and of all backgrounds could come and connect to Torah in a meaningful way.
Just to give you an understanding of what his school was like, on one interview with a prospective student, Rabbi Freifeld asked the young man if he wanted to learn Torah. The boy, perhaps honest to a fault, said, “No Rabbi, I don’t want to learn Torah.”
“But, I want to want to learn Torah.”
Rabbi Freifeld accepted the young man on the spot.
That was the type of yeshiva, a lot of spiritual seekers, people who were looking for something in deeper life, and found it in Rabbi Freifeld’s brilliance, depth, and warmth.
One day, a student got married and was making a Sheva Berachos in the Yeshiva. This student was a former colleague of the poet, Allan Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan. And so he invited them to participate in his Sheva Berachos.
Now you have to imagine what Bob Dylan coming to a place like Shor Yoshuv meant. The entire Yeshiva was made up of people who were still stuck in the 60’s, these were spiritual seekers who saw Dylan as a prophet. Bob Dylan, the king of the 60’s, the man who represented everything they stood for, would be coming to their Yeshiva; the young men were obviously very excited.
Rabbi Freifeld though wouldn’t have any idolization of Dylan in his Yeshiva. He instructed the students that no one would be allowed to ask him for an autograph, no pictures, nothing. He would be treated with respect, the same respect that any other guest would receive.
And so it was.
Dylan came, the students said hello. He sat at the wooden benches, at the long tables like everyone else. But while he was there, something clicked. Maybe it was the beautiful singing that Shor Yoshuv is known for, maybe it was the uplifting words of Torah that Rabbi Freifeld shared, Dylan felt connected.
The next day, he called Rabbi Freifeld and asked if they could meet. This was the first of many meeting between them. One time, as he exited Rabbi Freifeld’s home, a reporter approached him, and asked him why he kept on visiting the rabbi. Dylan reportedly replied, “It may be dark and snowy outside, but inside that home, it is so light.”
After one such meeting, Dylan asked Rabbi Freifeld if he could join the Yeshiva. He told Rabbi Freifeld that he would buy a home in the area and attend classes like a regular student.
Rabbi Freifeld smiled, and shook his head. “Bob,” he said, “If you really want to do this, if you really want to join the Yeshiva, you have to do it like everyone else. Every other student spends a few months in the dorms and only then do we allow them to live off-campus.”
Dylan thought about, but ultimately it was too much of a sacrifice. He stayed connected to Jewish causes and organizations, most notably Chabad, but never went beyond that.
I’ve been thinking about that story recently, not only because of Dylan’s Nobel prize, but because of Rabbi Freifeld’s unique approach in dealing with him. It’s an approach that is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, and probably has never been more relevant and is symbolized by our patriarch, Avraham.
According to the Kabbalists, every day of Sukkos we invite a different important historic figure into out Sukkah, and on the first day of Sukkos, today, we invite Abraham, Avraham Avinu. Honestly, I don’t quite understand what it means that someone who is no longer living visits our Sukkah. Sometimes an idea like this if not properly understood can turn into farce. Last night my seven year old and five year old debated if Avraham was the moth flying around the light in our sukkah or the slug on the wall…
At the very least what we Ushpizin is a time to reflect on the lesson we can learn from these giants. And so when we think about Avraham, he is remembered and described as a man of chesed, of kindness; the inviting tent in which he hosted strangers even idolators, giving them food and lodging. He prayed passionately for the evil people of Sodom.
But digging just a little deeper, a more complex picture is painted. Because from that same tent that he invited those strangers, he also sent away his eldest son for negatively influencing his younger son, Yitzchak. And though he tried to save the people of Sodom, including his nephew Lot who resided there, he also sent Lot away, because of the sinful behavior of his shepherds.
So is Avraham the ish chesed, the man of kindness and tolerance? Or is he narrow-minded, fanatical, and intolerant? Or to put it differently, if Avraham drove a car, would he be driving a Subaru with a COEXISTENCE sticker or a beat up van with an ISIS flag? Which one is the true Avraham?
I think the simple answer lies in a better understanding of what tolerance actually means. You see, true pluralism only works to a point. I was recently discussing something with a group of students and I asked them a politically-charged question, and none of them wanted to give a definitive answer. “I hear this side and I hear that side, they’re both right!” It’s very politically correct, but how does that work in the real world? I can’t live my life saying everyone is right and this is just my personal view, because there will be times when I impose my personal view on you. For example, when you vote, your subjective reality, what you believe to be is right, is imposed on the public. You can’t vote for two candidates, you also can’t vote for no-candidates, you know, like voting for Gary Johnson.
Our subjective realities, our “just my personal view” will eventually collide with your personal view, because we live in a shared space called the world. This mindset may work in a classroom, but not on the street.
And there is nowhere where this is more true than with religion. We can’t all be right. It just doesn’t work. I remember once sitting in on a Q and A with some Evangelical Christians at an AIPAC event. These Evangelicals were more pro-Israel than some of the most pro-Israel people out there, they proved both through their words and their wallet. And someone asked them, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but your support for Israel is based on an understanding that we Jews are going to hell, and you’re going to save us. Is it not?”
Talk about awkward silence.
But that doesn’t mean that there is no place for tolerance, that there is no place for peace. It doesn’t mean, as Dylan once said, that “Peace is the amount of time it takes to reload your rifle.” No, that’s not Judaism’s view either.
Tolerance in Judaism, as I think it should be with any thinking person is saying what Avraham said and doing what Avraham did. He loved everyone – he did, regardless of their opinions. He helped everyone regardless of their faith. He respected everyone, even if he disagreed with their worldview. But he also knew when to put his foot down. He also knew that at times the influence of others may be too strong for his household. There are times he had to say, you are wrong, and I cannot tolerate this in my home. Understanding, loving, but firm.
This is exactly what is symbolized in the famous prayer for peace. Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael v’imru amein. What do we do when we say those words and we ask for peace?
We take three steps back – because if you want peace you have to appreciate who the person is who is standing before you. If I am yelling in your face and you’re yelling in my face, I don’t know who you are. Take a step back, take three steps back. Listen a little. You may even hear something that will change your point of view.
We then bow to the right and then to the left – we cannot just bow to those who stand in our path, we bow and we respect those to our right and those to our left. (right/ left bow idea – Rabbi Menachem BenZion Zaks)
But, throughout the entire process, one thing remains the same, our feet do not move. We stand firmly in place.
Yes, we try to understand others, yes, we bow and respect others, but we can and sometimes we must remain strong in our conviction, unwavering and not budging one bit.
This approach is applicable to those who have different religious view than we do and it’s applicable, ever so applicable to those who have different political views. Three steps back, we bow to each side, but we stand firmly in place.
I’ll conclude with one final story.
Three weeks ago, Mark Ross, a young African-American, received a call at 3AM Sunday morning that his sister was killed in a car accident. Not having his own car, he asked someone else to drive him from Indiana to Detroit so that he could be with his mother. Along the way, Ross’ driver was pulled over for speeding. The driver was driving with a suspended license and there was a warrant out for Ross’ arrest for a petty crime. Ross was no lover of cops and thought for sure that instead of spending time with his mother, he would be spending his time in jail.
However, Trooper J. Davis, the officer who pulled him over, saw the sincerity of Ross’ plea and decided not to arrest him. Davis was a man of the law and could not allow the driver to continue driving his car, he had no license, and so he called a towing company to tow the car back to Indiana. Then Trooper Davis turned to Ross and did something unbelievable – he offered him a ride to Detroit, 100 miles away so he could be with his mother.
As Ross described on Facebook:
I broke down crying and he saw the sincerity in my cry. He REACHEd OVER AND BEGAN PRAYING OVER ME AND MY FAMILY. He offered to bring me 100 miles further to Detroit because they towed the vehicle. Everybody knows how much I dislike Cops but I am truly Greatful (sic) for this Guy. He gave me hope.
Sukkos is a time for unity and plurality. We hold the Lulav, the myrtle branches, the willow branches and Esrog all together – symbolizing the uniting of all different types of Jews. We read in the Torah how in Biblical times they would bring seventy offerings on Sukkos on behalf of the seventy nations. So yes, Judaism does believe in tolerance, Judaism does believe in plurality, and Judaism does believe that every human being has a significant place in this world, regardless of their faith or of anything else. But let’s do it right.
Let’s take three steps back and try to understand those with different views, maybe, maybe just maybe our views will change. Let’s respect those on the right and those on the left even when we still disagree. But let’s not forget that tolerance does not mean that everyone’s right, kindness does not mean that there is no such thing as an objective reality, truth and falsehood. Like Trooper Davis who did not allow a man with a suspended license to break the law, but was still able to show love and compassion, like Rabbi Freifeld who respected Dylan but remained true to his convictions despite Dylan’s fame, like Avraham who loved everyone and welcomed everyone, but sometimes had to draw a line between good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate, let’s keep our feet standing firmly in place. And may G-d bless us and the whole world with peace.