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Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

October 13, 2016 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Kudos to the Swedish Academy for their bold and wise decision to honor a man who "created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

The Swedish Nobel Academy stunned many people with the announcement this week of their choice for recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was Bob Dylan, the first American to be so honored since Toni Morrison was nominated in 1993. But what made the selection so remarkable was the crossing of a boundary of genres which to many people seemed unbridgeable: Dylan, as masterful as he assuredly is, has made his mark as a writer of songs; the Nobel Prize for which he was chosen is in the category of literature.

Are lyrics, verbal accompaniments to music, worthy of comparison to great works of prose?

I found it remarkably fortuitous that the Swedish Academy decided in the affirmative in the very week when Jews throughout the world make the very same point in the Torah portion read this past Shabbat. We are now close to the end of the five books of Moses. As the life of the greatest leader of our people is soon to come to an end, God instructs Moses to convey a supremely important commandment to His people. It will in fact be the very last of the 613 biblical mitzvot:

And now write for yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel, put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me among the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 32: 19).

It is the song which will assure the future of the Jewish people. It is the song which will permit the message of God to endure for all the generations to come. And to which song does the text refer? Some commentators choose to apply it strictly to the poetic passage immediately preceding. Halakhah, Jewish law, decides otherwise. The song refers to the entire Torah. From here we learn that every Jew in every generation must take part, minimally even with one letter, in writing a Torah scroll.

The final law of the 613 is the closing law meant to ensure the perpetuation of the 612 which precede it. And the way it is phrased makes clear that the message of Sinai will only be heard for all time if it is viewed as a song, if its words are the lyrics of a divine masterpiece which, like music, speaks not only to our minds but to our souls as well.

How remarkable that the Talmud teaches us “R. Shefatiah said in the name of R. Johanan: If one reads the Scripture without a melody or repeats the Mishnah without a tune, of him the Scripture says, Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good” [Babylonian Talmud Megillah 32: a]. It is not only when the Torah is read publicly that there are musical cantillations. Enter any study hall where students are engaged in learning Torah and you will hear the traditional sounds of students immersed not only in the wisdom of its words but in the joy of its song, in the delight of its music.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, put it beautifully:

"Judaism is a religion of words, and yet whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual it modulates into song, as if the words themselves sought escape from the gravitational pull of finite meanings.  Music speaks to something deeper than the mind."

Science has now strongly confirmed that humans are hard-wired to respond to music. In The Power of Music, Elena Mannes explores how music affects different groups. She says scientists have found that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. That's why she sees so much potential in music's power to change the brain and affect the way it works.

The conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim points out that our early connection to sound is another reason for its power. He reminds us that the latest scientific evidence reveals that the ear, which we now know is active in the womb, has an advantage over the eye. "The ear has a head start over the eye, which doesn't see anything until it comes out. The eye is also something that one can control more fully. If you don't like the way I look, and you don't want to see me, you close your eyes and I disappear. But if you don't like my voice and you're in the same room, then you cannot shut your ears in a natural way. Sound literally penetrates the human body."

More, this human relationship to sound starts early. The fetus begins to develop an auditory system between seventeen and nineteen weeks. Already, we are in a world of sound, of breath and heartbeat, of rhythm and vibration.

The Torah wants us to experience the magnificence of its words in conjunction with the power of music, lyrics to the song which our subconscious identifies as our mothers heartbeats and the miracle of our birth.

Kudos then to the Swedish Academy who was bold and wise enough to present the prize for literature to a man who "created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

Words in the context of song are all the more memorable. Music enhances, rather than detracts, from the muscle of its messages. That is why we will never forget so many of Bob Dylan’s remarkable insights:

  • "Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you’d like to act."
  • "If you try to be anyone but yourself, you will fail; if you are not true to your own heart, you will fail. Then again, there's no success like failure."
  • "People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent."
  • "Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it when you find it."
  • "He not busy being born is busy dying."
  • "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
  • "Gonna change my way of thinking, make my self a different set of rules. Gonna put my good foot forward and stop being influenced by fools."
  • "And I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinking."
  • “Behind every beautiful thing, there's some kind of pain."
  • "Don't criticize what you can't understand."
  • "All I can be is me — whoever that is."
  • “Some people feel the rain, others just get wet."

Think they’re just songs? Believe they are no more than unimportant lyrics?

Remember that King Solomon captured our love for God in the immortal Song of Songs – and God expressed His love for us in the other song better known as the Torah.

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