Seven Ages of Bob Dylan Conference: a Charitable Retrospective Keynote on Critical Breadcrumb Sins of Omission
A charitable keynote for the Seven Ages of Dylan conference celebrating Bob Dylan’s seventieth birthday on 24 May 2011. Standing on the poststructuralist water(s) pissing away your not-so-poststructuralist critical stature … As for me, I’m determined to stand. Jumbi and Rosh Hashana is the thing the poststructuralist and not-so-poststructuralist Dylan literati didn’t do. A little learning is a dangerous thing, indeed. Charity covers up, and passes over, a multitude of critical breadcrumb sins. Dylan scholar Larry Yudelson on Dylan’s JOKERMAN opening the Infidels album (1983) at the Tangled Up in Jews website, apparently barely updated since 1995:
Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days (Ecclesiastes 11:1). There is faith in this, but it is a different, less intense, wiser faith than that of the God-intoxicated ba'al teshuva, the born-again penitent. It is a faith that good deeds will be repaid in kind -- but with a hint of doubt as well.
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Knowledge defines (or defined before the library disposed of it) charity in this way:
“Zedekah” (righteousness). A nearer Hebrew equivalent to the connotation of charity is “gelimut hesed”, “bestowing kindness,” a term which however has come to be used for non-eleemosynary efforts and acts. Whilst there are ample words in Hebrew to denote all the degrees of indigence the lack of a word which should exactly express what charity or philanthropy has come to the poor as well as its proper meaning of righteousness, crystallize the concept that acts of charity were ordained duties. It would be an exaggeration to say that the welcoming phrase of the Seder ritual, “whosoever wishes to partake”, was the keynote of life in any period of Israelite history.
Would ‘ordained duties’ include covering them up since at least 2000? We’ve reached the edge of the road, baby, where the pasture begins. At Reform Judaism Online SUMMER 2003 Vol. 31, No. 4 SULTANS OF SONG By Paul Zollo:
While it was not unusual for a Dylan song to include biblical imagery, rarely did he include reference to Jewish rituals. An exception is "Gates Of Eden" from Bringing It All Back Home (1965): The motorcycle black madonna Two-wheeled gypsy queen And her silver-studded phantom cause The gray flannel dwarf to scream As he weeps to wicked birds of prey Who pick up on his bread crumb sins And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden. According to Dylan scholar Larry Yudelson, "bread crumb sins" refers to Tashlich--a ceremony at the beginning of the New Year in which Jews throw crumbs into a body of water while reciting biblical verses such as Micah 7:19: "Thou wilt again show us mercy and subdue our iniquities; thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea." Even at this
early stage of his career, Dylan looked to the Bible as a source of inspiration for his songwriting.
No, he doesn’t – not quite. Rather, he says:
Bread crumb sins may be a reference to the Tashlich ceremony. The Tashlich ceremony takes place during the period of repentance beginning with the holy day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Jews gather near a body of water (or a well, for the landlocked), shake the crumbs from their pocket, and recite from the Psalms and from the prophet Micah: "Thou wilt again show us mercy and subdue our iniquities; thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19) Then again, the bread crumb sins could refer to the Passover holiday, when possession of bread -- even crumbs -- is banned by Jewish law.
Alan Unterman on this tashlich ritual of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish civil new year, to which the opening of Bob Dylan’s JOKERMAN more than alludes:
Various Psalms, biblical passages and prayers are recited, and people turn out their empty pockets into the water. There is a widespread custom for people to empty BREAD crumbs out of their pockets for the fish, the bread representing the sins. Although this custom has persisted, medieval Rabbinic authorities strongly objected to it…
It seems we have a highly paradoxical situation whereby the casting of the breadcrumb sins of rabbinic theology is, or was, disapproved of by rabbinic authorities themselves. This objection must have been because of some gentile pagan association. What is Jewish and what is not? What is real and what is not? Who do you care? Unterman, Jews p 175:
…is of unknown origin and it has been suggested that it was adapted from a non-Jewish rite.
(Well, it did not drop like bread from heaven like manna or Jesus, did it? And it was not instituted by or in Ecclesiastes or Micah 7:9, even though the latter, not mentioning bread, is the ‘source’ text for the ritual.) From somewhere in exile no doubt. As the Jewish calendar certainly was so ‘adapted’, from that of the Babylonians, it is a safe assumption that this suitably ambiguous ‘ultra-Jewish’ practice of breadcasting was so also. Did the crumbs come from Hosea’s ‘sacred raisin cakes’? The JEWISH ENCYCLOPEDIA says:
Scholars believe that the ritual originated in Germany during the 14th cent., possibly adopted from the non-Jewish environment.
Ever gone the opposite of what the experts say? Tell me; let’s try to get beneath the surface waste, girl. Fearful symmetry. Tashlikh:
[Heb. Taʃlik ‘thou shalt cast’, future Hiphil of ʃalak to cast.] 1880 Jewish World 30 Sept., Tashlich .. a simple fad of medieval rabbinism, of late date and origin, and wholly unknown to our ancient sages. 1902 Daily Chron. 2 Oct. 7/1 They have imported with them from their native ghettos the singular practice known as ‘Tashlikh’, which is performed by the side of a stream of running water or on the seashore.
Were the rabbinic birds of prey effectively objecting to their very own association of sins with breadcrumbs, or to the pagan implications of casting breadcrumbs, sins or otherwise, into water? If breadcrumbs are figurative sins and sins are figuratively cast into the real water through a ‘symbolic’ act with real bread, what can be wrong with casting bread on the water – as Ecclesiastes exhorts us to do, albeit in connection neither with Passover nor Rosh Hashana, neither of which practice in turn uses Ecclesiastes 11:1? The Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore, though not among the Jokerman’s only teachers, gets to the point in saying that tashlich:
…reflects ancient folk practices of offering bread and other offerings to water-spirits by throwing them onto the water at important festivals.
(Jumbi is the thing the Dylan literati, the poststructuralist zombies, didn’t do.) A more direct way of describing this is the appeasement of demons: shamanism. Through the pollution of pagan culture the casting off of sins becomes demonised: akin to the NT-Greek sense (translated in the King James as ‘possession’), not the modern one of caricatured vilification. Would the idol with the iron head be such a demonic entity? Aidan Day says of the bread, in Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan p 133:
In the opening lines the Jokerman is a figure of preternatural capacity, a dispenser of spiritual sustenance in despite of the obdurate power of false gods:…
Does he cast out demons or cast off sins? Or feed both? What do poststructuralists care? This figure still sounds very Galilean and needs to wander far from Galilee. For Jonathan Cott in Dylan the world of Infidels is:
… one filled with pagan, idol-worshipping saviours (“Jokerman”), false ideologues (“Man of Peace”) … p 228
Is the Jokerman one for Cott? Do such saviours dispense spiritual sustenance? And, if so, to idols or in spite of them? Day:
There may be a sacramental dimension to the figure of the Jester, Fool, Clown, or Joker. p 139
Hmm. Great opportunity on Dylan’s seventieth birthday, if in fact 24 May really is his birthday, for the Dylan literati to make atonement. Lots of ‘bumping together’; now it’s time for some bumping together of heads. ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’. From Pope’s Essay on Criticism. Although Dylan’s birthday is not Rosh Hashana, let there be no excuse for the Dylan world next Rosh Hashana. From Temple De Hirsch Sinai, online:
High Holy Days are almost here! “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” — Bob Dylan
Dylan’s paradox reflects the inconsistencies and the realities of the human condition. The young believe they have little to learn, and with age comes the wisdom to realize how little we truly know. The key is perspective—a point of view in time that imbues us with insight, vision and, if we’re lucky, humility. But the passing of time is not the only force that earns us perspective. We must also strive for openness—an openness of heart and mind to grow through our mistakes, applying hard-earned lessons to succeeding possibility. The High Holidays offer a unique opportunity to meld time to openness. During these Awesome Days, we glean meaning from the cycles of time through honest consideration of self. Showing up at the right time is only half the battle. We must also make the most of that time, seeking change for ourselves as we work to bring change to the world. May these holy days bless you and yours with health, happiness and peace through time well spent. B’shalom, Daniel A. Weiner Rabbi
Charity, tzedekah, covers up a multitude of critical breadcrumb sins – of omission and commission. Quite a curveball. From Mike Regenstreif’s web blog:
And, of course, the book abounds with many examples of songs from his post-Christian period which Rogovoy is able to explain from a Jewish perspective. A scene in “Jokerman” describes tashlich, while another reflects David on the run from King Saul. “I and I,” which uses Rastafarian terminology, says Rogovoy, is a meditation on the relationship between God and Moses, while the unambiguous “Neighborhood Bully” is a “thinly veiled paean to Israel and Jewish peoplehood.” Rogovoy’s analysis of the Jewishness of many of Dylan’s songs continues through to the 2009 album Together Through Life. What Rogovoy couldn’t have counted on was the curveball of a Christmas album Dylan released at about the same the book hit the stands. Maybe Rogovoy will update the paperback edition of Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet to point out that Dylan did the album as a food bank charity benefit (tzedakah) and that there’s a long tradition of Jewish artists who’ve done Christmas music. “White Christmas,” probably the most famous of all secular Christmas songs, was, after all written by the Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline). Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet offers a fascinating perspective on Dylan and his songs. A basic familiarity with the songs is a probably a prerequisite to appreciating it.
‘Let’s try to get beneath the surface waste, girl’. To Bob Dylan’s disc jockey: Sara Dylan lives by the sea and prays for each yakuza, the same as you or me. Feeling like a stranger, nobody sees. Copyright 2011 Paul Kirkman