How Bob Dylan Became a Jews for Jesus Icon
By Sam Kestenbaum October 26, 2016
When Bob Dylan became the first musician to win the Nobel Prize in Literature this month, Jewish fans celebrated. Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, was seen as a true American poet, a Jew to be proud of. An opinion piece on this news site praised Dylan as the “most revolutionary artist of the past half-century” who also has a “Yiddish soul.”
At the same time, Dylan was also lauded by others — people with Jewish backgrounds who believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah.
“Bob Dylan, who is 75 and still touring, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature today,” Jews for Jesus wrote on their Facebook page. “Some of those poetic expressions have been about Jesus.”
Jewish believers in Jesus, as many identify, may attend synagouges, churches or Messianic Jewish congregations, where Jewish and Christian traditions are combined. Messianic Jewish organizations and ministries also include members who are not Jews but who identify as Messianics and practice some Jewish rituals.
In Dylan, who was raised in a Jewish home and in the 1970s became a born-again Christian, Messianic Jews or Jewish believers in Jesus see a piece of themselves.
Dylan was raised in a religious home and bar mitzvahed, but in 1978 began studying the New Testament with a Brooklyn-born Jew who believes in Jesus, and influential musician, named Al Kasha. Around this same time, Dylan joined the Vineyard Fellowship church in California, where there were many other Jewish members. He also went through a discipleship program at Calvary Chapel, also in California.
He recorded a trio of explicitly Christian albums, with lyrics about Jesus, redemption and Armageddon. During his born-again period, Dylan reportedly asked Jews for Jesus to distribute literature of some of his shows.
In 1980, Dylan won a Grammy for one of his Christian songs, “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
It was a shift that turned off some of his fans.
Dylan publicly dialed back his overtly Christian message (he also reportedly “returned” to Judaism under the guidance of Chabad rabbis), but Messianic Jews and Jewish believers still see Dylan as their own.
“Dylan is important for people who were born Jewish [and believe in Jesus],” said Shalom Goldman, a professor of religion at Middlebury. “They want to go back to that period when Jews affirmed Jesus.”
For them, Dylan’s embrace of Jesus is “proof that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism.”
Goldman added: “We can expect more and more of this treatment of Dylan as a religious figure.”
Dylan has remained evasive about exactly how he affiliates. In 2009, Dylan called himself a “true believer” and as recently as 2014, Kasha said that Dylan was still a Christian. In a recent tour of Israel, Dylan played a number of songs from his Jesus-themed records.
“His testimony of faith is one of the most powerful in modern Jewish history,” reads a narrator in a mini-documentary by Maoz Israel, a Messianic Jewish ministry. “For the most famous Jewish singer-songwriter to record an album about [his faith in Jesus] is something that has and continues to changes people’s lives.”
In the days after Dylan’s Nobel win, Messianic Jews and other Jewish believers held up Dylan as an icon. The balance he has had to strike — as someone who identifies as Jewish and an Israel-supporter, while also praising Jesus — is one they know well. Many American Jews look askance at Messianic proselytization and according to Pew Research polling, relatively few American Jews believe one can continue to “be Jewish” while calling Jesus the Messiah.
“As I read the story of Dylan’s spiritual life, I began to appreciate him more and more,” wrote Toby Janicki, who belongs to the Messianic Jewish ministry First Fruits of Zion, in an October 19 re-post of a blog.
“I saw a man who struggled with his identity much as we do today—stuck in between Christianity and Judaism. As with Dylan, many misinterpret the actions of those in Messianic Judaism as either too Jewish or too Christian.”
Dylan, Janicki goes on, “is without a doubt a man who continues to express faith in Jesus while holding on to his Jewish heritage.”
When the persicution comes from within our community
Jewish people are very familiar with the experience of persecution. It’s a significant part of our history, and it’s part of what defines us as a people. Prejudice, fear, and hatred proliferate when groups of people make assumptions and have false beliefs about “others” who are different from them, and usually considered “lesser than.” In the worst extremes, it leads to the horrors of genocide. In less extreme circumstances, it can lead to harassment, bullying, and the belief that the “others” have no right to share the same space, or attend the same events. Sadly, this is exactly the type of prejudice that we experienced at the Celebrate Israel Festival, and the persecution came from within the Jewish community.
The Celebrate Israel Festival was meant to be a joyful event, which it was, and we were so happy to participate in it! Those of us in leadership at Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills had recently decided to purchase a booth for the event. We love Israel, we love Israeli music, and we love to dance! Why wouldn’t we be there?
When we were setting up our booth in the morning, I mentioned to a couple of nearby Security guards that we would appreciate them “keeping an eye” on us and our booth since we anticipated that there might be some people who were not happy that we were there. Our booth was at the very end of the Vendor Village so it was easy for them to stroll by now and then. One of these Security guards later told me, “My wife and my mother-in-law are Messianic Jews, so I understand!”
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz wrote an article last week titled, “Missionaries Invade 2015 Israel Festival in Los Angeles,” and he implied that those of us representing Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue were there by deception. I personally submitted the application for the booth at the festival, and filled out all the required information, including the complete name of our synagogue. The coordinators of the event did not question it. There were no questions about our beliefs on the application. Why did he feel that that we should have been required to provide that information when it was not asked of anyone else?
We are very offended by Rabbi Kravitz’ comments in his article. We do not consider ourselves missionaries, nor did we do anything at the festival other than have friendly conversations with people who stopped by our booth, just like all the other people staffing booths. We did not distribute flyers outside of our booth, we did not lure anyone into any conversations, nor did we go to other booths to try to convince other people to believe what we believe. If they had questions, we responded. I can’t say that the same peaceful approach was true for Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz and his team.
Early in the day, Rabbi Kravitz approached me and angrily asked if the organizers of the event knew who we were. I assured him that I had completely submitted the application. He began to harass me, challenged my beliefs, and called me an idolater. I told him that we were not there to argue or debate, and we just wanted to enjoy the festival. He said he would like to meet with me to continue this conversation and he gave me his card. Nothing to indicate that he is the founder of Jews for Judaism. He stopped by later in the afternoon to personally apologize to me for being abrasive and offensive, and I thanked him for his apology. He told me I had a “sweet neshama.” He asked for my phone number and I declined to give it to him. I silently questioned the sincerity of his apology, and that lack of sincerity has now been validated by the comments in his article.
Rabbi Kravitz also sent several people to talk to me throughout the day, as well as bringing literature from his organization. Some of these people were upfront about the fact that they were representing Jews for Judaism, while others denied it, but were later observed staffing their booth.
One of the people he brought over to talk to me was an Orthodox Rabbi, who later looked me up on Linked In and sent emails to me. I acknowledged his first two emails, and I shared with him that I treasured my Conservative Jewish upbringing very deeply, to which he replied, “Growing up Conservative may not have been sufficiently meaningful or afforded you that personal connection to G-d in a Jewish way. Conservative Judaism admittedly distances itself from many of the mitzvos that follow the Sinai revelation leaving out much of a profound personal relationship that would follow. If Conservative Judaism had any real meaning for you, you might still be identifying as a Conservative Jew, and perhaps not as a messianic Jew. Is that fair to say?” I briefly responded by saying, “Let’s just agree to respect our differences, and bless one another in our spiritual journeys,” to which I received a very lengthy insulting response. I have not responded, nor do I plan to do so.
So apparently, Conservative Judaism is not an acceptable form of Judaism to Jews for Judaism either. Apparently, their version of Judaism is the only correct one!
Rabbi Kravitz called us “missionaries targeting Jews for conversion.” Those of us at Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue do not “target people for conversion,” because we have not converted. For those of us who were born Jewish, we are still Jewish. We worship in the same way as many other Jewish congregations. We observe Shabbat and all the Jewish holidays, we have a weekly Torah service in Hebrew and English; many of us do not eat treif; my parents, grandparents, and all of their ancestors were Jewish! I was born a Jew and I will die a Jew, regardless of what Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz and his team want to call me!
So we were not the ones who were being deceptive, distributing literature and trying to convince others to change their beliefs. In contrast, we were the ones who were targeted by Jews for Judaism doing that to us! We were just there to be in solidarity with other Jewish organizations in support of Israel, to enjoy the festival, and to have a peaceful visible presence just like the people in most of the other vendor booths.
Rabbi Kravitz has raised the art of exaggeration to a new level. He has exaggerated what happened at the Israeli Festival for his own gain. His organization “Jews for Judaism” thrives on controversy. As long as he can create fear and misunderstanding, he can use that misperception to justify his organization’s existence. It’s so sad when the persecution comes from within.
It is time for us as Jews to move beyond fear and misunderstanding, and recognize that Messianic Jews are a legitimate part of the Jewish community who love and support Israel. We share the same desire as religious Jews; that Kol Yisrael will embrace HaShem in all of His fullness and wonder.
Barbra Miner is the Chairperson of the Board of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills. She is also the Principle Consultant of Barbra Miner and Associates, a consulting firm that provides leadership training and development, coaching, and consulting services.
Silence Isn’t Golden
Prior to his death, the courageous German churchman Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said: “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
To fortify the stranglehold of Germany’s anti-Semitic laws, Nazi law called for the death penalty to those found protecting or giving aid to the Jewish people. Rev. Bonhoeffer chose the path of civil disobedience in resistance to these nefarious laws and was summarily hung for his act of bravery. His soul and conscience would give him no peace if he remained silent in the face of such injustice and atrocity.
At Purim we recall the defeat of an ambitious anti-Semite as he sought to perpetrate genocide only to see his designs foiled because one man (Mordecai) recognized the imminent danger and did not remain silent. On Passover again, we remember another great deliverance from a foe who also sought to destroy us, a foe whose level of evil is epitomized for his wanton slaughter of children two years and younger. Again, one man (Moses) did not remain silent but made his appeal to the most powerful monarch on earth “Let my people go.”
In the aftermath of these great celebrations we come face to face with the grim realities of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance. I have an ominous sense that history is about to repeat itself in a most unkind way.
We find ourselves at a critical juncture of history where we are witnessing an increase in worldwide anti-Semitism while
the nations through fear and intimidation seek to accommodate and kowtow to the wishes of rogue, radical Islamic states that sponsor terrorism. Where is the will and resolve of decent people to push back this evil?
As crazy and as convoluted as this will sound, amidst all the problems in the world, the ever so vigilant United Nations has just condemned Israel yet again for, get this; for their mistreatment of women. What of the much more serious mistreatment of women that takes place in Islamic or Communistic countries?
For all of the Yom Hashoah services I’ve either led, attended or participated in; for all of the great scholarly books, articles, documentaries and speeches that have been put forward; for all of the great museums that have been established; for all of the talk and all of the pronouncements of “Never Again;” unfortunately they’re just empty words – pious sounding cliché’s offered with little substance, just part of another tradition to make so-called humanistic, progressive minded individuals feel good about themselves.
Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted an invitation to address the United States Congress. This the leader of the only free and democratic state in the Middle East and the only country in the region affording a right to vote to all – Jew and non-Jew, male and female. Yet an arrogant and prideful President Barack Obama, along with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, chose to behave as spoiled children and boycott the speech.
Prime Minister Netanyahu was most gracious and respectful; even acknowledging and thanking those who were so rude and belligerent. His single most purpose was to address the highly dangerous threats to the world posed by the Iranian nuclear program. From the land that brought us the Purim narrative comes another regime dedicated to the annihilation and destruction of Israel and it appears that our country is on a path to enable them to achieve that stated purpose.
For nearly seven long decades Iran, Islam and bordering Arab states have made no secret of their intentions to perpetrate genocide against the Jewish people. Yet world bodies, led now by the United States, continue to coerce Israel into a faulty peace that seriously compromises her security. Have we not learned the lessons of history? Memo: THEY WANT TO KILL US!
To add insult to injury, President Obama worked feverishly to see the defeat of Prime Minister Netanyahu, setting a precedent by interfering with the elections of a free and democratic state. As bad as that was, it was even more disheartening to hear and read the incessant vitriol leveled against Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israeli’s in general for voting in large numbers to retain Prime Minister Netanyahu. The deafening silence however extends beyond the church and the nations but also to the American Jewish community.
From two prominent Jewish writers comes this:
*Joe Klein writes in Time Magazine:
There will be many—in the Muslim world, in Europe—who will say that the results are no surprise, that Israel has become a harsh, bigoted tyrant state
For the sake of his own future, Benjamin Netanyahu has made dreadful Jewish history: he is the man who made anti-Arab bigotry an over factor in Israeli political life. This is beyond tragic. It is shameful and embarrassing.
He won because he ran as a bigot. This is a sad reality: a great many Jews have come to regard Arabs as the rest of the world traditionally regarded Jews.
Or that coming from Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post:
“Bibi [is] henceforth the Jewish George Wallace. His success in wooing the fearful and the bigoted to Likud was such that all the other far-right parties saw their results drop from their previous levels.
Israel’s existence hangs in the balance. Is there no concern for welfare and well-being of the Jewish state? When Mohammad Reza Naqdi, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, declared: “Erasing Israel off the map was non-negotiable,” was anyone listening; does anyone with a sense of compassion and humanity care?
Where is the outcry against a foreign policy that’s so irrational, insane and injudicious? For all of societies good intentions, for all our collective claims for peace and brotherhood, for all those who will clamor for environmental issues, condemn the military and law enforcement agencies, march for gay rights, get bent into a tizzy because Indiana desires to protect and defend our basic American virtue of freedom of religion – why then is there such silence in the face of an impending genocide against Israel? Is it nothing to you that the lives of multitudes hang in the balance?
Where is the outcry against President Obama, VP Biden and John Kerry? Why do they exert so much time and energy serving as apologists for Islam and why are they so slow of mind to not recognize who it is that poses the greatest threat to the civilized world? They make Neville Chamberlain look hawkish by comparison.
Is it more important to be thought of as “open-minded” to gain a politically correct approval or is it better to take a stand on the side of life and found supportive of the foundations of morality established in our sacred Writings? Someone has rightly said that if you want to get a conservative angry, lie to him; if you want to anger a progressive liberal, tell him the truth.
During the Nazi era of the 30’s and 40’s there was a deadly silence on the part of the church and the nations when the Jewish people were being rounded up for the slaughter. The world knew but did nothing to stop the Shoah. The world knew that Hitler was not to be trusted, yet nations cowered in fear, turned a blind eye and a deaf ear and hoping for the best. Why can’t our administration or the media even find the courage to call a terrorist a terrorist? Why can’t we find a voice and where and when will a bold leader emerge?
Israel’s once greatest ally, the United States; led by President Obama is indifferent and uncaring concerning the fate of Israel. This immoral behavior on the part of our President sends a message to all Israel’s enemies; “The U.S. doesn’t care! Open season!” Silence isn’t golden and those who remain silent at this hour cast their vote for the enemies who seek our destruction.
We’re getting ever so close to that day when all of the nations will gather against Israel. People of good conscience and respect for life cannot remain silent. May the Keeper of Israel be with us and prosper us in all our labors.
Isa 62:1 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, And for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep quiet, Until her righteousness goes forth like brightness, And her salvation like a torch that is burning.
Rabbi Frank Lowinger
We are featuring the following article because we feel that it affords some insight into the present day Messianic movement.
Congregation Beth Messiah provides a different approach to Judaism by Julie Torem
The words Messiah and Synagogue are not generally terms found in the same sentence in “mainstream” Judaism. However, in the case of Congregation Beth Messiah, the words are not only in the vernacular, they encompass the basis of the Messianic movement.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to meet with Michael Wolf – Rabbi at Beth Messiah – and his wife, Rachel. Knowing nearly nothing about the Messianic movement, I was given a tremendous amount of information. The following is the beginning of a four-part series in which Messianic Judaism will be explored. The purpose of these articles is not to preach; it is simply an effort to get some answers to questions that many in the Jewish community have expressed. This first article in the series will focus on how, according to the Wolf’s, their belief systems developed from Reform and Conservative Judaism to Messianic Judaism.
Michael and Rachel Wolf were both raised in Philadelphia in traditional Jewish homes. Their parents and grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe although tragically, many of Michael’s relatives perished in the Holocaust. Both attended Jewish Day school, became B’nai Mitzvot, attended Jewish summer camp, and like many of us, questioned aspects of their faith every now and again.
Michael Wolf was ordained at the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA) which, according to Wolf, provides training in leadership, chaplaincy, and teaching in a non-traditional seminary.
THE MJAA’s overview of Messianic Judaism states:
“Messianic Judaism is a biblically based movement of people who, as committed Jews, believe in Yeshua (Jesus) as the Jewish Messiah of Israel of whom the Jewish Law and Prophets spoke.”
To many this seems a glaring contradiction. Christians are Christians, Jews are decidedly not Christian. So goes the understanding that has prevailed through nearly two thousand years of history. Messianic Jews call this a mistaken – and even anti-Scriptural – understanding. They assert that there is historical and biblical evidence that demonstrates that following Yeshua was initially an entirely Jewish concept. They believe that decades upon decades of persecution, division, and confused theology all contributed to the dichotomy between Jews and believers in Yeshua that many take for granted today.
It was not until he was in college that Michael was exposed to “Messianic Judaism”. Wolf explained that as a teenager, he experienced an “emptiness – a spiritual vertigo”. This was especially prominent when he wondered about the concepts of before and after-life. Wolf stated that the feeling of not knowing what might or might not happen after death brought on a feeling of panic with which he simply couldn’t reconcile.
In January of 1971, Wolf met a Messianic Jewish family in Philadelphia that changed his life forever. It was at the family’s home when Wolf first “experienced seeing G-d in their lives.” Although skeptical, he was open to hearing about the family’s understanding of Judaism – which included accepting Jesus as the Messiah. Wolf explained that he then asked G-d to show him where in the Tanach it indicated that Jesus would be the messiah. He proceeded to read Isaiah 53:6 and stated, “The presence of G-d entered the room. I knew that I needed forgiveness in my life [and I] sensed a loving presence that there was a G-d and I knew right away that I was given this gift of life.” When he woke up the following morning, Wolf recalled thinking, “This is going to be a great adventure…It was as if someone had turned on a light bulb in my heart – it was my spirit”.
Rachel Wolf was raised in a Reform Jewish home. She attended synagogue with her family, kept kosher, and attended Jewish Day school from 7-12 grade, where she had an “integrated sense of being part of the flow of Jewish history.” Rachel stated that Judaism was and is a key part of her identity – as much as being a woman is part of her identity. While Michael had already become a Messianic Jew, Rachel was initially skeptical. During her spring break from college, she met the family with whom Michael had been studying and praying. When she returned to college, she was determined to try and disprove their teachings. However, she came to believe and accept the their interpretations.
Both Michael and Rachel discussed how the family’s home had a kind of open door policy. It was a common occurrence for college-aged kids – some of whom had challenges such as drugs, lack of direction, etc.- to attend informal prayer services and Bible studies at this home. It was there during prayer meetings that Michael began praying, for Rachel while she was away at college, with the intention of helping her to understand the Messianic perspective.
Around this same time, Rachel bought a New English New Testament and began reading. She found herself “liking the character of Jesus” and began to experience what she described as “personal revelations.” Rachel continued to say that she “started to put together the idea that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah within a totally Jewish context.”
When asked how their parents responded to their new found faith, Rachel said, “it was a process…” Her mother did, however, eventually respect her decision and later on defended her position. Rabbi Wolf had a similar experience with his parents and stated that although it was challenging at first, his family grew to “greatly respect” his decision.
Congregation Beth Messiah looks like many temples I’ve seen. Worship is done through extemporaneous prayer, liturgy, music and dance. Members of the Congregation are Jews by birth, Jews by choice, and non-Jews from all over the greater Cincinnati area. The congregation has a religious school that meets on Saturday, a youth group, and Club Maccabee, which is similar to a scouting group. Like some more contemporary congregations that use music as a method of enhancing prayer, they have musical instruments on the bimah. Beth Messiah has a torah stored in an ark and a Ner Tamid (eternal light). There is a nursery for young children, and a “cry room” with glass windows adjacent to the sanctuary which allows parents with very young (and perhaps loud or crying) children to participate in services without interrupting others. There is also a library, and a small gift shop. The walls of the foyer are adorned with an exhibit about the history of Jerusalem with pictures of Israel and many scriptural quotes from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Services are held on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings.
The next installment will explore the origins of the movement, the main principles of the movement, and the basic philosophies of some of the key leaders in the Messianic Movement.
Member IAMCS-International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues