In a time when crudeness, vulgarity and superficiality sell presidential candidates just as they do toiletries and underwear, it is worthwhile to stop and remember someone who bucked this trend, who stood for sensitivity, eloquence and profound existential struggle. Leonard Cohen, the poet laureate of popular music for the past half century, who passed away last week, embodied precisely those dimensions which together offer an antidote to the pathetic decline in culture, literacy and aesthetics that vulgarity preys on. However, one cannot fully appreciate the depth of his poetry’s spiritual intensity without its inextricable tie to his Jewishness.
Though it is impossible to reduce a complex legend such as Cohen to one essential talent or dimension that explains his universal adulation, perhaps it is this Jewishness that, at least partially, accounts for his broad appeal, as well as his extraordinary attraction in Israel.
It is why I chose to pay tribute to him in an Israeli forum. Abraham Joshua Heschel famously reflected, “the prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears.” If the prophet is indeed the musician whose lyrics force us to heights that always transcend the mundane, that only the most attuned of ears could hear, then Cohen would certainly qualify as one of the great prophetic voices of our time.
In an interview conducted about a decade ago, when asked about his “conversion” to Buddhism after his lengthy retreat studying with the Buddhist master Roshi, Cohen quickly set the interviewer straight. His response concisely captured his lifelong allegiance to the religion of his parents and his ancestors. In his customarily calm, matter of fact, self-deprecating manner he said – “Well, I never became a Buddhist, to tell you the truth... I bumped into a man many years ago who happened to be a Zen master. I wasn’t looking for a religion. I had a perfectly good religion.”
Cohen’s “perfectly good religion” was of course Judaism. His spirituality was never divorced from his roots. His openness to other spiritual traditions, his perpetual search for that which is transcendent, enhanced his humanity and his Jewishness rather than alienated him from them. Cryptically, as always in his prolific, but often esoteric, body of work, he predicted a pessimistic future, “sliding in all directions” toward chaos and murder. He Jewishly attributed that gloomy destiny to the widespread ignorance of the “little Jew who wrote the Bible.”
On a personal note, he always signed off his correspondence with me over the years as Eliezer, followed by an emblem depicting hands spread in the priestly blessing mode.
Exemplary of Cohen’s spiritual wrestling in a uniquely Jewish key is his own version of the Bible’s binding of Isaac passage where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Cohen’s retelling, in part, transforms it into a protest against the older generation’s decisions to send their children to war – “You who build these altars now, to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore.” But “The Story of Isaac” is far more than that. It alerts its audience to themes of trial, sacrifice, martyrdom and death of the beloved son which so critically informs and shapes subsequent Jewish, as well as Christian, theology. This song, and others in the Cohen canon, cannot possibly be understood without first understanding their rootedness in a long Jewish tradition. In this case, I wish to offer just that kind of appreciation as a form of eulogy, or hesped. It is my own “way to say goodbye,” as a scholar, a Jew, a friend and an ardent disciple/talmid. It is the week after his death and the week that same story will be read in synagogues across the world.
Cohen reproaches his audience with a J’accuse – “A scheme is not a vision / And you never have been tempted by a demon or a God.” His treatment of Abraham is tinged with both reverence and revulsion that speaks to his descendants, not just Jews but the entire human race, for after all Abraham was divinely commissioned as the father of many nations. Abraham’s relationship with his son starkly contrasts with those “over 30” in Cohen’s own time, who fail to measure up to the tragic nobility of their biblical predecessor.
The present child sacrificers are “schemers,” not driven by a “vision.”
Misguided or not, Abraham set out sincerely to accomplish something much larger than himself, to pursue a vision that would leave a sacred legacy. A scheme on the other hand conveys a sense of deviousness and of immoral plotting to exploit others for one’s own benefit. Playing on the midrash that Abraham’s trial was prompted by Satan goading God, one can judge Abraham’s test to have been invoked either negatively by a “demon” or positively by a “God.” However, his temptation to murder at least reflects a relationship with the transcendent, with something beyond his own material existence. Cohen indicts the parents of his own politically turbulent time for having no such temptation to sacrifice their own children other than in their own cruel self-interest.
However, Cohen’s very last release, “You Want it Darker,” returns to Isaac nearly half a century later and further reworks the Akedah story with its repeated hineni, “here I am.”
That innocent word strategically appears and reappears throughout the original biblical narrative. As Cohen approached his own closing time, he also, with this hineni, embraced a transcendent end he had always envisioned.
There is much to say about Cohen’s last intricate poem addressed to God and to humanity, yet it is anything but some pietistic subordination to the divine will. The refrain emphasizes God’s ultimate power to ordain, for nothing escapes God’s will. But, at the same time, that will cannot be realized unless carried out by human beings – “You want it darker we put out the flame.” Both God and humankind share responsibility for the darkness that imbues the history of civilization.
“There’s a lullaby for suffering / And a paradox to blame / But it’s written in the scriptures / And it’s not some idle claim.”
The poet’s job is to articulate the paradoxes of life, not to resolve them, and so Cohen himself blames a paradox for suffering.
No less an authority than God Herself endorses this claim since it’s written in the scriptures. Could Cohen here be referring to the very beginning, to God’s confessed failure in creating a perfect world when He conceded that evil is an inevitable consequence of human existence (Genesis 6:5)? The divine Poet/Creator blundered and set in motion a historical chain of catastrophe! Cohen’s final performance is not so much a declaration of preparedness to die as it is a resignation to an irresolvable tension that pervades existence. Spiritual life can only be lived authentically on a tightrope strung precariously and mysteriously between an all-powerful and all-knowing God above and the misery that He cannot, or will not, prevent below.
I will never again recite the Kaddish without the maddening, yet somehow reassuring, irreconcilable reconcilability of two planes of reality Cohen infused it with in this last act of his. The first words of that mourning prayer, “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name,” will now always resonate with the next line he appends to it: “Vilified, crucified, in the human frame.” We will continue to proclaim the transcendent reality of sanctity, but not at the cost of a flight from human reality. In our horizontal view we must confront evil for what it is, judge it for what it is, resist it, but vertically the divine name remains holy. We can’t let go of God or humankind even when the visions of each clash so violently.
But the next line paralyzes me with terror and threatens to undermine all that has preceded it: “A million candles burning for the love that never came.” The immediate thought of a million Jewish children murdered during the Shoah, whose only crime was their birth, is simply inescapable for me. I cannot imagine this lyric conjuring anything else more horrifying that has transpired in history, in a human frame. Here I must admit frustration when I listen to Cohen’s final encore performance for I cannot yet join him in a hineni that accepts such a consummately extinguishing presence of God. The poet is the bard of the absurd, and so the philosopher in me resists its impeccable illogic. Yet, the music may one day penetrate and liberate my own hineni, synchronizing it with the prophetic Cohenian octave to which it was originally set.
And so I return to the three hinenis of the Akedah accompanied by both the human frame and the holy name Cohen bequeathed us in his last poetic testament. When God calls on Abraham, the response is the vertical hineni of the Kaddish, the submissive willingness to carry out any demand, even one that turns out to be the sacrifice of that which he loves and holds most precious in the world.
God’s name will be sanctified even by murder.
This is also a sacrifice that would wipe out the very future promised to him by the same God.
Abraham utters the second hineni in the human frame. It is the response to Isaac’s shattering call, “Father.” At that point Abraham’s horizontal hineni, which resounds with absolute commitment to the son’s needs, stands in stark, irreconcilable conflict with the vertical hineni that would eradicate that very same son.
Finally, as the knife descended, an angelic voice evokes a third hineni which now expresses the readiness to dispense with the sacrifice, and preserve the life of the son. Yet this time Abraham’s name is called out twice.
The two Abrahams, the one dedicated to God, the other to the son, to love, to other human beings, come together in the final hineni.
Cohen’s hineni directs me to this final hineni where life need not be an either/ or choice between the human frame and the holy name. Cohen’s song is that very angelic command screaming for us to stop, retreat and reflect on the possibility that both devotions, to God and to humanity, can coexist without sacrificing one or the other.
That inevitable time has arrived when Cohen’s living voice has been stilled, when he has succumbed to the divine will to which he surrendered some three decades ago: “If it be your will / That I speak no more / And my voice be still / As it was before / I will speak no more.”
Though he speaks no more, may his words continue to address us until the hole in our culture he lamented is repaired.
There is a midrash that considers the name Israel to be a compound of the words song (shir) and God (el). Accordingly, if the name Israel suggests that the sublimity of music forms the bridge between humankind and God, then no one has ennobled the name Israel more than Leonard Cohen. Here’s to the name and the insignia with which you always proudly signed off – thank you Eliezer for blessing us with your blessed life.
The author is the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo, and a Herzl Institute/Templeton Foundation Fellow.