Yahrzeit for a life of poetic Jewishness

Leonard Cohen lived a poetically pliable Jewishness as a rebellious traditionalist to the very end.

Leonard Cohen (photo credit: PHOTO BY RAMA VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/CC BY-SA 20 FR)
Leonard Cohen
Though Leonard Cohen passed away early last November, the corresponding Hebrew date makes this week the first anniversary (yahrzeit) of his receiving an exemption from life, as the Hebrew word “petirah” suggests. Having always proudly signed his mail as “Eliezer the Kohen,” I am certain that he would go along with celebrating his yahrzeit according to the Hebrew monthly rhythm.
It might be fitting to talk about God in Cohen’s memory considering that the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish mourning prayer, is entirely a paean to God’s glory, lacking a single word about death or the dead. However, Cohen’s relationship to God and his Jewish roots was a complex one, defined neither by observance nor rebellion. Poetry and music that is “definable,” and therefore predictable, that doesn’t in some sense break with the past, lacks vitality and is, to borrow a line from Cohen, “dead as Heaven on a Saturday night.”
On the other hand, poetry that ignores tradition and that does not build on its literary antecedents degenerates into illiteracy. As Harold Bloom observed, all great poetry is generated by an anxiety of influence that creatively appropriates its predecessors. It looks back so that it can move forward. So Cohen mused about a “secret life” tethered to his ancestry where he admitted: I “can’t seem to loosen my grip on the past.”
Cohen’s life and words embody the anxiety of holding on to one’s roots and to tradition while charting an independent path by breaking free of the hold of a past and heritage still loved. No articulation of memory captures that anxiety better than Cohen’s reminiscence of his own “non-rebellious” embrace of the Sixties drug culture.
“I never rebelled against my parents. Even when I was taking acid and living at the Chelsea Hotel and feeling miserable about myself, it never occurred to me once to blame my situation on my family, my city, my religion, or my tribe. So, I always thought it was great – what they were practicing – and I’ve tried to keep it up in my own half-assed way.”
Cohen’s sexual encounter with the self-destructive rock legend Janis Joplin, recounted in the song dedicated to that very hotel, was a “half assed” replay of the rabbinic version of the biblical Joseph’s near surrender to the seduction of his Egyptian master’s wife. Prevented in the nick of time by his father’s image coming to mind, Joseph follows his father’s spirit away from the bedroom. Cohen, however, succumbed, but rejected an either/or choice it may have triggered between loyalty to his past and his own freedom. He naturally maintained both.
While memorializing the counterculture within the walls of that hotel, he also Jewishly acknowledged its low culture abhorred by his tradition, when “We were running for the money and the flesh.” At the same time he is comforted by the thought expressed by his lover that “We are ugly but we have the music.”
His complex plea to Father/God in the song that emerged from entertaining Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur war expresses best the transparency of what appears as breaking with the past when the Father sets the son right: “I never, never turned aside,” he said, “I never walked away, It was you who built the temple it was you who covered up my face.”
God, father, religion, tribe, are always present. Any estrangement from them is the consequence of confining them to a “temple,” to an enclosed space that is off limits and cordoned off. Closeting God and consigning Him to a narrow enclosure is akin to defining a poet and his poetry – God and the poet become inaccessible and lifeless and therefore easily abandoned. Covering up the face, or hastarat panim, is, as Maimonides explained, a consequence of human action, not a divine choice. God’s pact with his nation is first forged in the Sinai desert, a vast, boundless, uninterrupted expanse, that doesn’t compartmentalize God or anchor Him in one spot. There the “temple” was mobile, portable, constantly constructed and deconstructed, paving the journey to the Promised Land. The poet sings God’s praises from the precariousness of a “broken hill,” as Cohen phrased it in his most prayerful song, “If it Be Your Will,” rather than the imposing grandeur of a monumental structure.
And so, as Cohen once said in another interview, he never felt the need to reject religion. On the contrary, he considered it a rich source for his compositions, without swearing exclusive allegiance to any one established form of it: “From David to Jesus, the idea of Law, of revelation, of a sacred life, or a messiah. All that poetry was at my fingertips.”
What is theology, dogma, or practice for many religious adherents was poetry for Cohen. Sinai, for example, in Cohen’s hands and throat then is neither history, nor the imposition of law, nor a national epiphany, but rather a poetic encounter between human beings and some sense of the transcendent. Cohen’s fingertips played the chords of an “old ceremony” out of which to invent a “new skin.” The irreverent lesson of his 1967 release Suzanne erotically parallels Jesus with a love interest. It climaxes nearly two decades later in a King David, whose illicit tryst with a married woman both destroys his monarchy and impels him to praise God at the same time – “Hallelujah.” The Christian and Jewish contenders for messianic leadership intersect in the spirituality of sexual intimacy.
Cohen transforms Joan of Arc’s martyrdom into a warning about love. Her intense passion for God leads her to the stake, which, for Cohen, is where romance often leads: “if he was fire, then she must be wood / I saw her wince, I saw her cry / I saw the glory in her eye / Myself I long for love and light / but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?”
David’s throne was “broken,” Jesus “himself was broken,” and Joan’s saintly wedding dress was made of “ashes” – all lovers, and all devastated by their love.
If tradition calls then so does this week’s Torah reading to honor the memory of this priest of song. Abraham’s life is framed by God’s command to “Go forth” (lech lecha), the only times in the Bible this phrase appears. This week we listen to how it launches Abraham’s career by demanding that he abandon his native land and his father’s house and head toward a new life somewhere yet to be determined. Next week, that same expression demands the sacrifice of his son on a mountain that is likewise yet to be determined.
Martin Buber beautifully captures the depth of Abraham’s surrender to the divine will in the link between the two “go forths.” The first demands that he divest himself of the past, from the world of the fathers, while the second demands a repudiation of the future, of the world of the sons. I take Buber, add a touch of Cohen, and I myself go midrashically forth: The uncertainty of Abraham’s geographical direction in both cases separates him from place as well. Abraham, the sole person explicitly identified in the Bible as a lover of God, lives now, cut off from time and space. Severed from all relationships he experienced and will experience in time, he can unite with his true Beloved who transcends the temporal, the geographical and the relational. How profound the loneliness must have been to consummate that love! The cost is terrifying.
While the biblical message may not sit right with Cohen, its poetry overwhelms him, compelling his own creatively subversive version in “The Story of Isaac.” In a complex weave of horror, condemnation and admiration, Cohen envisions a detached father rationalizing the murder he plans for his son – “his voice was very cold. He said, ‘I’ve had a vision and you know I’m strong and holy, I must do what I’ve been told.’”
Is Abraham driven by self-centredness? Is he delusional? Is he mindlessly obedient? Can he sincerely believe that killing in the name of God is what makes him “strong and holy”? Is he truly suppressing his love for Isaac or has it been inauthentic all along? After all, Isaac has already seen his father “do what he has been told” when he sacrificed his other son, Ishmael, sending him out to the desert to die in accordance with Sarah’s demands.
Ishmael too draws Cohen’s blessing in his Book of Mercy, “who covered his face with the wilderness, and came to you in darkness.”
Playing on Ishmael’s destiny to be “a wild ass of a man,” also recorded in this week’s Torah portion, Cohen’s Isaac already knows that his father is experienced in darkening a son’s life. When Isaac gazes up from the altar he is confused as to who or what stands over him – “Thought I saw an eagle, but it might have been a vulture, I never could decide.”
Is Abraham a scavenger living off the dead, or is he the graceful model of the soaring freedoms and values that Americans declare we hold dear? Nearly half a century later traces of Abraham reappear in Cohen’s curtain call just before his death in the hineni (here I am) that resonates with the words “You want it darker, we kill the flame.”
Abraham’s unconditional love for God and preparedness to sacrifice anything for it, expressed by “hineni,” now reflects a more complicated covenant. Darkness, as well as light, entangles the lover and his beloved. Moses also responded with a “hineni” to God at the burning bush, which opened the door to a life of constant angst, frustration, anger, rejection, familial fragmentation and ultimately failure to realize the very goal he was divinely commissioned to achieve. If human beings and God are authentic partners they cannot only remain bonded by love’s bliss but must also share in its dark side, its brokenness – in sickness and in health.
Judging from all the tributes emanating from the religiously doctrinal members of his tribe that inundated the media after his death, one got the impression that Cohen was an Orthodox, God-fearing man – a shomer mitzvot. For anyone who truly heard Cohen’s words, these platitudes were mouthed by those wholly unfamiliar with his oeuvre, desperately trying to claim him as one of their own. That would be bad enough. However, they also blasphemed a poet by categorizing him. To bend poetry to your will is already to drain it of its vitality. Leonard Cohen was all of the things these dilettantes wanted him to be, but he was also none of them. In one of his last interviews he voiced his relationship with his people’s foundational scriptures best:
“This biblical landscape is very familiar to me, and it’s natural that I use those landmarks as references. Once they were universal references, and everybody understood and knew them. That’s no longer the case today, but it is still my landscape. I try to make those references. I try to make sure they’re not too obscure. But outside of that, I can’t – I dare not – claim anything in the spiritual realm for my own.”
Cohen’s home was Jewish and his “landscape” included the vista of ancient Jewish texts. Like Abraham, Cohen heard the command to “go forth.” But it was the kind of exit that never entailed turning one’s back. Throughout his life he headed toward new landscapes, always in the shadow of the ones he left behind. That shadow became more and more overshadowing as Cohen headed consciously toward his own end.
In a striking stanza a few years before his death, he returns home in a gesture of abject humility, an acknowledgment that greatness doesn’t lie in the self centeredness of cultivating one’s freedom toward attaining one’s own dreams. He imagines a divine voice reflecting on his poetic craft: “But he does say what I tell him, even though it isn’t welcome, he just doesn’t have the freedom to refuse [...] I want to make him certain that he doesn’t have a burden, that he doesn’t need a vision, that he only has permission, to do my instant bidding.”
Cohen finally exudes the anxious influence of Solomon, whose poetry began with the Song of Songs, a celebration of beauty and love, and ended close to death with Ecclesiastes, a sober acknowledgment of material passion’s ephemerality. God then clarifies what His bidding of Cohen consists of – “Which is to say what I have told him to repeat.”
What an anxiously creative way of reinventing Solomon’s wisdom that there is nothing new under the sun.
Cohen lived a poetically pliable Jewishness as a rebellious traditionalist to the very end. Alongside his last refrain addressed defiantly to God of “You want it darker,” he also declared submissively, “Hineni, I’m ready my Lord.”
The author is the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo, and a Herzl Institute/Templeton Foundation Fellow. His forthcoming book “Jewish Theology Unbound” will be published by Oxford University Press this spring.