Leonard Cohen - a Jew Who Defied Categories

For Leonard Cohen, in a long, tortuous journey filled with love, success, loneliness, deep suffering and a relentless search for his own truth, did he truly became who he was.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Musician Leonard Cohen tips his hat to the audience as he accepts the 2012 Awards for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence, which was awarded to both he and Chuck Berry at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. on February 26, 2012.
Musician Leonard Cohen tips his hat to the audience as he accepts the 2012 Awards for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence, in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. on February 26, 2012.Credit: Reuters / Jessica Rinaldi
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

The news of Leonard Cohen’s death saddened me greatly, even though there were indications that he was gravely ill, such as in David Remnick’s beautiful text about his encounters with Cohen in the last months. And of course there was his last masterpiece, “You want it darker”, interpreted by many as Cohen’s Adieu to life.

Aristotle wrote that only after a man’s death can we know whether he had truly lived a good life, whether he had truly fulfilled his potential. And with all the sadness about the loss of a man whose music and texts have accompanied my entire adult life, I feel like saying Ecce homo: How One becomes what One is, to use Nietzsche’s formula. For Leonard Cohen, in a long, tortuous journey filled with love, success, loneliness, deep suffering and a relentless search for his own truth, did he truly became who he was.

For many, old age is primarily a story of decline; but Leonard Cohen’s seventies were not just objectively the most successful years of his life, but also the culmination of his trajectory as an artist. It is astounding, time and again, to hear his late renditions of songs he had written and first recorded in his thirties and forties. In his last world tour prompted largely by financial distress, but ended up becoming Cohen’s greatest triumph lasting years, Cohen’s singing was more centered, effortless and poignant in its minimalist precision than ever before. He allowed his voice to be exactly what it was, which enabled him to give concert after concert, singing for more than three hours each time to enraptured audiences.

Cohen’s creative process was painstakingly slow: most of his texts were in the works for years, sometimes even more than a decade. His demands on himself were very high; and he did not want to publish or record poems or songs he felt weren’t completely right. As a result, Cohen’s output is slim, given that his career lasted more than five decades; but the proportion of his work that stands the test of time is remarkably high.

Cohen was, in a very deep sense, a very Jewish artist – as is obvious from his repeated use of allusions, and sometimes outright quotations from texts from the Jewish tradition ranging from the Book of Genesis to the Kaddish, from his earliest published poems to his last masterpiece “You want it darker,” which compresses central themes of Cohen’s life work into a text that combines anger and a sense of closure. The first stanza is a sharp denunciation of the world’s creator:

"If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame"

When Cohen writes “If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame,” it does not seem that he accepts this shame – but rather questions the Creator’s glory, whose rulings and laws he rejects: “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game”! He continues his harsh judgment:

"Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker"

The first line of the stanza is a translation of the first words of the Kaddish, but Cohen continues with lines accusing God for having created a cruel world: “A million candles burning for the help that never came” cannot but evoke the horrors of the Holocaust that have made so many Jews ask, where God had been while so many perished in Auschwitz. And then, in a sharp turn, Cohen submits to the inevitable:

"Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord"

These lines have led many to see the song as Cohen’s acceptance of death – he knew that he was terminally ill when he wrote “You want it darker.” And while there is certainly acquiescence with the inevitable, Cohen’s judgment of God does not let go; for the most famous context of the biblical exclamation “Hineni” is in the Book of Genesis, when Abraham tells God “Here I am,” when God is about to tell him to sacrifice Isaac. A few verses later, Abraham once again says “Hineni,” when Isaac turns to him to ask, what is about to be sacrificed.

The binding of Isaac is certainly one of the most contentious and difficult texts in the entire Jewish tradition. Abraham has been hailed for his obedience to God in mainstream Jewish tradition. But Leonard Cohen, in many of his songs, and once again in his final work, rejects Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as inhuman, and God’s request to do so – even as a test, as monstrous.

But Leonard Cohen’s life and work was, among other things, an ongoing dialogue with Jewish tradition. In one of his many interviews he says that he never felt the need to rebel against the Judaism of his upbringing. I’m not sure whether his family and the community in which he grew up would agree: Cohen’s life was anything but the typical Jewish trajectory: most of the many women he loved were not Jewish; he was not observant, and he had a long, intense relation with Buddhism culminating in living six years as a Buddhist monk. But “You want it darker” is accompanied, not by the female background singers so common in Cohen’s career, but by the male choir of the synagogue of its childhood and ends with the incantation of its current cantor.

Cohen’s Jewishness defies categorization, because he didn’t care about the social and conventional categories of thinking about Jewish existence, which nowadays lead to so much strife between different religious and political groupings in Judaism. He fused his deep attachment to Jewish texts, and an often distinctly Jewish musical phrasing with anything from Folk music to Buddhist meditation. Time and again, in his interviews, he said that he thought that Western culture did not address the human need for spirituality with sufficient depth.

As a true seeker who would not accept anybody’s preconceived notions of Jewishness and spirituality, he took the way open only to truly independent and creative minds and souls: to write the texts that he wanted to read and couldn’t find, himself, touching, along the way, countless souls.

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