Leonard Cohen's Mysterious View of God Left This Religious Jew Breathless

Leonard Cohen knew how to write within Jewish tradition without being stymied by it.

The cover of Leonard Cohen's last album, 'You Want It Darker.'
The cover of Leonard Cohen's last album, 'You Want It Darker.' Columbia via AP

When I first heard the growling strains of Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” on the internet about six or seven weeks ago, I felt a very peculiar, tangled kind of pleasure.  Hearing new music from Cohen is always a complex pleasure, and his most recent releases, which exquisitely embrace the aches and pains, the losses and gains of growing older, of the body reluctantly relinquishing it desires to the soul, are particularly sweet to my aging ears.  

But it was the month of Elul, and Rosh Hashanah was approaching. I had just returned from morning prayers. The piercing blasts of the shofar warned those listening that the Day of Judgment is near, and the reassuring verses of Psalm 27 calmed the worried: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”  Cohen’s new song is unsettling, particularly for a religious Jew like myself. The world it presents is redolent with unrelenting violence, unanswered cries for help, demons inside and out, chilling “lullabies for suffering,” and a God who not only offers no light but wants it darker. And yet the singer, angry as he is, “broken and lame,” resignedly chants the opening lines of the mourner’s kaddish, “Magnified, sanctified, be Thy holy name,” and it made me shiver.  And the chorus, “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” Abraham’s response to God when called upon to sacrifice his son, left me breathless. As always, we’d be reading these words from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah, but I’d be hearing it differ
ently now.  For the next few weeks, every weekday upon returning from synagogue, in preparation for the High Holy Days, I took up my guitar and played Cohen’s earlier prayer-songs, “If It Be Your Will” and his version of Netaneh Tokef, “Who By Fire?” 

I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen since his first album came out in 1968, when my adolescent, yeshiva-boy brain could fantasize about the “perfect body” of the lovely, fragile Suzanne but could not quite come to terms with someone named Cohen singing, “Jesus was a sailor, when he walked upon the water.”  But the next year, when his second album, “Songs From a Room,” opened with “Bird on a Wire,” in which the singer encounters a “beggar leaning on a wooden crutch” and “a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,” both vying for his conflicted soul, I began to glimpse, if not make mature sense of, the tortured wisdom of Cohen’s art.  

Cohen and I lost touch sometime during the seventies.  Oh, we’d casually run into one another now and then, but it was not until about a decade ago, when a good friend, the novelist Joseph Skibell, ridiculed me for my lapse, that I returned to Cohen and made up for lost time.  I listened closely to each of his albums, one after another, some songs again and again, and I was mortified to realize what I had been missing. Since then, I’ve been listening to, strumming, and teaching Cohen’s music with the religious fervor of a penitent.

In Bar-Ilan University’s Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing, I teach a course in the Jewish literary tradition. The purpose is to awaken aspiring poets and writers to the richness stored there, and to make clear that writing within a tradition is not the same as toeing an authorized line.  In one unit, we begin with biblical psalms, work our way through the Talmud’s account of King David’s road to creativity through despair, then on to some contemporary poems, including, most prominently, Cohen’s most famous song, “Hallelujah.” 

“Hallelujah” is not a simple song, despite its numbing ubiquity and its appearance in the animated children’s film, Shrek. It engages the Psalms and the figure of the biblical David seriously and critically, contemplates the close connection between sexual desire and spiritual longing, the blurred boundary between sacred and profane, confronts the ebb and flow of ecstatic experience, the flawed lives we live and the humbling, art-inspiring sublimity of divine.  (“There’s a crack in everything,” he would later write in “Anthem – whose melody is reprised in his new song, “Treaty” – but “that’s how the light gets in.”) “Hallelujah”’s  reading of the Bible is revelatory, a powerful example of what it means to write within a tradition without being stymied by it.

Cohen drew lovingly from Jewish sources for his lyrics and other writings, but not exclusively.  He was drawn to Christian scriptures and Buddhist teachings and to much else. He was a spiritual prospector, willing to mine gold wherever it might be found. He was proud to be Jew, spoke about his indebtedness often, and boldly pushed aside the BDS bullies to stage a concert in Tel Aviv a few years back (not his first visit), charming the cheering crowd with the biblical priestly blessing. (His name is Cohen, after all.) I have not strayed from Jewish practice, but I’ve learned much about the mysterious, paradoxical ways of God and Man from him.

When I woke this morning to news of Cohen’s passing, I was saddened but not surprised.  Reports of his illness have been circulating, he had said he was ready to die (though also ready to live till 120), and his new album, "You Want it Darker," all but heralds death’s imminence.  I hope someone will say kaddish for him. (I’m willing, if asked.) May his memory and his music continue to be a blessing for us all.

Prof. Michael P. Kramer teaches in the Department of English Literature and Linguistics at Bar-Ilan University. His most recent work, an annotated translated of S.Y. Agnon’s "And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight," is forthcoming from Toby Press.