Leonard Cohen Five Years On: Death of a Ladies’ Kohen

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James A. Diamond


It is now Leonard Cohen’s fifth yahrzeit and, though there has been a myriad of commemorative articles since “closing time,” as he would have referred to it, there is always room for another look at his Jewish legacy.[1] Just as the ending of one cycle of Torah readings marks the beginning of the next, Cohen understood the blurring of beginnings and endings—Closing time / Every new beginning / Comes from some other beginning’s end.

Yet, when remembering the ‘Jewish’ Leonard Cohen it would be a disservice to simply co-opt him and his poetry into any kind of conventional framework, let alone that of Judaism. Judging from all the tributes emanating from the religiously doctrinal members of his tribe that inundated the media since his death, one gets the impression that Cohen was an Orthodox, God-fearing man – a shomer mitzvot. For anyone who truly heard Cohen’s words, these platitudes are mouthed by those wholly unfamiliar with his oeuvre, desperately trying to claim a celebrity as one of their own. That would be bad enough. However, they also blaspheme the poet by molding him in their own image. 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. His entire career can be framed in a sense by his poetic improvisations on the Kaddish. Coupled with the fact that the prayer itself was the pretext for my personal encounters with him, that mournful veneration of God and His name animates my present yahrzeit tribute to him. In doing so I hope to restore in some small measure the elusiveness he and his work deserves, to indeterminately recall the artist he declared can only be known evanescently as the distance you put between all the moments that we will be.[2]

Cohen’s Amen to Kaddish

I met Cohen nearly two decades ago at an annual Jewish Studies academic conference in Los Angeles where I had organized a panel dedicated to Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish. To my mind Kaddish was and remains the most profound extended rumination on what has become the traditional doxology recited by mourners following the loss of an immediate family member. It deserved the attention of scholars across the spectrum of Jewish Studies. The discussants, coupled with Wieseltier’s response, measured up to the title of the session—Kaddish: Mourning as a Delirium of Study—presenting eclectic learned reflections on what is an active mourner’s sweeping engagement with kaddish and the gamut of its ramifications. What made this experience particularly delirious for me was that we were on the stage performing for Leonard Cohen who was silently and attentively sitting in the front row. He was listening so hard that it hurts, bearing a smile that gestured an Amen, as the track off his album released later at the age of 77 expressed—the track itself a meditation on mortality anticipating his own kaddish.[3]

The conference took place shortly after the release of Cohen’s album Ten New Songs, which included the track “Love Itself” dedicated to LW, or Leon Wieseltier. In light of the timing, location, and that, like his poem, the session was dedicated to his friend, I contacted his agent, inviting Cohen to attend. Instead of an expected brush off, I received a gracious response directly from Cohen expressing his thanks, interest, and hopeful intention to come should his schedule allow. What a mentsch, though I felt like those ephemeral flecks summoned in that track—All busy in the sunlight / The flecks did float and dance / And I was tumbled up with them / In formless circumstance—wrapped by their instantaneously dissipating joy and vitality. Thrilled by a direct communication from an iconic balladeer, revered since adolescence, I was still skeptical that Cohen would actually show up. However, that tumbling, dancing, and floating took hold once again when he appeared just before the session convened, and discreetly took his seat, focused intensely for the duration of nearly two hours of presentations and question period.

Cohen’s life and poetry mirror in some sense the profound struggle that fueled Wieseltier’s delirious engagement with kaddish. A halakhic issue that so preoccupies the book offers a clue to it—the question of whether one can recite the kaddish for a sinner or heretic parent. Wieseltier’s Kaddish addresses the exact converse: can one who was schooled in the strictures of tradition, but having become alienated from its statutory confines, return to its regulated patterns of conduct, and yet remain true both to his reasoned alienation (apikorsus), and love for Judaism’s theoretical underpinnings? Cohen could only be “free” of his Jewishness in his own way, like that bird landing on those telephone wires he fixated on while secluded on an isolated Greek island, constraining his sought-after escape from civilization— Like a bird on the wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free. Cohen was preceded by a long line of Jewish iconoclasts who might have severed their Jewish cord but for the sounds of the secret chord of those Hallelujahs originally composed by King David. The chord’s pitch still resonated harmoniously behind the apparent discordance of their lives, pleasing the Lord.

Escape and Return

Heinrich Heine, the greatest of German Jewish poets, who chose baptism as his “ticket of admission into European culture,”[4] ultimately realized what King David surely did some two millennia before him when David himself thought he could blend in with his Philistine hosts seeking refuge from King Saul’s murderous intent.[5] Despite the high price of admission to his new club, Heine acknowledged he could never escape the anti-Semitism endemic to “the lower and higher rabble”[6] of his fellow citizens. Whether it was the push of non-Jewish society or the pull of heritage, Jewish rebels over the millennia often could not break free, always returning to that lover, lover, lover, who beckons over and over Come back to me, in the song Cohen himself composed when pulled to visit the Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur war. The return to his ancient family overcame the allure of escape driven by the plea to his Jewish roots voiced in that same song—Father, change my name / The one I’m using now / It’s covered up with fear and filth / And cowardice and shame.[7] As Wieseltier ironically notes in his Kaddish, Harry Houdini himself, a Hungarian Jew born Erik Weisz, despite the subterfuge of the moniker, could not avoid being straitjacketed by the Jewish prayer shawl (tallit) on the annual commemoration of his father’s death (yahrzeit). Wieseltier wryly and brilliantly glossed, “Some escape artist!”

Though the trajectory of Cohen’s life and art culminating in his deep engagement with, and years of fealty to, a Buddhist master appears superficially to reflect estrangement from his Jewish roots, nothing could be further from the truth. Cohen never canceled his membership in that club founded by the little Jew who wrote the Bible, and pushed back forcefully when interviewers assumed he did. The following encapsulates his response to what he considered an affront to his identity:

“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. I certainly wasn’t looking for a new series of rituals or new scriptures or dogmas. I wasn’t looking for that. I wasn’t looking for anything exalted or spiritual. I had a great sense of disorder in my life of chaos, of depression, of distress. And I had no idea where this came from. And the prevailing psychoanalytic explanations at the time didn’t seem to address the things I felt. So I had to look elsewhere. And I bumped into someone who seemed to be at ease with himself…it was the man himself that attracted me.”

In good rabbinic form, Cohen indentured himself as a shammes (beadle) sitting at the feet of a sage named Roshi whose “ease” mirrored what rabbinic sages considered the most pious of all temperaments,[8] although Cohen surely never laid any claim to piety. Cohen’s ‘attraction’ to a spiritual master, graduating toward abject servility, was in effect a fulfillment of a core mitzvah of Torah study, a component of which is to cleave to sages and serve them, absorbing their conduct as well as their teachings.[9] Indeed, Moses Maimonides, the greatest of all rabbinic masters in the history of Jewish thought, both theology and law, considered the aim of the entire framework of Jewish law and ritual to be its calming effect (yishuv da’at), inculcating the existential composure necessary for the welfare of the body and the soul.[10] Already in the Middle Ages, as a doctor of both the body and the soul, he presciently diagnosed the deep chaos and distress caused by the apparent dichotomy between science and religious teachings, or what has been coined the conflict between “Athens and Jerusalem.”[11] The treatment Maimonides, the jurist, philosopher, and physician prescribed for this malaise was his magisterial Guide of the Perplexed, a philosophical primer intended to synthesize the overwhelming forces wrenching his disciples in entirely opposite directions—those of tradition embracing them and those of progress that would uproot the legacy of their forefathers.

Cohen considered perplexity to be the engine driving people toward religion, what he termed “the unavoidable presence of the Other.” But for Cohen it was art that expressed, perhaps even heightened, those perplexities, while for Maimonides it was philosophy that resolved them. Whereas for Maimonides, the divine image (tzelem elokim), or what constitutes the very essence of human existence, is intellect, for Cohen it is perplexity itself, declaring during his spartan Buddhist inspired existence on Mount Baldy, “That’s what a human is: a gathering around a perplexity.” That perplexity and ascetic lifestyle never stopped him and his Zen master however from staying up at night enjoying the contemplative effects of single malt scotch. Cohen thus introduced into a Zen retreat what has become a ritualistic facet of the kiddush that follows Shabbat prayers in many synagogues. The sacred and the profane can in fact complement each other.

Devotional Estrangement

Cohen felt most comfortable abundantly referencing his own biblical heritage, but decidedly not for parochial reasons. He drew on that spiritual storehouse of wisdom for those messages that transcend the narrow confines of one’s own tribe. 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.”

While Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre is saturated with his Jewishness, it is paradoxically rife with devotional estrangement, always with a twist, often secularizing or eroticizing its sacred dimensions. Though Who By Fire is one of his most intensely Jewish compositions playing off a central prayer of the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), it could not be further from the pure submission of one’s fate to divine will that the original exudes. Supplementing the litany of terminal misfortunes to which human beings are exposed, “who by water and who by fire,” among others, Cohen adds for example, Who by his lady’s command / Who by his own hand[12] Cohen positions God, the original prayer’s sole consummate authority over all human destiny, in partnership or in competition with two other powers—an individual’s ultimate autonomy over his own life and a lover’s dominance over the beloved. That lady’s command overpowers all others, even God’s mitzvot. After all, Cohen once declared, If you want a lover / I’ll do anything you ask me to… / And I’d howl at your beauty / Like a dog in heat / And I’d claw at your heart / And I’d tear at your sheet.[13]

Indeed, Cohen’s “Hallelujah” portrays a King David as a composite of those whose lives were devastated by their lovers—You saw her bathing on the roof / Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her / She tied you to a kitchen chair / She broke your throne, and she cut your hair. Its melodious beauty obfuscates its pessimistically melancholic view of love which is not some kind of victory march, no / It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah. Surely the King David of Cohen’s lyrics is the last one any couple would want shadowing them as they march down the aisle to the chuppah! That men often disastrously succumb to the allure of passionate love is a theme that recurs throughout his poetry and his life. In that sense he is more of a rabbinic acolyte of David’s, sharing an obliviousness to Jewish law that the ancient rabbis startlingly attributed to him: “A Halakhah escaped David: man has a small limb and the more he satiates it the more it is starved while the more he starves it the more satiated it is” (Sanhedrin 107a). As his name reflects, while proud of his priestly Jewish heritage, always signing off his emails to me with the insignia of a kohen’s fingers in blessing mode, Cohen also offered sacrifices at the altar of Eros, his poetry brimming with carnal and spiritual love as two sides of the same coin. When we lament the death of the kohen we also lament the Death of a Ladies’ Man.

Who by Fire’s refrain further deepens his subversion of the prayer’s categorical recognition of God’s supreme control—what it declares as the “truths” (emet) of God’s kingship and judgeship. Cohen assails these truths which relegate all other sources of authority to the chimera of human imagination, with the tension and ambiguity that are the hallmarks of spiritual struggle—Who shall I say is calling. Doubt and anxiety, the staples of artistic invention, rooted in the soul of the poet, undermine the secure certainty of faith – or does it perhaps fortify it? The consummately submissive Abraham of the akeidah, whose loyalty included unwavering willingness to slaughter his son at God’s command, was the same Abraham who challenged God’s justice when God sentenced Sodom to indiscriminate destruction. Authentic relationship between beloved and lover, both earthly and spiritual, often demands a complex amalgam of resignation and defiance.

Unifying the Name

In fact, Cohen’s relationship with the unavoidable presence of the Other, can be traced between two such antithetical responses to the akeidah that bookmark his career. At its very beginning in his second release in 1969, there is the resistance called for by his Story of Isaac, when God the Father becomes emblematic of all those fathers who would send their children out to war—You who build these altars now / To sacrifice these children / You must not do it anymore. And at the other end, You Want it Darker, his final release just weeks before his death in October of 2016, composed knowing his own end was imminent, adapts Abraham’s hineni proclaiming, I’m ready my Lord. Yet even at the very end Cohen goes down swinging at the Other who wants it darker: in the same breath of a preemptive kaddish, Magnified, sanctified Be the holy name, he conjures the million murdered children of the Shoah, the stark horror of A million candles burning / For the love that never came. That crime is the apex of a litany of atrocities that have vilified, crucified the Name in the human frame. Neither God nor humankind is relieved of their shared responsibility for the evil that has so pervaded human history. Yet that does not preclude for Cohen the hope of a magnification of the Name on a vertical plane that has been so soiled by humanity on a horizontal one.

Cohen’s farewell then echoes a profound midrashic lament that as long as evil men do persist, signified by Amalek as the national incarnation of evil, God’s great name remains incomplete.[14] This notion too resounds in the rabbinic call of the kaddish for the diminished name yah (yehei shem yah rabbah) to be amplified into its full four letter form of the shem hameforash or Tetragrammaton.[15]

But Cohen the impassioned bard, who, unlike the philosopher or rabbi, revels in the dichotomies of life rather than resolving them, elsewhere offers another possibility for mending a fragmented name. The ‘name’ is the pivotal theme that pulsates throughout his song, originally titled Taken Out of Egypt but released as Born in Chains, another intensely Jewish engagement with God, suffering, loss, and liberation, whose repeated refrain is Blessed is the name, the name be blessed.[16] There Cohen evokes a ‘wounded’ fragmented name—In every atom broken is the name. In that unique blend of the erotic and the spiritual, harmony can be achieved in the confusion and anxiety that regularly accompanies love But in the grip of sensual illusion / The sweet unknowing unifies the name. It is precisely the humility of ‘unknowing’ provoked by the brokenness of the sensual that might prompt a heightened perception beyond the sensual toward an underlying unity that grounds all existence. That awareness is itself a unification of the Name.   

R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv), one of the greatest rabbinic sages of the 19th century, claimed that poetry captures the nature of the Torah in its covert allusiveness, metaphor, symbolism, and acrostic clues that disclose meaning far beyond the simplicity and overt message of prose.[17] Thus, the profound discoveries and hidushim of the sage, of the talmid hakham, are poetic expressions of keen listening to the tone and rhythm of the sacred texts. As such, though Leonard Cohen would not fit the sage R. Berlin envisioned, nor would he ever claim to be, his poetry and melodies resound with subversively devout and impishly serious Jewish rhythms. Nothing I can say captures his entire body of work and art better than his own title to the 1995 release New Skin for the Old CeremonyCohen’s fingertips played the chords of an “old ceremony” out of which emerges a “new skin,” preserving the ancient Jewish covenant, the brit, by reinventing it. Cohen is the irreverent traditionalist. He was the consummate poet, the artist who deals in the contradictions and paradoxes that mirror life. In that same album he confessed that A singer must die / For the lie in his voice. While Socrates the philosopher died for the truth of reason, Cohen the troubadour would die for the fabricated truths of love and art.

As I write this paean to his memory in Tel Aviv, I hear his music played quite often in cafes and on the streets. Cohen’s music has always resonated here and God seems to have responded positively to Cohen’s petitionary prayer for incessant encores even after his passing:

If it be your will, that a voice be true
From this broken hill, I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will, to let me sing

A central protagonist of the novel Beautiful Losers of 1966, one of his earliest literary creations, pens a letter to a friend that is to be opened five years after his death:

My Dear Friend,

Five years with the length of five years. I do not know exactly where this letter finds you.

Cohen’s legacy, the “letter” of his poetry, music, and life, finds us five years later at a very different time, yet always enchanted, perplexed, comforted, and troubled by it. Cohen wrote, For the holy one dreams of a letter / Dreams of a letter’s death.[18] R. Hisda, one of the ancient Talmudic rabbis, opined that “a dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read.”[19] Cohen’s letters will not die. His dreams that materialized in that long letter of song and poetry he left us will surely continue to be read and interpreted, offering us the helping hand he extended, in his cover of another Jewish lyricist sage known by the name Berlin, one of the greatest of all American songwriters,[20] Not for just an hour / Not for just a day / Not for just a year, but always. [21]    

[1] Death of a Ladies’ Man is the title of his 1977 album which included the song of the same title

[2] From the track “You Know Who I Am” off his second album Songs From a Room released in 1969.

[3] “Amen” is a track on his album Old Ideas released in 2012.

[4] “Der Taufzettel ist das Entre Billet zur Europäischen Kultur.” See Heine, Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke, band 10, S. 313.                   

[5] See 1 Samuel 21:11 and the remaining narrative in the first book of Samuel related to David’s seeking asylum in the Philistine camp.

[6] Heinrich Heine, “Shylock (Jessica),” trans. F. Ewen, in Jewish Stories and Hebrew Melodies (New York: Markus Wiener Publishing, 1987), 83. German original in Heinrich Heine, Werke und Briefe in zehn Bänden, Band 5 (Berlin and Weimar, 1972), 543.

[7] From his fourth studio release of 1974, New Skin for the Old Ceremony.

[8] See for example Avot 6:4 that lists “ease” (yishuv) as one of the ways Torah is acquired, and Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, trans. S. Pines (University of Chicago Press, 1963) I:34, p.77, who considers “tranquility and quiet” to be essential for ultimate perfection.

[9] See Avot 1:4, “let thy house be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the very dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.” As Ovadiah Bartenura comments “that one should sit on the ground at the feet of sages.”

[10] Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 4:13

[11] See Introduction to Guide of the Perplexed, pp.5-6.

[12] “Who by Fire” appears on the same release as “Lover, Lover, Lover” referenced above.

[13] “I’m Your Man” on the album of the same title of 1988.

[14] Tanhuma, Ki Tetzei 11, cited prominently by Rashi on Exodus 17:16.

[15] See Tosafot, Berakhot 3a, s.v. “ve-onin.”

[16] A track on the 2014 album Popular Problems.

[17] Ha’amek Davar (Jerusalem: Yeshivat Volozhin, 2005), Volume 1, p. 2.

[18] From the song “The Window” on his album of 1979, Recent Songs.

[19] Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 55a.

[20] Irving Berlin, born Beilin.

[21] The Future, 1992.

James A. Diamond is the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo and former director of the university’s Friedberg Genizah Project. His most recent book is Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon (Cambridge, 2014)