When Elijah’s Mantle Fell: The Judaism of Leonard Cohen

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Bezalel Naor

Now that the dust has begun to settle on the freshly dug grave of Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), and we are hopefully past the hullabaloo, past the media circus which witnessed (in Leonard’s own words) “all the lousy little poets coming round,” we may begin to examine with some sobriety the literary legacy of this celebrated bard.

No, Leonard Cohen did not receive the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature. Instead, it was awarded to another Jewish poet, Bob Dylan (aka, Robert Zimmerman). But, about the same time that Dylan was announced a Nobel laureate, Cohen bequeathed to us what would become his farewell song, his Kaddish, “You Want It Darker.” With that, the prodigal son returned home and was clutched to the bosom of his people. Complete with the Biblical Hebrew refrain “Hineni” (“I’m ready”) and backed up by the cantorial rendition of the hazan of historic Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, the synagogue Leonard grew up in as a boy, “this last song he left us,” to quote Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “is the most Jewish he ever wrote.” Indeed, as the Talmud put it, “There is one who acquires eternity in a single hour.”

Cohen’s identity as a priest descended from Aaron, was not lost on him. Time and again, he invoked his priestly powers. At the conclusion of one memorable concert in Israel, Cohen actually extended his hands in priestly benediction, pronouncing—in the outlandish Ashkenazic pronunciation of his forebears—the three verses of the ancient formula.

Besides bestowing blessing, the High Priest in days of yore also acted as an oracle. In his prophetic imagination, the letters engraved in the precious and semi-precious stones on his breastplate would light up like a console, delivering a Delphic message to the nation. Cohen preserved this tradition as well in his literary oeuvre, referring to it self-deprecatingly as “entertainment for cryptologists.”

Having properly vetted him as an authentic Jewish voice, one asks where exactly in the pantheon of Judaism does Leonard Cohen’s God belong? Certainly Cohen’s God is not the Lithuanian Mitnagdic God of his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klonitzky-Kline, author of Otsar Ta‘amei Hazal, a thesaurus of aggadic interpretations of the Pentateuch. Unlike classical rabbinic Judaism, with its transcendental vision of the deity, Cohen’s faith is decidedly pantheistic. His God is embodied and incarnate. (Stated succinctly, Leonard’s credo reduces to the belief that the divinity is splendid as a woman but pathetic as a god.) But neither is his the faith of the Hasidim. From the very beginning, the Tanya (referred to in Habad circles as “the Bible of Hasidism”), drives a wedge between the “animal soul” (nefesh ha-behemit) and the “divine soul” (nefesh ha-elohit). If there is a Judaism that can accommodate the enigmatic soul of Leonard Cohen, it is, Heaven shudder—Sabbateanism. In the wake of the appearance of the Messiah of Izmir, seventeenth-century Shabbetai Tsevi, there was constructed—and deconstructed—a Kabbalistic universe in which lust, passion and sensuality interplay with the divine.

One of the vestments of the priest was the avnet, the belt or girdle. The Talmudic sages (Yoma 12b) disagreed what fabric it consisted of, whether it was pure white linen (the garb of the angels on high) or mixed with multi-variegated wool, embracing all the sensual colors of life: crimson, blue and purple. In fact, the great codifier Maimonides adopted the latter approach (Hil. Klei ha-Mikdash 8:1). And the avnet was extremely long, which required it to be wrapped around the cohen’s frame several times. Thirty-two cubits in length, no less (ibid. 8:19). Thirty-two (Lamed Bet) being the Hebrew word for “heart.” It may have been richly colored, and it certainly was hearty, but a divide it was nonetheless, a barrier between the upper and lower parts of man.

In Leonard Cohen’s art, we have a priestly wardrobe sans girdle. All the divine poetry of man’s higher self and all the graphic detail of man’s lower self, come together. No one is more aware of this ongoing battle, this war waged between the physical nature and the spiritual nature, than Leonard Cohen himself.

In My Life in Art, which contains an unpublished memoir of the time he spent in Israel during and in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, Cohen recorded the contents of a letter he received from “Asher,” an all too sincere convert to Judaism, whose fundamental belief assaulted, challenged, disturbed and provoked Leonard on so many levels of his being. One thing is certain. Cohen was unable to ignore the gauntlet thrown down by this unlikely acquaintance.

Just shy of his fortieth birthday, Cohen left behind his partner Suzanne Elrod and their infant son Adam on the idyllic Greek isle of Hydra, in order to be with his people in this dark hour of their history. In Athens airport, as he was about to board the plane bound for Tel-Aviv, Cohen met this strange man, Asher, who was himself leaving behind the comforts of California to show his solidarity with his new nation of Israel. Cohen would eventually head for the front to perform a concert for the Israeli soldiers. The troops begged him to sing “Suzanne” encore after encore. Cohen’s appearance outside Ismailia, on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal, has been preserved for posterity in the iconic photograph shot together with General Ariel Sharon. The other gentleman’s gravitation to the Holy Land, however, remains unrecorded—except in the annals of Cohen’s memoir.

Asher’s letter to Leonard from Jerusalem is oracular, but speaks in no uncertain terms. By some neat trick of ventriloquism, Asher becomes the voice of Cohen’s conscience. In so many words, he imparts to Cohen this uncommon wisdom:

Now is the time to seize the opportunity and become the real Cohen you were always intended to be. Grab on to the cape of the Prophet Elijah thrown to you.
The Law requires that the High Priest be married.
“‘He shall atone for himself and for his house.’ ‘His house.’ This is his wife” (Yoma 1:1).
Having joined together physical and spiritual natures, the High Priest may then go on to serve in the rebuilt Temple of physical and spiritual Jerusalem.

The letter resounds with a definite tone of celestial authority though at no point is it as brutal as the dictation of Joseph Caro’s maggid.

Implicit in the letter is the rabbinic tradition (Bava Metsi’a 114b) whereby Elijah was a Cohen. As much as Cohen may have reached for it, he was simply incapable of grasping the symbolic mantle of Elijah. It would continue to elude him. The singer decided to leave the Land of Israel.

Another Cohen, who earned the sobriquet “the High Priest of Rebirth,” Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), recorded his vision of Elijah heralding the Messianic Age:

Behold, I see with my eyes the light of Elijah’s life rising. His power for his God is increasingly revealed. The holiness in nature breaks down fences. It proceeds to be united with the holiness that is above coarse nature; with the holiness that fights nature (Orot, Lights of Renascence, chap. 30).

Rav Kook envisioned Elijah, “the Angel of the Covenant,” the genius of holiness in the flesh, as holding the key to unlock the secrets of the flesh and of the divine seal inscribed in the Israelite body (Orot, Israel and Its Renascence, chap. 29). As Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook was preparing to leave this world so fraught with contradictions, another Cohen was preparing to enter the fray of earthly existence and unravel—or perhaps complexify—its mysteries.

They said to him: “He is a hairy man, with a girdle of skin girded about his loins.”
And he said: “It is Elijah the Tishbite”
(2 Kings 1:8).
He lifted up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him (2 Kings 2:13).
The mantle of Elijah still waits to be lifted.
The loins have yet to be girded.

Bezalel Naor is the author of several works of Jewish thought with concentration upon Kabbalah, Sabbateanism, and Hasidism. Recently, his annotated English translation of Rav Kook's seminal work Orot was published by Koren/Maggid (2015). Naor is presently at work on a kabbalistic novel and collection of poems.