Books High Holy Days

“And who shall I say is calling?”: Leonard Cohen in a Conversation with the Divine

Leonard Cohen z”l, was a quintessentially Jewish artist. His themes and motifs tugged on the heartstrings of Jewish Thought, both contemporary and millennia-old. To those who would argue that his obvious references to other faith systems, both within his work and his personal life, discount his work’s designation as Jewish, I would point out Marc Chagall’s heavy utilization of the crucifix motif — should Chagall’s work be discounted for this as well? But there is a difference. Chagall’s corpus mainly focused on contemporary Jewish life, particularly in the shtetl; Cohen drew his influences from biblical, exegetical, and liturgical tradition. “The Binding of Isaac” is a pseudo-midrashic retelling of the Akeidah narrative; “Who By Fire” is a modern tongue-in-cheek take on Unetaneh Tokef; most famously, “Hallelujah” not only utilizes that familiar refrain found across Psalms, but calls upon several poignant moments throughout our Prophetic narratives.

In this way, I posit that Cohen was something of a modern-day (non-liturgical) Paytan. The classical Paytan was not only a poet, but a scholar. The piyutim were filled with both overt and obscure textual and exegetical references in an effort to elevate the fixed liturgical practice both through their aural and cerebral qualities. In Cohen’s contemporary take, he shifted this framework, often subverting the very liturgy or scripture he referenced. It should be noted that for the classical Paytan, it did not necessarily matter if the kahal understood the subtle textual references; the poetry, with all its hints to moments across Jewish text, was for God’s benefit. It is interesting to wonder, for whom did Cohen write his music?

Needless to say, I am a big fan. His music occupies a permanent place in my Spotify “Heavy Rotation” playlist. I find his melodies beautiful and his words profound. His lyrics and poetry are evocative and provocative, calling to mind the lowest depths of the human condition as well as the highest ethereal forms of divinity.

All of that said, my stomach turns to knots when his music is used in a liturgical context. I cringe whenever a shaliach tzibur sets Psalm 150 to Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I have ranted to friends and classmates: “There is a time and a place for a cold and broken hallelujah; P’sukei D’zimra is never that time.” The whole point of Cohen’s song is to subvert the idea of the Psalm. The Psalm calls to mind the celebratory joy of worship — “Praise God for God’s exceeding greatness. Praise God with blasts of the horn; praise God with harp and lyre. Praise God with timbrel and dance; praise God with lute and pipe…” Meanwhile, Cohen’s text recalls King David’s voyeuristic lust for Bathsheba and Delilah’s betrayal of Samson the Nazirite. The Psalmist’s alacrity and jubilance are replaced by Cohen’s resigned, resentful, “broken” hallelujah. He does this not to belittle Jewish worship, but to complicate our understanding — blind, wholehearted, unquestioning praise simply does not represent our relationship with the Divine.

So, too, does Cohen’s “Who By Fire” function as a countertext of the Unetaneh Tokef liturgy; whereas the somber traditional text places us as submissive and subject to God’s judgement, Cohen introduces a sarcastic response to God’s call: “And who shall I say is calling?” Cohen challenges us to think beyond what God’s judgement is to focus on who is handing down the decrees. While I would argue that, like “Hallelujah,” the song is inappropriate in a liturgical context, it can serve as an excellent study question and prompt for personal thought (in fact, the text can be found as a “Study Text” before Unetaneh Tokef on page 207 of the Yom Kippur volume of Mishkan HaNefesh).

Throughout his work, Cohen does not place himself beneath God, in a submissive, prayerful manner, but instead, sitting across the table, in conversation with the Divine. At no place is this relationship more evident than in Cohen’s titular song of his final album, “You Want It Darker.” He speaks directly to God, “If You are the dealer, I’m out of the game. If You are the healer, that 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.” In case there was any doubt as to the identity of Cohen’s conversation partner, Cohen utilizes the opening line of Kaddish, “Magnified, sanctified, be Thy holy name.” He goes on to challenge God’s apparent inaction in the face of our prayers: “A million candles burning for the help that never came.” Cohen is simultaneously exalting and challenging God, all while repeating the familiar biblical response to God’s call: Hineini — “Here I am.”

Clearly, Cohen struggled with God — as our people, Am Yisrael, tend to do. But despite his struggle, his irreverence, his sardonic rhetoric, and his subversion of the liturgy, he still says hineini. To put it in his own words, “Even though it all went wrong, I will stand before the Lord of song, with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.” This is, in my opinion, his most Jewish line. In the face of adversity and doubt, Jews across time and space have found a way to reaffirm our faith. Whether by the waters of Babylon in the face of exile, in the establishment of the Mourner’s Kaddish following the Crusades, or, recently, in the uptick in synagogue attendance in the wake of mass-shootings in American synagogues, we reaffirm our faith. This is what it means to be called Yisrael, to not only struggle with God, but to follow that struggle with affirmation. In this way, Leonard Cohen’s work essentially represents the embodiment of the Jewish experience.

Gabriel Snyder is a rising second-year cantorial student at the DFSSM, HUC-JIR. Growing up at Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley, he earned his BA in Religious Studies from Skidmore College in 2018. He has spent this summer as a Press Intern at the CCAR, where he has worked on a variety of projects for several upcoming publications. He will spend the next year as the student cantor at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington, MA.

5 replies on ““And who shall I say is calling?”: Leonard Cohen in a Conversation with the Divine”

Dear Gabriel – I too am a huge fan of Leonard Cohen, and your commentary does him and his work justice. A small point – in my synagogue (where I am now Emeritus – we set Psalm 150 in the Hebrew to Leonard’s Halleluyah and it works beautifully. The congregation perks up when we begin because the melody is so iconic, and then to hear it sung in the Hebrew lifts the prayer higher. There is a YouTube recording from an Israeli chorus singing Cohen’s Halleluyah melody to Psalm 150. That being said, I love his own lyrics. That song, btw, took him 13 years to compose. He wasn’t the kind of creative genius that Dylan or the Beatles were who cranked out songs fully formed within 24 hours. He took his time, but his poetry is no less brilliant. Perhaps he too will one day earn the Nobel Prize for Literature. Again – yasher koach on a very thoughtful and helpful blog. John Rosove

Kol ha-kavod, Gabriel on your RavBlog reflections on Leonard Cohen’s (Z’L) musical motifs.
As one of those Sh’lichei Tzipbur who might have induced your cringes for more than the past decade, I hope you might open up to the beauty of a congregation singing the chorus to his “Hallelujah” with the English verses replaced by the pesukim of Psalm 150. I especially love this when the congregation includes non-Jewish worshipers, who not only come to understand the origins of Cohen’s refrain, but have the opportunity to sing full voice and with full hearts in a time and place where they might have felt somewhat adrift. The singing becomes so uplifted that it becomes easy to drop out the instruments, and go a Capella, so that the voices of the gathered fill the sanctuary. It’s one of my favorites in that way.
David J. Meyer, Rabbi
Temple Emanu-El, Marblehead, MA

Thank you for this post–much to think about. I, too, am a fan of Leonard Cohen and his poetry. I would disagree a bit with one of your positions, where you write: “I have ranted to friends and classmates: “There
is a time and a place for a cold and broken hallelujah; P’sukei D’zimra is never that time.”

Never? That’s just too definitive for me. I think there are occasions when our praise is cold and broken, as individuals and in community. In my years in the rabbinate, I’ve run Shabbat morning services the day after burying children, suicides, etc. In such cases, an acknowledgment that we are going to offer a form of praise even though we very much do not feel like it–and altering the praise accordingly–feels right to me.

So, too, with Cohen’s “Who by Fire?” We often sing it during RH and YK. Unetaneh Tokef is incredibly difficult for many people, for very good reason. Offering a more secular alternative that calls God to account can make for a more powerful spiritual experience.

What a wonderful article – thank you. I have only one thing to add regarding Leonard Cohen’s reference and dialogue with other faiths: the implication by some (which you correctly reject) that Jews can have no relationship or understanding of other faiths without somehow compromising their Jewishness is absurd. Cohen’s beautiful line “Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water” had a poignancy and depth that would not be present if Cohen was a Christian, rather than a Jew.


Thank you so much for this wonderful article. And yes, I have been saying this about using Hallelujah in the P’sukey D’zimrah (on in any setting of Psalm 150) for years now. I truly believe that this song is one of the greatest songs of the 20th century, but it is also one of the most misunderstood and misused.

Let me make it clear that I am not some cranky middle-aged Cantor that rejects any use of popular melodies in worship. I delight in finding “secular” songs (especially when written by non-Jewish musicians) that can be used in Jewish worship. But I have always said, I will not use a popular melody if the original song expresses something contrary to the prayer text. My hypothetical example has always been, “I would happily davven a setting of “Yotzer Or” that uses the George Harrison’s melody for “Here Comes the Sun,” but I would reject any setting of “Ma’ariv Aravim” set to the same melody.

I think that most people enamored with using this song don’t truly understand what it’s about. I have heard it sung at “Friendship Circles” at the closing of NFTY events! I can’t stand it when a video of some 13-year-old kid singing this song makes the rounds on YouTube. I don’t care how wonderful the kid’s voice might be, a 13-year-old should NOT be singing this song! (In my more curmudgeonly moments, I have said that the same classical restrictions on the study of Kabbalah should apply to singing this song: Unless you are over 40, have been married, and have a child you have no business trying to tackle this song!) It is NOT a “Feel Good Rock Anthem!”

I’ll stop now. But thank you again for writing this article. Now I need to go yell “Hey! You damn kids! Stop singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,” and get off my lawn…”

Cantor Martin Levson
Salem, MA

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