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.