Leonard Cohen: Psalmist for our time


When Leonard Cohen died this past Nov. 7 at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 82, he was eulogized throughout much of the world as a talented singer and song writer; but he was also a poet, novelist, and painter.  Born and reared in an English-speaking Jewish neighborhood in Montreal, he was honored in his native country with numerous awards for both his musical and literary achievements.

I purchased Cohen’s first LP, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” shortly after it came out in1967 and listened to his mournful voice and his darkly mysterious lyrics over and over again…as I do now, 50 years later.  My appreciation for his work was reinforced when I saw Robert Altman’s 1971 masterpiece, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” and heard the haunting sound of Cohen’s voice in the background; three of the songs from his first album – “Winter Lady,” “The Stranger Song,” and “Sisters of Mercy,” – run through the entire movie, a sad and persistent undercurrent of word and melody mirroring the depressed mood, which Altman evokes.  In “Sisters of Mercy” we hear, “If life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn…;” all the major characters in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” are driven leaves whom the winds of autumn and winter have cast off and condemned.

I confess that although 13 albums have followed “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” I have neither purchased, nor listened to, a single one of them.  Cohen’s music faded from my consciousness as I fell ever more deeply under the spell of Bob Dylan’s prodigious, ever evolving repertoire.

Toward the end of my career at Temple Habonim in Barrington, in the early 2000s, I quite by accident came upon a tape of Cohen’s 1969 “The Story of Isaac.”  I found the song to be an excellent teaching tool for helping my bar/bat mitzvah students enter into the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac: Genesis, chapter 22, read every Rosh Hashanah.  The specificity of the lyrics has inspired any of these seventh-graders to imagine themselves as 9-year-old Isaac climbing up Mt. Moriah with his father, Abraham: “Well, the trees they got much smaller,/The lake a lady’s mirror,/We stopped to drink some wine./Then he threw the bottle over./Broke a minute later/And he put his hand in mine.”

With his death, Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has enjoyed a rebirth. While first released in his 1984 album, “Various Positions,” the song did not enjoy widespread popularity until John Cale’s 1991 cover, followed by Jeff Buckley’s cover in 1994.  As of this date, almost 200 different artists have performed this classic. Though I was unaware of “Hallelujah” until this past summer, I have heard many different versions of it since then.  Indeed, at some Friday evening services at Temple Habonim, Lecha Dodi is sung to the melody of this song.

Though Cohen was attracted to Zen Buddhism, he was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996, his profound sense of Jewish identity never wavered.  “Hallelujah,” like many of Cohen’s lyrics, is rooted in our Hebrew Bible. The opening verse refers directly to King David in his traditional role as author of the Psalms: “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord/That David played, and it pleased the Lord…/The baffled king composing ‘Hallelujah.’”

Just as the 150 Biblical Psalms express both the darkness and the light of human experience, so, too, does Cohen’s “Hallelujah” express this “doubleness”.  The very last verse sings both the melancholy of regret and the joyful hope captured in the Psalmist’s word “hallelujah.” “And even though/It all went wrong,/I’ll stand before the Lord of song/With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

Leon Wieseltier’s nuanced appreciation of his good friend, Leonard Cohen, appeared on the op-ed page of “The New York Times” this past Nov. 14, just one week after Cohen’s death.  In his column, Wieseltier points to the lyrics of his friend’s 1992 “Anthem:”  “There is a crack in everything./That’s how the light gets in.”  Wieseltier comments, “He once told an interviewer that those words were the closest he came to a credo.  The teaching could not be more plain: fix the crack, lose the light.”

On Nov. 10, 2016, Leonard Cohen, Eliezer ben Natan HaCohen, was buried, in keeping with traditional Jewish practice, in a plain pine box in a family cemetery plot on Montreal’s Mount Royal.  Though his voice is silenced, Cohen’s songs and poems will continue to echo the Psalms of old – the aching, the yearning, and the jubilation of human existence.  In the end, despite the frequent darkness in Cohen’s lyrics and melodies, his life’s work embodies the most triumphant word found in the Book of Psalms – indeed, in the entire Hebrew Bible: Hallelujah!  Praise Yah, Praise the Lord.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.