20 November 2020
‘And who shall I say is calling?’
Jewish spirituality and prayer
in Leonard Cohen’s songs
I was writing last week (13 November 2020), in my Friday evening reflections, about Leonard Cohen and how his work and spirituality were influenced by the writings of the 16th century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572).
Writing in the Atlantic in 2016, Jonathan Freedland said that ‘along with Philip Roth,’ Leonard Cohen was ‘perhaps the most deeply Jewish artist of the last century.’
Throughout Cohen’s lyrics, the tikkun olam that will repair the broken world, remains possible.
Perhaps the Leonard Cohen song that is most richly illustrative of his Jewish spirituality is ‘Who By Fire,’ which draws on the Yom Kippur prayer Unetanneh Tokef (ונתנה תוקף):
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed
and on Yom Kippur will be sealed
how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created;
who will live and who will die;
who will die after a long life and who before his time;
who by water and who by fire,
who by sword and who by beast,
who by famine and who by thirst,
who by upheaval and who by plague,
who by strangling and who by stoning.
Who will rest and who will wander,
who will live in harmony and who will be harried,
who will enjoy tranquillity and who will suffer,
who will be impoverished and who will be enriched,
who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severity of the Decree.
Leonard Cohen adapts the prayer Unetanneh Tokef, which imagines God as a judge, determining who shall live and who shall die in the coming year. In his reworking of this prayer in ‘Who By Fire,’ these words become:
And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling?…
Judgment is coming, he seems to say, and that judgment remains a certainty, as it always is in Judaism.
In ‘Who By Fire,’ Cohen synthesises Jewish tradition and modern thinking without diminishing either. ‘Who By Fire’ and Unetanneh Tokef are about the same thoughts, brought together by Cohen for a materialist and cynical world.
The Yom Kippur prayer ends with the surety that ‘Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severe Decree.’ However, Cohen ends his version with the far more ominous, ‘Who shall I say is calling?’
At many of his concerts, Leonard Cohen blessed those there with the ancient blessing of the Cohanim, the ancestral priests from which his family took its name.
‘I’m the little Jew who wrote the bible,’ he sang in ‘The Future.’ He shared the brokenness and suffering of Jewish history in the 20th century, especially in the Holocaust. ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ was prompted by the knowledge that a string quartet played at the Nazi death camps. ‘Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,’ Cohen sings.
His last album, You Want It Darker, begins with the choir of the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue, the synagogue where he grew up in Montreal.
The chazan or cantor of that synagogue sings on the title track, incanting the single word Hineni, a word of deep significance in Jewish spirituality and prayer life, meaning ‘Here I am.’
It is the answer Abraham gives when God calls out to him, asking him to sacrifice Isaac. It is the reply Moses gives when God speaks to him through the burning bush. It is a declaration of submission to divine authority.
Cohen follows Hineni with the unambiguous statement, ‘I’m ready, my Lord,’ as if he is ready for his own death.
In another song, ‘Traveling light,’ he sings:
It’s au revoir
My once so bright, my fallen star
I’m running late, they’ll close the bar
And in ‘Leaving the table’ he sings:
I’m leaving the table
I’m out of the game
I don’t know the people
In your picture frame
If I ever loved you, oh no, no
It’s a crying shame
If I ever loved you
If I knew your name …
There’s nobody missing
There is no reward
Little by little
We’re cutting the cord
Death was imminent and Cohen was accepting his fate:
But if the road leads back to you
Must I forget the things I knew
The album was released a few weeks before Leonard Cohen died in Los Angeles on 7 November 2016 at the age of 82. He was buried beside his parents and grandparents at the Montreal synagogue’s cemetery on Mount Royal Avenue in a traditional Jewish ceremony three days later, on 10 November 2016.
May his memory be a blessing.
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