13 November 2020
‘There is a crack in everything’:
giving ‘voice to the brokenness
of the human condition’
Perhaps it is no more than a coincidence that the former Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, and Leonard Cohen both died on 7 November: Lord Sacks died last Saturday at the age of 72, and Leonard Cohen died eight years ago in 2016 at the age of 82.
But it is perhaps less than coincidence that both of them have introduced me to the writings of the 16th century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572).
In his footnotes in the Authorised Prayer Book, one of two prayerbooks I regularly use for prayers and reflections on Friday evenings, Lord Sacks frequently refers to this rabbi, considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah, and whose teachings are known as Lurianic Kabbalah.
I find it very difficult to read, think about or understand Kabbalistic writings, and can only deal with them when I read them as I would read poetry. Indeed, Luria’s writings are few, and include only a few poems.
According to Isaac Luria, God created vessels into which he poured his holy light. These vessels were not strong enough to contain such a powerful force and they shattered. The sparks of divine light were carried down to earth along with the broken shards
In his final days, Leonard Cohen was spending two days a week at the Ohr HaTorah synagogue in Los Angeles and reading deeply in a multi-volume edition of the Zohar, the principal text of Jewish mysticism, but a book that many find completely incomprehensible. He was also studying Gershom Scholem’s biography of the 17th century mystic and false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi.
His interest in Jewish mysticism seems to have been a constant throughout his life, influencing his songs in ways that may not be understood by people who are not familiar with Jewish thinking.
The Kabbalah of Rav Yitzhak Luria had a notably strong effect on him. Jonathan Freedland described it in a feature in the Atlantic in 2016, in which he said Luria’s key ideas are reflected in a line in Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Anthem’:
There is a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in.
This divine brokenness is a key to many of Leonard Cohen’s poems and songs. His rabbi, Mordecai Finley, spoke of this when he wrote in the Jewish Journal and referred to his final album, You Want It Darker, released just months before his death:
‘If you are familiar with Lurianic Kabbalah … you will understand this album … and I think much of his body of poetry and lyrics. I think that whatever drew Leonard to me, for me to be his rabbi these last 10 years, was that for each of us, Lurianic Kabbalah gave voice to the impossible brokenness of the human condition. The pain of the Divine breakage permeates reality. We inherit it; it inhabits us. We can deny it. Or we can study and teach it, write it and sing its mournful songs.’
Cohen hints in his work that redemption – the tikkun olam that will repair the broken world – remains possible.
Near the end of his life, he told an interviewer, ‘Spiritual things, baruch Hashem, have fallen into place,’ using the Hebrew expression for ‘bless God.’
May the memories of Jonathan Sacks and Leonard Cohen be a blessing to us.