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.
A missed opportunity
this week to visit three
church sites in London
Although I spent much of the past two days (18-19 November 2020) at a meeting of the trustees of the Anglican USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), responses to the pandemic mean the meeting took place virtually, hosted by Zoom, and I missed a planned overnight stay in London.
I have used these regular visits to London as an opportunity before or after meetings to visit buildings and sites of historical, architectural and ecclesiastical interest.
Had it been possible to attend the meeting in person, I had plans to visit one, if not all, of three sites I had noticed on working visits to London earlier this year, when I thought each was worth loser attention: Middle Temple and the Temple Church, off the Victoria Embankment; the site of the first Bethlehem Hospital, close to Liverpool Street Station; and the site of the Priory of the Holy Trinity, close to Bevis Marks Synagogue.
Walking along Victoria Embankment after visits to the House of Lords and Westminster Abbey earlier this year, I noticed on the gate of the Middle Temple that the emblem of Middle Temple consists of the Lamb of God with a flag bearing the Saint George’s Cross. This symbol appears in the centre of the Inn’s coat of arms, against a background consisting of the same cross.
Both the cross and the Lamb of God with the flag were symbols of the Knights Templar, and I wondered whether there were any links between the Knights Templar of Middle Temple and the Knights Templar who had a house and tower on the site of Saint Mary’s Church in Askeaton.
The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, commonly known as Middle Temple, is one of the four Inns of Court exclusively entitled to call their members to the English Bar as barristers. The others are the Inner Temple, Gray’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn.
Middle Temple is in the Temple area of London, near the Royal Courts of Justice and within the City of London. But Middle Temple and the Inner Temple are among the few remaining liberties in London. The Middle Temple is an independent extra-parochial area, outside the area of the City of London Corporation, and it is, in effect, its own local authority. It also stands outside the ecclesiastical or diocesan jurisdiction of the Bishop of London.
Middle Temple behaves as an independent enclave. Its rights as a local council are not defined by an act of parliament or legislation but are set out in a quasi-secretive decree issued by the Privy Council known as the Temples Order 1971.
In all, Middle Temple owns 43 buildings, many of them listed buildings. The ones in the Temple itself are still held under a grant from James I in 1606, but others were bought later. Some buildings are modern, replacing ones destroyed in the Blitz, but others date back to the 16th century. Middle Temple is jointly responsible with the Inner Temple for the Temple Church.
These anomalies in the church and local government organisation, date back to the 12th and early 13th centuries, when the clergy were the primary teachers of law in the City of London, and the houses of the Knights Templar in 13th and 14th centuries.
A papal bull in 1218 prohibited the clergy from practising in the secular courts, and law began to be practised and taught by laymen. To protect their schools from competition, Henry II and later Henry III issued proclamations that prohibited teaching civil law within the City of London. The common law lawyers moved to Holborn, where it was easy to get to the law courts at Westminster Hall and yet just outside the City. They were based in guilds, which in time became the inns of court.
Middle Temple is the west part of The Temple, the headquarters of the Knights Templar until they were dissolved in 1312. There have been lawyers in the Temple since 1320, when they were tenants of the Earl of Lancaster, who had held the Temple since 1315. The Temple later belonged to the Knights Hospitaller.
The Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Knights of Rhodes and later the Knights of Malta, leased the premises at the Temple to the lawyers again in 1346. The east part, which would became Inner Temple, was leased to lawyers from Thavie’s Inn, an Inn of Chancery in Holborn; the west part was leased to lawyers from Saint George’s Inn. This may explain why the Cross of Saint George remains part of the coat-of-arms of Middle Temple today.
After Henry VIII confiscated the Temple from the Knights Hospitaller in 1540, each Inn continued to hold its share of the Temple as tenants of the Crown for £10 a year. James I granted the Temple to them jointly in 1608. Much of Middle Temple was destroyed in a fire in 1678 that caused more damage to the Inn than the Great Fire of 1666.
The Inns continued as colleges for educating lawyers until 1852. They continue to provide education and support in areas such as advocacy and ethics for students, pupil barristers and new barristers. Most of the Inn is occupied by barristers’ offices, known as chambers.
The 400th anniversary of James I’s charter was celebrated in 2008 when Elizabeth II issued new letters patent confirming the original grant.
The Temple Church, between Fleet Street and the River Thames, was built by the Knights Templar as their English headquarters and was consecrated by Heraclius, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, in 1185.
In the reign of King John (1199-1216), the Temple served as the royal treasury, with the Knights Templar in a role equivalent in those days of international bankers. It is a round church, a common design feature for Templar churches. It was heavily damaged by German bombing during World War II and has since been restored and rebuilt.
The Temple Church remains a ‘Royal Peculiar’ or extra-diocesan church of the Inner and Middle Temples. The church always has two clergy, called the ‘Master of the Temple’ and the ‘Reader of the Temple.’ The title of the Master of the Temple recalls the title of the head of the Knights Templar.
The Master of the Temple is appointed by the Crown. The church is a peculiar rather than a private chapel and it is outside any episcopal or diocesan jurisdiction. The present Master of the Temple, the Revd Robin Griffith-Jones, was appointed in 1999. His official title is the ‘Reverend and Valiant Master of the Temple.’
Under the Temples Order 1971, the Under Treasurer of the Middle Temple and the Sub-Treasurer of the Inner Temple were defined as local authorities with the same powers and responsibilities as Inner London boroughs except for housing. Some of those powers and responsibilities are delegated on a day-to-day basis to the City of London.
The area around the Temple Church is known as the Temple. It gives its name to Temple Bar, an ornamental processional gateway that once stood in the middle of Fleet Street, and the Temple Underground station nearby.
A plaque at Liverpool Street station marks the ‘Site of the First Bethlehem Hospital 1247-1676.’
A priory for the Order of the Star of Bethlehem was built on Bishopsgate at Liverpool Street in 1247, when Simon FitzMary, Alderman and Sheriff, gave his land and houses to the Latin Bishop of Bethlehem, the Italian Goffredo de Prefetti, to found the Priory of Saint Mary of Bethlehem north of Saint Botolph’s Church.
A century later, the priory started admitting patients in 1357. This was probably the world’s first institution to specialise in mental illness. But it developed into a horrible place, known as Bedlam, dedicated to the commitment of the insane.
By 1403, ‘lunatic’ patients formed the majority of the patients at the Bethlehem, Bethlem or Bedlam, and so England’s first and most infamous mental hospital was born.
After the suppression of monastic houses at the Reformation, the Priory of Saint Mary of Bethlehem became the Bethlehem Hospital for Lunatics.
Bedlam continued to function as a psychiatric hospital, although many of the patients in fact suffered from epilepsy, learning disabilities and dementia. Inside, the squalid single-storey building housed 12 cells, a kitchen, staff accommodation and an exercise yard, where inmates were manacled and chained – and treated as a tourist attraction by Londoners who paid a penny to stare at them.
The treatment of patients, usually poor, included restraint, dousing with water, beatings and isolation.
Those buried at Bedlam include Robert Lockyer, a young soldier in Cromwell’s army executed for his part in the Bishopsgate mutiny; John Lilburne, a leading ‘Leveller’ during the English Civil Wars; Lodowicke Muggleton, a controversial religious writer and founder of the Muggletonians; and Dr John Lambe, a notorious adviser to the Duke of Buckingham, stoned to death by an angry mob after allegations of black magic and rape.
The hospital moved to a site at London Wall in 1676, and it this building was adorned with the Cibber statues of Raving and Melancholy Madness.
Bedlam moved again in 1815 to the Saint George’s Fields site in Southwark, which at the time was owned by the City of London. Then, in 1930, it moved out to a site near Beckenham, and the Southwark buildings became the Imperial War Museum.
Bevis Marks Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)
The Priory of the Holy Trinity, also known as Christchurch Aldgate, was founded for the Austin canons or Black Canons ca 1108 by Queen Matilda, wife of King Henry I. She was advised and helped in the foundation by Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury.
The house was founded with clergy from Saint Botolph’s Priory, Colchester, and the first prior, Norman, was the queen’s confessor. By 1115, the liberty of East Smithfield passed to the Church of Holy Trinity within Aldgate by 1115, and the prior was ex officio an Alderman of London.
Two of Queen Matilda’s children were buried in the Priory, which had a reputation as a centre of learning.
The priory was dissolved in 1552 at the dissolution of monastic houses during the Reformation, and its buildings and lands were given or sold, to favoured courtiers and City merchants.
None of the buildings survives today, apart from some pointed arches inside as office building on the corner of Aldgate and Mitre Street. Mitre Street follows roughly the line of the nave of the priory church, while Mitre Square corresponds roughly to the former cloister.
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