Leonard Cohen Wrestled With the Divine
USCJ Biennial

Leonard Cohen Wrestled With the Divine

The Shabbaton at the USCJ biennial explores the work of rock 'n' roll's master of midrash.

My husband and I are those crazy parents who give their children names that barely make the list on the Social Security survey.

When my daughter was born, we named her Hallelujah because my husband cried every time he heard Leonard Cohen’s song of that name on the radio. I would test him by sneaking the song onto our playlist for long car rides, and it never failed to produce a deeply emotional response.

It was my daughter who inadvertently introduced Leonard Cohen into my life, and I have been a loyal student of his music ever since. Like a teenage kid, I often find myself with headphones on, carried away into a world of confession and drama, listening to Cohen’s albums more for their poetry than music.

I pre-ordered Cohen’s last album, “You Want It Darker,” which was released just weeks before he died in November 2016, and when I listen to it, I feel the full force of my heartbreak over what is the new reality of our anxiety-filled country.

“If you are the dealer, I am out of the game/If you are the healer, it 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/Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name/Vilified, crucified, in the human frame/A million candles burning for the help that never came.”

I had the opportunity Friday, Dec. 1, to study Cohen’s work with Stephen Arnoff, the executive director of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, who taught a session during the Shabbaton that opened the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s biennial convention at the Marriott Marquis downtown. Arnoff earned his doctorate in midrash from the Jewish Theological Seminary, so when he introduced Cohen as rock ’n’ roll’s master of midrash, he did so through the lens of a fan and a scholar.

Arnoff read through a collection of Cohen’s lyrics as one would study a Jewish text, defining his theology with “love’s the only engine of survival.”

An excerpt from an interview with Arthur Kurzweil revealed Cohen’s charge that we should be unapologetic about inhabiting the biblical landscape and experiencing it in the present tense. In his work, he explored biblical archetypes, mythology, character voices and kabbalistic stories in a way that informed his creative spirit.

That, Arnoff said, is the process of midrash, filling in the gaps in the text to answer its intellectual and spiritual call.

Cohen allowed his audience to participate in his ongoing wrestling with G-d. He was a student of the human condition, and his lyrics give us a glimpse into his struggles with doubt, resentment, anger, love, longing, joy and everything in between.

Cohen’s expression of pain lets his listeners feel the full impact of their own feelings. He engaged with the conflicts of his generation, sharing with his audience the sorrow over his view of the world.

Arnoff said that exchange of private and public pain and the confessional sharing through music represent a cultural breakthrough that will have a lasting impact on the music world.

Arnoff described Cohen as a payton, a liturgical poet whose lyrics can be read as prayer. And who knows? Perhaps, hundreds of years from now, Cohen’s music will be the liturgy of the future generations.

“Behold the gates of mercy/In arbitrary space/And none of us deserving/The cruelty or the grace.”

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