Leonard Cohen the Seeker

I don’t know why I have had such a curiosity about Leonard Cohen since his passing.

Certainly because he, like I, was Canadian. But part of my curiosity is a reaction or objection to the tendency of the Jewish establishment to fawn over famous Jews. When Adam Sandler wrote the Chanuka song years ago merely listing which famous people are Jewish, that kind of said it all. Our Jewish world takes great pride in the members of the tribe — no behavioral requirements, just membership in the tribe.

I, on the other hand, am preoccupied with Jewish living, not Jewish names. That Leonard Cohen is Jewish certainly draws me to him. As does Ivanka Trump’s Judaism. I feel a kinship with them as one of the tribe. As I do with any Jew, rich or famous or not.

But I am much more interested in Jews who have something Jewish to say. Or who live lives that are animated by their Judaism. Who contribute to Jewish causes, support Israel, attend a synagogue, marry Jewish, and are otherwise engaged Jewishly.

The fact of being born Jewish makes us share membership in the club. But there are many club members who have no interest in any Jewish living. And so when the establishment starts fawning over this Jew or other, I squirm a bit, as I don’t share fully that membership in the club is all that matters.

But Leonard Cohen is different. Because it is not just the fact of his Jewishness that draws, but the content of his work.

Leonard Cohen represented to me the Jew whose Judaism was a natural part of his identity — an inescapable part of him. Biblical images pop up in his poetry. His most well known song, Hallelujah, was recorded by hundreds of different musicians and is a biblical theme through and through.

But he did not represent a practicing Jew. He strayed far from living Jewishly, spending 10 years in a Zen Buddhist life. The women in his life were not Jewish women and that seemed to not be of concern to him at all. His Judaism is not something that I would feel is one to emulate. While his Judaism was a persistent part of him, and with a name like Cohen you really can’t get away from it, living as a Jew was not central to him.

However, his thinking is very Jewish, or better, he represents to me the probing, curious, dissatisfied, seeking Jews, of which I think I am one. His poetry is very deep. He has little interest in the trite. His interest is in the depths of human experience — love, death, mystery, frustration and the search for the One beyond. Though a world apart, his language of struggle with his Creator or with the mystery of Who this G-d is, feels to me very Elie Wiesel like, albeit very, very different in language and in conclusions.

That is the Jewish life I remember as a kid — it was those questions, that curiosity, that pining for the sublime. What is the meaning of life, the pursuit of deep moments, whether religious or emotional. Music played a large part in this, as music hits a deeper part of the soul. It seemed to me that being Jewish was the pursuit of a deep life. Not just seeking ideas, but seeking a life that was worth living, or better a worthy life to live.

In an interview, Leonard Cohen said “I think that I was touched as a child by the music and the kind of charged speech that I heard in the synagogue, where everything was important. The absence of the casual has always attracted me.” I love that expression: the absence of the casual. Truthfully, there is a lot of the casual in our lives, but we’d rather it not be there so much.

The fascination I have for Leonard Cohen is this shared search. But while the establishment Jewish world gives him a pass on both his life and his answers, I can share his search but cannot share his chosen paths of living, of how he lived and what answers he arrived at to those momentous questions.

When his last song came out — You want it darker — I felt frustrated by it. I couldn’t get a handle on what he was getting at. It was dark, death, challenging the Divine. But I didn’t get the Hineni part.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers his take on this song, as a midrash on the Binding of Isaac. And that in the end, Leonard Cohen is affirming life with his recitation of the kaddish.

I think it is the exact opposite. I think Leonard Cohen challenges the Creator in allowing human beings be so evil. And while sanctifying His name, he gives up on this life, and that there really is nothing more to do.

But in this I’ll conclude. He was a Jew whose Hhineni was, I am ready to look for You, to struggle with You, to engage You — and those are qualities that I admire.

About the Author
Rabbi Reuven Tradburks is the Director of the Rabbinical Council of America, Israel Region. He served as a congregational rabbi for 23 years, most recently in Toronto, where he was also director of the Beit Din of the Vaad Harabonim for 10 years. He and his wife Joyce made aliya in 2009 and reside in Jerusalem. All views expressed here are the authors and are not the views of any organizational affiliation.
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