From Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah To His Anthem – OpEd


Most people especially Muslims have a hard time understanding why the Holy Bible relates so many unholy things about Jewish leaders; both political and religious. King and Prophet David’s adultery with Bathsheba is an obvious example. The basic reason is that after generations of oppression in Egypt. the Jewish People needed to learn how to challenge powerful authorities for their transgressions, like the Governor of New York.

On the other hand they also needed to understand that even flawed people can become heroes and religious leaders through repentance and restitution, and that all humans can, with hope and God’s help, can become better people. There is a wonderful song by the Canadian Jewish Folk singer Leonard Cohen that begins with: “I heard there was a secret chord That David played and it pleased the Lord But you don’t really care for music, do you?”

According to P J Grisar this ambiguous song, was both the most misunderstood popular work of the last 40 years and at the same time achieved a status as a global anthem. “Hallelujah” is a song that draws from Kabbalah, the Psalms and Hasidic thought. It is a manifesto of a man whose life was spent appealing to, and wrestling with, the absolute, always touching the mundane with the divine.

It is the living text of a new Psalmist, who birthed a melodic prayer used in synagogues — but who never meant for it to be heard in those sacred spaces. “Hallelujah,” with its layered contradictions, is a mark of Leonard Cohen’s spiritual consistency, and his work as a Jew hoping to comprehend a holy, broken world.

Grisar says the song begins with David, the “baffled king.”But Cohen’s pronouns are slippery and his subject changes. The first verse mentions David’s playing (his harp at midnight) which placates the Lord …and a “you” (God) who doesn’t care for music. In the second stanza, the “you” appears to be David, seeing a woman bathing on a roof, as David saw Bathsheba. But then, in the second half of the line, the “you” appears to allude to Samson, tied to a kitchen chair as Delilah cuts his hair.

The biblical archetypes suggest tragic sexual encounters — or, in the case of David, Cohen’s own affair with a married woman. But the song then departs from biblical imagery, moving on to accusations of blasphemy, introducing the idea of a “holy or broken hallelujah.” Finally the speaker laments his inability to please that ever-shifting “you” — then, ultimately, shrugs it off.

Alan Light first started thinking about “Hallelujah” when he heard it as part of Kol Nidre religious service at Beit Simchat Torah, a progressive synagogue in midtown Manhattan. When asked if the song was Jewish, Light, author of 2012’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah,'” resisted a simple answer.

“This song has permeated the world and people’s lives and their own experiences in such a way that pretending this song is about one specific thing — we’re not there anymore,” he said. How the song rose, from an obscure, track on Cohen’s 1984 album “Various Positions,” proves “Hallelujah” can’t be confined to any one meaning or definitive version. As outlined in Light’s book, soon to be a documentary film, its journey was a group effort. Bob Dylan was the first to recognize the song’s promise, playing “Hallelujah” on two occasions on the 1988 leg of his “Never-Ending Tour.”

Leonard Norman Cohen, Hebrew name Eliezer, was born in Montreal, a notable Jew among Jews. On his father’s side, he was the grandson of the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the great-grandson of a rabbi and, of no small significance to his self-perception, a Kohen, a descendant of Prophet Aaron and a member of the priestly class.

His mother’s father was a Talmudist and rabbi with whom he studied the Book of Isaiah. Much of his early Jewish education — and his experience of the liturgy he loved and drew from frequently — was in a synagogue. “The first time he heard a choir sing the word ‘Hallelujah’ was in my sanctuary,” said Gideon Zelermyer, the cantor at Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue where Cohen’s father and great-grandfather served as presidents and where they, and he, are buried.

There, Cohen may have first heard about the exploits of David, the holy and broken author of his beloved Psalms. “King David, he probably felt some kind of a kinship with as another passionate musician,” said Cantor Zelermyer, who had an almost 10-year correspondence with Cohen and is featured on his final two albums.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Cohen’s rabbi for the last decade of his life, taught some Kabbalah every year at the High Holidays at Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles. Cohen told The New Yorker in 2016: “One of the great themes of Kabbalistic thought is the thrust of Jewish activity, is the repair of God,” Cohen said, at age 81, when he was months away from death, that “God, in creating the world, became dispersed. There are pieces of him or her or it that are everywhere. And the specific task of the Jew is to repair the face of God. Prayers are to remind God there was once a harmonious unity.”

Lenard Cohen also wrote a less known but much more positive song titled Anthem, which is a song based on a passage from a13th century book of Kabbalah titled the Zohar. In the Zohar there is a dialogue between 2 rabbis who are both idealists; but one sees the oil lamp half empty, and the other sees it half full. It does not make any difference to the lamp if it is half full or half empty; but it makes all the difference to us humans in this world.

Rabbi Isaac said, “The primordial light created by God was hidden away until the world will be fragrant, and in total harmony. Until that world arrives, God’s light is stored and hidden away.”

Rabbi Judah responded: “If the light were completely hidden, the world could not exist for even a moment! Rather, it is hidden and sown like a seed that every year sprouts seeds and fruits whereby the world is sustained. Every single day, a ray of that light shines into the world, keeping everything alive. With that ray [of light and hope] God feeds the whole world. (Zohar 1: 31b– 32a)

The birds they sing, at the break of day     
Start again, I heard them say.

Don’t dwell on what has passed away       
Or what is yet to be.

Yes, the wars, they will be fought again    
The holy dove she will be caught again
Bought, and sold, and bought again           
The dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring    
Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything    
That’s how the light gets in.

We asked for signs. The signs were sent

The birth betrayed. The marriage spent
Yeah, the widowhood of every government

Signs for all to see.
I can’t run no more, with that lawless crowd

While the killers in high places say their prayers out loud

But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up a thundercloud

They’re going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring   
Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything  
That’s how the light gets in.

You can add up the parts; you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum 

Every heart, every heart to love will come     
But like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring   
Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything   
That’s how the light gets in.                       

If you listen to both songs with an open heart and mind you will understand why many Reform Temples and Synagogues are using on the Jewish High Holy Days Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah melody with the musical words of Prophet David’s Psalm 150:

Halleluyah! Praise God in His Sanctuary!
Praise Him in His mighty expanse.
Praise Him for His acts of power.
Praise Him for His enormous greatness.
Praise Him with the blast of the shofar.
Praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with tambourine and dance.
Praise Him with string instruments and flute.
Praise Him with clash of cymbals.
Praise Him with resounding cymbals.
Let every thing that has breath praise the Lord. Halleluyah!

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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