SASKATOON — It was standing-room only as Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky of Congregation Agudas Israel and Bishop Donald Bolen of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon shared insights and reflections on the music, poetry and prayers of Canadian icon Leonard Cohen.
“For the Jewish community this is a very important event and a special evening,” said Jodorkovsky, citing the opportunity to study and learn together, the cherished friendship between the Jewish and Catholic communities in Saskatoon, and his own friendship with Bolen.
Bolen described the origins of the evening as part of a life-long fascination with the Christian and Jewish imagery in Cohen’s work. “I was six years old when my sister came home with Leonard Cohen’s first record in 1967.
“I had also heard over the years about the Jewish worship foundations of some of Cohen’s songs, such as Who By Fire, and other songs with a strong connection to Judaism,” Bolen added, describing a longing to discuss Cohen’s lyrics with someone who knew the Jewish tradition. “When Claudio and I became friends, the idea for the evening took root.”
During the Dec. 14 program, the two friends shared insights into six of Cohen’s songs — Who By Fire (1974), If It Be Your Will (1984), Anthem (1992), Come Healing (2012), Born in Chains (2014), and Hallelujah (1984) — as well as excerpts from the 1984 poetry collection Book of Mercy.
Jodorkovsky began by describing Cohen’s song Who By Fire as a modern reworking of a traditional Jewish prayer — Unetanch Tokef — which is prayed during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the day of forgiveness.
“We have a special prayer, one of the most important prayers that speaks about this . . . who is going to die by fire, by water, by different causes,” he said. Cohen updates the traditional prayer, but leaves the theology intact.
The rabbi also noted that in October 1973 — a few months before the release of the song — Cohen was in Israel during the Yom Kippur war. “It was the worst war in the history of the state of Israel . . . and Leonard Cohen was there, singing for the troops,” he said.
“I can imagine this was a difficult experience of confronting death, which is exactly what we do during this day of Yom Kippur. We have lots of traditions on this day that remind us that Yom Kippur is some kind of rehearsal for our own death. Because when you confront death, you can better your life.”
Bolen responded to the rabbi’s reflection, saying, “I find it a joy and a relief that this song comes from Jewish liturgical tradition. It is not a morbid preoccupation with death, but a grappling with death and judgment.”
In the song’s repeated refrain “And who shall I say is calling?” Cohen is possibly questioning death, Bolen mused. “It’s a way of asking what life is about.” He added: “I find some consolation that the song and the prayer is about our accountability before God, and that God’s judgment indicates that we are in God’s hands in death as in life. God’s judgment is also balanced with God’s mercy.”
Bolen led the reflection on the song If It Be Your Will, which Cohen himself has described as a prayer. The lyrics speak to the poet’s desire to surrender to God: “If it be your will / That I speak no more / And my voice be still / As it was before / I will speak no more / I shall abide until / I am spoken for / If it be your will.”
“I find in this prayer and in Leonard Cohen, the humbleness of a prophet, that he can speak what God wants him to speak,” observed Jodorkovsky.
Like the poet or songwriter, a homilist or preacher is also “dependent on receiving a word,” said Bolen. “From personal experience I can say it is a bit of a precarious life depending on a word to be given to you, and at the same time feeling like such a sinner that you never really feel that you deserve to be a vessel to a word that wants to be said,” Bolen described. “And when a word comes, it is nothing short of mercy. And so the first verse of the song is one that resonates with me deeply, and I have prayed many such prayers as this.”
The song also speaks about human brokenness and mercy, Bolen added. It continues with “If it be your will / If there is a choice / Let the rivers fill / Let the hills rejoice / Let your mercy spill / On all these burning hearts in hell / If it be your will / To make us well,” before concluding: “And draw us near / And bind us tight / All your children here / In their rags of light / In our rags of light / All dressed to kill / And end this night / If it be your will.”
Bolen reflected on the phrase “rags of light,” citing a talk by British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks delivered at the Vatican, which included a reflection on Adam and Eve and the garments of light they are given by God.
Sacks described how the Hebrew words for “garments of skin” are almost indistinguishable from the Hebrew words for “garments of light.” Second-century sage Rabbi Meir read the text as saying that God made for Adam and Eve “garments of light” before expelling them from the Garden.
“So Leonard Cohen’s words ‘rags of light’ takes on meaning . . . we are at once beautiful in our God-given clothes, thus ‘dressed to kill,’ but also mindful of the long history of human violence, from Cain and Abel to the present, where we seem to do so much killing,” said Bolen.
Jodorkovsky added: “Rabbi Meir, as a mystic of those times, was trying to teach that before sending them out of the garden of Eden, God wanted to protect Adam and Eve from the imperfection of the world — and light is a symbol of God. So according to this interpretation, God protected them, and then he sent them out.”
Cohen is reminding us that we have a little bit of God with us — the light is there, added the rabbi. “We all have the capacity to kill and we all have the capacity to find the light, to find God, and it is our decision. We are all ‘dressed to kill,’ but we are all dressed with light, too . . . and it’s our decision to be able to ‘end the night,’ ” Jodorkovsky said.
Jodorkovsky then reflected on Cohen’s song Anthem — with its refrain “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
“Anthem is a psalm, it is a cry about an imperfect world — with injustice, with war, with blood, with corruption. But it is also the recognition that imperfection is necessary as a condition for redemption,” he said.
“The broken is also holy,” said the rabbi, pointing to the biblical account of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets to find the people worshipping the golden calf. Those first tablets were broken in a moment of crisis, but God required that the broken pieces also be kept treasured in the Ark of the Covenant.
“We sometimes are so concentrated on the problems of the world. But what I hear from Leonard Cohen is this is part of the human condition. We have to try and repair that for sure, but we have to think on all the good possibilities we have. We live in a great world, with so, so many people doing good things — and we have to remember that ... that’s the key for redemption and for salvation.”
Bolen then explored the song Come Healing, from Cohen’s 2012 CD, Old Ideas. The song is a litany of where we and the world need healing, Bolen said, listing: “Come healing of the body, come healing of the mind, come healing of the spirit, come healing of the limb, come healing of the heart, come healing of the altar, come healing of the name.”
“The song not only calls forth healing, it also suggests that this healing, this mercy is also offered to us, and offered lavishly,” said the bishop, reflecting on the verse, “Behold the gates of mercy in arbitrary space, and none of us deserving the cruelty or grace.”
“Cohen certainly understands and names that life is harsh and cruel and broken in many ways — many ways chosen and not chosen — and it is also graced: mercy pours down upon us.”
In particular, Bolen reflected on the phrase “come healing of the altar / come healing of the name,” saying: “I hear that quite strongly as an invitation to heal our places of worship, our communities of faith, our way of speaking about God, our way of speaking the name.”
The bishop added, “As a Catholic I hear this song as an invitation to healing within our religious tradition — our history of anti-Semitism, the history of our relations with indigenous people, the sexual abuse crisis. All these come to mind in terms of where we need healing.”
Jodorkovsky added: “I interpret this ‘healing of the altar,’ this ‘healing of the name’ as another commandment, and this is a commandment of trying to teach and show the world how wonderful and how important religion is. We need to work hard on that, and show the world that it is true there are people that are using religion for bad things, but religion is also responsible for most of the good things in the world. This for me is ‘healing of the altar and healing of the name.’ ”
The rabbi then explored Born in Chains, recorded in 2012, when Cohen was 80 years old, after reportedly working 40 years on the song, in which he tells his own history of growth and transformation, using the image of the Exodus, and the move from slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea to freedom.
“He uses religion to tell his own story, his personal story. I identified in the first three paragraphs, different stages of the history of the Jewish people. The first one is slavery. And he may be talking about his personal slavery . . . and with the miracle comes the realization and the revelation, he is able to recognize the ‘word of words’ and the ‘measure of all measures’ and he says ‘blessed is the name, the name be blessed / written on my heart in burning letters’ — like the tablets were written with burning letters. This is a revelation. This is a moment when he encounters God.”
Bolen then led a reflection on Cohen’s well-known Hallelujah. “It’s a celebration, and it’s a lament. Its plaintive refrain is etched in the minds and hearts of millions of people,” said Bolen.
“It has to be my favourite opening verse of a song: ‘Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord, but you don’t really care for music, do you? It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift, the baffled king composing Hallelujah,’ ” he described.
“Here he draws on the tangled life and character of King David. David becomes a way into the complexity of the human condition and human love. The song takes us to places that penetrate into the heart of the human condition, and it does it with a disarming honesty.”
The song reveals that God is in the midst of all our brokenness and all our joys, added Bolen. “In this song I hear Cohen offering his response to the human condition. It’s beautiful and breathtaking, its cruel and harsh, its marked by human sin and it’s touched by grace. It’s a gift, but not an easy gift. Sometimes it’s a tormenting gift, but the final response is Hallelujah — it’s a response out of a deep engagement with human life.”
Jodorkovsky noted that in Judaism, the translation of Hallelujah is not simply to praise God, but to invite others to praise God with us.
When Cohen sings the song, the Hallelujah he offers is passionate and filled with meaning, the bishop added. “It is deeply honest and it communicates a final word of gratitude, of love for the human condition despite all the reasons to the contrary; a deep and abiding — albeit plaintive — ‘yes’ to the world and the human life that God has created for us.”
After a question and answer session, the rabbi and the bishop each offered a prayer, before inviting the assembly to join them in singing two verses of Hallelujah together.