SASKATOON — For the second time in Saskatoon, a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic bishop got together for a public conversation about themes of faith, doubt and religious imagery in the work of Leonard Cohen.
Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky of Saskatoon’s Congregation Agudas Israel and Archbishop Donald Bolen of the Archdiocese of Regina bid farewell to the late Canadian poet, singer and musician Feb. 13 at an event held at the Cathedral of the Holy Family in Saskatoon.
Dubbed “A Holy and a Broken Hallelujah,” the gathering was a followup to an earlier event held at the local synagogue in December 2015, when Bolen was still bishop of Saskatoon.
The two friends examined six of Cohen’s songs, including three from his final album, You Want It Darker, released just weeks before his death Nov. 7, 2016.
“The songs on that CD seemed to beckon for another evening and another conversation, with a little bit of a tone of farewell,” said Bolen.
“I really feel humbled to be in this holy place, with this beautiful crowd and this beautiful spirit of fellowship,” said Jodorkovsky. “I am very thankful to my friend Archbishop Don Bolen for his challenges — he has been challenging me permanently to read and to study, and this has been a very enriching process.”
Along the way, the two have deepened their friendship, while also “finding opportunities to build bridges between our two traditions — and Leonard Cohen is wonderful in that sense,” Jodorkovsky added.
Excerpts from each of the songs — “You Want It Darker,” “Steer Your Way,” “Hallelujah,” “Show Me the Place,” “Come Healing,” “Treaty/Treaty Reprise” — were played throughout the evening, with the rabbi and the archbishop taking turns presenting reflections and insights before turning to each other with questions.
Themes of brokenness and healing, darkness and light, faith and doubt were explored, as the two delved into the samples of Cohen’s large body of work, acknowledging the complexity of the man and the artist, who was a faithful Jew and a spiritual seeker who was fascinated by Jesus and often used Christian imagery in his poetry and lyrics.
For instance, Jodorkovsky traced the explicit Jewish context in Cohen’s title song “You Want it Darker,” which quotes the Kaddish (the Jewish prayer of mourning), and includes the refrain Hineni, Hineni — “here I am Lord” — echoing the responses of Abraham, Isaac and Samuel in the Scriptures. The song also includes the haunting voice of Jewish cantor Gideon Zelermyer of Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue.
“The beginning (of the song), maybe the first 10 seconds, is very similar to our High Holy Days liturgy, I find it very similar to what we call Kol Nidrei, which is the first prayer on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement,” said Jodorkovsky.
In the song, Cohen expresses doubt about how God operates in the world, examining the darkness and brokenness of existence, wrestling with the painful realities of violence and suffering — themes that are not new for this poet, said the rabbi. “He is raising the question . . . who is responsible for this? Is it God’s (responsibility) or is it ours?”
Pointing to the lines: “Magnified, sanctified / Be thy holy name_/ Vilified, crucified / In the human frame / A million candles burning / For the love that never came,” Jodorkovsky noted that for a Jew the reference to millions of candles burning immediately brings to mind the Holocaust, and the problem of where God was in that suffering.
“You Want It Darker” is a song of complaint, Jodorkovsky added. “To me, he is in the last stage of his life, and he is still asking the questions that he has asked himself for his entire life, but with more wisdom and maybe even with what the Jews call chutzpah . . . (daring) to challenge God.”
Jodorkovsky described Cohen as a “post-pessimist,” quoting Cohen’s words to an interviewer: “I don’t think of myself as a pessimist. A pessimist is someone who is waiting for it to rain, and I feel soaked to the skin.”
Cohen sees brokenness and darkness as realities in the world, Jodorkovsky said, adding that the poet then responds to that reality with “Hineni — I am ready to serve.”
“The positive message that he brings is that the world is dark, there are problems inherent in the world — but still our role here is to find the light in the darkness.”
The rabbi also raised the role of doubt in religion and faith. “When we see religious people who have all the answers, and they know exactly what God wants from them, and they feel so confident that they know how God operates . . . I think those people are dangerous. I think healthy religion is something that includes doubt,” he said, before also asking Bolen about doubt in the Christian tradition.
While some kinds of doubt can be crippling, Bolen acknowledged that doubt is part of searching for answers. “It keeps us restless and keeps us yearning for the face of God and to find the presence of God in human life.”
Later in the program, Jodorkovsky also explored Cohen’s masterpiece, “Hallelujah” — including its references to King David and the connection between the holy and the broken in Jewish thought — and the prayerful song, “Come Healing.”
Bolen explored the lyrics of “Steer Your Way,” another song on Cohen’s final album, which he described as an examination of conscience by someone looking back on their own life, as well as on our whole “restless culture.” Cohen addresses how as individuals and as a society there is a contrast between our professed values and what we actually do, said the bishop.
“We are being called to task,” Bolen said, pointing to lines that particularly resonate as a challenge for Christians: “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make things cheap_/ And say the Mea Culpa, which you probably forgot / Year by year/ Month by month/ Day by day/ Thought by thought.”
Describing it as a lenten space, Bolen expressed appreciation for the song. “I love that he is getting ready for his own death and sees that as an opportunity to speak a word of honesty about his own life and a word to our larger culture, a challenging word,” said the bishop.
The Christian imagery in “Show Me the Place” — as well as in many other Cohen songs, such as “The Window” — is profound, Bolen said.
The bishop described how he asked a friend to look through all of Cohen’s works and make note of references to Jesus. “Somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of his songs have a direct or indirect reference to Jesus, which is fairly astonishing,” Bolen said.
Bolen noted that Cohen has written “some of the most haunting lines of poetry about incarnation and Paschal Mystery in our entire long tradition, but has done so as someone who is not part of it.”
Another song on the final CD, “It Seemed the Better Way,” seems to express disillusionment with Jesus and Christianity, Bolen added. “Perhaps he wanted to make sure that no one would make assumptions about an anonymous Christianity after he was no longer living, who knows? We do know Leonard was an observant Jew. His rabbi said ‘he was a devoted Jew, learned, deep, troubled, a genius, he had candles lit every Shabbat.’ ”
At the same time, Cohen had an abiding interest in Jesus and the Christian story, Bolen said, quoting Cohen’s 1988 words: “I’m very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this earth. Any guy who says ‘Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek’ has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness . . . a man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity — a generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced, because nothing would weather that compassion. I’m not trying to alter the Jewish view of Jesus Christ, but to me, in spite of what I know about the history of legal Christianity, the figure of the man has touched me.”
In response to Bolen’s questions about Cohen’s interest in Christianity, Jodorkovsky said “he loves the idea of Jesus,” suggesting that the figure of Jesus embodies the combination of brokenness and holiness that Cohen explores in so much of his work.
The final song discussed by the two friends was “Treaty,” with Bolen exploring the song as Cohen’s final “word to God” expressing a deep longing for covenant and exploring “this tension which Leonard carries” between God’s presence (or absence) and the human condition.”
The presentation ended with the faith leaders praying a traditional Jewish memorial prayer for Cohen, with Jordorkovsky first praying in Hebrew, followed by Bolen in English. Using his Jewish name — Eliezer ben Nisan Hacohen V’Masha — the prayer asked “that Leonard find perfect peace in your eternal embrace; may his soul be bound up in the bond of life.”
Led by two visitors from Israel, the assembly then sang together Cohen’s beloved “Hallelujah.”