Last words with God: Leonard Cohen’s Paradox

©Jerusalem Post

Last words with God: Leonard Cohen’s paradox
By AVRAHAM AVI-HAI
Thu, 24 Nov 2016, 09:47 AM

It takes guts to write your own kaddish.

It takes courage and talent to write the poem, to compose the music. It takes brilliance to coordinate with a synagogue choir three thousand miles away. And all this with the fading energy of a man knowing his weeks were numbered.

More than anything, it takes unshakable belief in truth to have last words with God. In “Hineni” – as we in Israel know it – or “You Want It Darker” – Leonard Cohen made a final accounting with God.

Leonard Cohen was not just a Jew; he was a Canadian Jew: one unique to a specific cultural and linguistic environment, one steeped in a time frame never to return. As a person of his age (in fact just a few years older) who grew up in almost the same environment and period – he in Montreal and I in Toronto) I can visualize the total Jewishness of his childhood.

Picture the young Eliezer Cohen as a child when synagogues and hassidic prayer houses are commonplace, Jewish restaurants delectable, and where Yiddish is mingled with English and French-Canadian.

Picture an extended family where religiosity struggles with secularism, mumbled prayers in a European immigrant prayer-house or shul to the majestic music and orderly prayers of the more stately Shaar Hashomayim, a model “modern” Orthodox synagogue.

The question was never to be or not to be a Jew. You are a Jew. Period. To a sensitive, thinking child and a young adolescent the issue would be what kind of Jew to be, and in what to believe.

That time frame and cultural background gave birth to Saul Bellow, to Mordecai Richler, and to Leonard Cohen.

The first two had a love-hate relationship with being Jewish. Leonard Cohen was naturally a Jew. His problem was with the Jewish God.

The impact of the story of “The Binding of Isaac” (Akedat Yitzhak) was a defining moment... how can a loving God ask a father to sacrifice his beloved son, to bind him, cut his throat, all the while saying “Hineni – I am here.” That father is the first Jew – or rather the first Hebrew – and God wants him to ritually murder the child who was to bear forth his message.

And the son as well answers “Hineni!” The loving God, Eliezer-Leonard learns, is a saving God, who sends his messenger to halt the sacrifice.

So Leonard grows up loving the good God, believing in the saving God. Then, overwhelmed by the tragedies within life, and the mass murders perpetrated against his people, he begins asking himself what happened to that good God.

Leonard is a priest, a kohen tracing his ancestry to Moses’s brother Aharon. He – even as a child standing under his father’s tallit – blesses Israel in the name of the Good God. But he grows up and finds more and more evil in the world.

Who created the world? God did.

Therefore God created evil.

God created man. Man does evil.

Therefore God engendered evil.

That is the counterpoint of his kaddish, good versus evil. God against man, man against man. Those verses that tell us “a million candles waiting for the love that never came” the evil that God created in man who keeps murdering, and the Loving Saving God does not intervene, does not save.

In the opening words of kaddish Jews say “Magnified and sanctified (yitgadal veyitkadash) be thy holy name,” and then we are “vilified and crucified in the human frame.” Jews praising God, and then vilified, and now Cohen hints of Christian compliance in the Crusades and Holocaust – “crucified in the human frame.” This seems to be a reference to Christian theology (Jesus as the human frame of the Trinity) as well as to the Bible’s teaching that man is made in the image of God.

COHEN WAS, so he admitted, brought up on middle-class values (man is good, God is good) and perhaps an echo of the Shaar Hashomayim and the Hebrew school he attended, he sings: “I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim.”

He begins with ambivalence (“If you are the dealer”) and then sings: “If you are the healer.”

His “if” really questions whether this is an omnipotent God who heals wounds and broken hearts. But He who should be the healer is the implacable God who makes Cohen “broken and lame.”

That implacable God wants it darker.

The grave has no light.

Together, God and man, kill the flame of life and of doing good. “You want it darker. We kill the flame.”

Cohen submits. Whatever God is, good and also evil, I submit. My Lord.

Hineni – I am ready. Here I am. I am like Isaac ready to give up life just as he would have.

Hineni.

The writer left Canada 64 years ago. He lives in Jerusalem and is a constant student of Judaism, Jewish history and the Jewish people.

You want it darker

If you are the dealer, I’m 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

You want it darker

Hineni, hineni

I’m ready, my lord

There’s a lover in the story

But the story’s still the same

There’s a lullaby for suffering

And a paradox to blame

But it’s written in the scriptures

And it’s not some idle claim

You want it darker

We kill the flame

They’re lining up the prisoners

And the guards are taking aim

I struggled with some demons

They were middle class and tame

I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim

You want it darker

Hineni, hineni

I’m ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name

Vilified, crucified, in the human frame

A million candles burning for the love that never came

You want it darker

We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game

If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame

You want it darker

Hineni, hineni

Hineni, hineni

I’m ready, my lord

Hineni

Hineni, hineni

Hineni