Leonard Cohen’s Jewish and Christian imagery: ‘All that poetry was at my fingertips’
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Marcia Pally’s From This Broken Hill I Sing To You: God, Sex, and Politics in the Work of Leonard Cohen. It has been edited for length and style.
“If you love only what cannot be snatched out of its lover’s hand, you undoubtedly remain unbeaten.” Augustine wrote these words in On Christian Belief to explain his faith in loving God over worldly goods. If one directs one’s love at what cannot be “snatched” away—at God and love itself—one will suffer neither longing nor loss. Thomas Aquinas, elaborating on the idea, held that the theological virtues of faith, hope and most of all charity direct humanity towards God, who is the one Good that can satisfy all needs and desires. With this, we may come to a sense of inner unity and peace.
Aquinas’s insight may serve as an introduction to the novels, poetry and songs of Leonard Cohen. Cohen’s images of inner disunity and loss—of desire that is not unsatisfied but unsatisfiable—reach at once into the human intimate and to the transcendent. Contrary to the wisdom of Augustine and Aquinas, he was unable to stay constant to God and so find peace with himself. He stayed no more constant to the women he loved. This double restlessness was his persistent wound, investigated in over 60 years of art in a magisterial vivisection of his soul. The scholar Rabbi Aubrey Glazer called Cohen’s work a “circum/fession,” both confession and circumcision, where “we cut a hole in our hearts as we spill our story onto the page.” Or, as Lou Reed said, “If we could all write songs like Leonard Cohen, we would.”
Cohen’s images of inner disunity and loss—of desire that is not unsatisfied but unsatisfiable—reach at once into the human intimate and to the transcendent.
What is this covenantal commitment that we fail? We may say that God forged a bond of reciprocal love and commitment with humanity (through Adam and Noah) and with the biblical patriarchs “for the blessing of all humanity”—a telos thrice emphasized, once with each patriarch in Genesis. It is a pledge between God and person and among persons. As each person reciprocates commitment to God and other persons, each of us is embraced by the divine. In the tradition of the Psalms, Cohen wrote in Book of Mercy, “We are made to lift my heart to you [God]…travel on a hair to you…go through a pinhole of light… and fly on the wisp of a remembrance.” More than two millennia earlier, the psalmist himself said it this way: “I call out to the Lord… My steps have held to your paths; my feet have not stumbled” (Ps 3:4; 17: 5-6).
Max Layton, the son of Cohen’s mentor, the poet Irving Layton, called Cohen “the greatest psalmist since King David.”Yet Cohen also saw that though we are made as covenantal creatures, dependent on bonds with God and other persons, we breach them and bolt. Inconstancy, betrayal, and abandonment are the human condition. “I made a date in Heaven,” Cohen wrote in “Got a Little Secret.” “Oh Lord but I've been keepin' it in Hell.”
Boring into this human condition, Cohen came to this theodical question: Why did God make us needy of him and others and yet founder in inconstancy? Why is it so difficult to sustain covenant, so easy to abandon, abuse and be left with gaping loss?
The problem of covenant unsustained is the theme of Cohen’s theodicy. Beneath each interrogation of why humanity fails covenant is the more anguished question of why God created us so prone to fail it. Cohen’s problem was not a crisis of faith—he never ceased believing in God—but the scandal that God makes it so hard for us to live by our beliefs.
If one promise of Judaism—indeed, the central promise at Sinai—is covenant with the God of grace and compassion (“el rachum v’chanun” Ex 34: 6), why are we so on our own to forsake and be forsaken? Why is each of us out there, dangling like “a bird on the wire,” trying to be “free,” having “torn everyone who reached out for me” (“Bird on a Wire.”1969)? In this song, Cohen says he’ll repent, “I swear by this song/ And by all that I have done wrong/ I will make it all up to thee.” Yet he breached this and so many promises over the next half century, each failure fueling the next song.
Inconstancy, betrayal, and abandonment are the human condition. “I made a date in Heaven,” Cohen wrote in “Got a Little Secret.” “Oh Lord but I've been keepin' it in Hell.”
Cohen’s Jewish and Christian imagery
Cohen grew up in Montreal, which he called a “Catholic city.” His nanny was Catholic and took him to church. For his high school years, he went to a traditionally Christian school. The power of New Testament imagery and its weight in our cultural-emotional repertoire was, in Cohen’s view, unavoidable regardless of one’s religious beliefs. “From David to Jesus,” he said, “the idea of Law, of revelation, of a sacred life, or a messiah. All that poetry was at my fingertips.” While he comically ranted when Bob Dylan converted to Christianity, “I just don’t get it… I don’t get the Jesus part,” he also once commented that the “figure of Jesus is extremely attractive. It’s difficult not to fall in love with that person.”
The critic Northrop Frye observed that in Cohen, “The Christian myth is seen as an extension of the Jewish one, its central hanged god in the tradition of the martyred Jew.” Jewish and Christian images are thus often back-to-back or conflated in Cohen’s writing, not unlike the interwoven and conflated imagery that he used to evoke relationship with the divine and human loves. His 2014 song “Born in Chains,” for instance, though built on the Exodus narrative, nonetheless includes an image of the crucified Christ: “I was idled with my soul… But then you showed me where you had been wounded/In every atom broken is a name.”
The “wound” of the song may reference the wound of the biblical Jacob as he wrestled with God’s messenger and was so bound in covenant with God (Gn 32:22-31). Or it may be Christ’s wound in the Passion; or both at once. The wounded man, the scholar Peter Billingham notes, is a paradigm for Cohen, signifying the human condition of being broken off from the bonds we need. Woundedness is the plight of the first man, Adam (and so all humanity), who “inhabits,” Billingham writes, “an internal state of exile from a pre-Fall Paradise.” Woundedness is the plight, Billingham continues, of the Jesus-man, who restores “the wholeness (holiness) of humankind and creation.”
The scholar Babette Babich’s insight comes to mind: “As a Jew, Cohen reminds us to feel for Christ, not to be a Christian necessarily but to get the point about Christ.”
Interwoven in the Exodus narrative of “Born in Chains” is the image of Jesus wounded on the cross. The image of Jesus helps Cohen leave the chains of Egypt for God’s blessings. The scholar Babette Babich’s insight comes to mind: “As a Jew, Cohen reminds us to feel for Christ, not to be a Christian necessarily but to get the point about Christ.”
What, for Cohen, was the point? “Any guy,” he explained, “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. He was a man of inhuman generosity, a generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced.” The point is the radical nature of seeing to, attending to, the other. In a word, covenantal love.
We don’t embrace it for long, and so forsake each other and are forsaken. This is also “the point” about Christ, forsaken at Golgotha and repeatedly by the world ever since. Babich continues: “[E]ven Nietzsche, that consummate anti-Christian, gets that too, writing as he does in The Antichrist: ‘There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.’” Jesus died betrayed by others, and we have continued betraying him and each other. Babich then concludes that “we’re at Golgotha again.” Not only Jesus but each of us is abused and abandoned. In highlighting Golgotha, Babich echoes a 1968 interview in which Cohen explained,
Our natural vocabulary is Judeo-Christian. That is our bloodmyth. We have to rediscover law from inside our own heritage, and we have to rediscover the crucifixion. The crucifixion will again be understood as a universal symbol… It will have to be rediscovered because that’s where man is at. On the cross.
We are at Golgotha, bludgeoned and abandoned again. For Cohen, the human condition is Jesus’ condition as he uttered, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Indeed, why has God left us with forsakenness as our continuing iteration? In an attempt at an answer, Cohen once wrote that when the human heart does not make a space for God, we divide ourselves from each other:
Into the heart of every Christian, Christ comes, and Christ goes. When, by his Grace, the landscape of the heart becomes vast and deep and limitless, then Christ makes His abode in that graceful heart, and His Will prevails. The experience is recognized as Peace. In the absence of this experience much activity arises, divisions of every sort.
These divisions are our Egypt, Babylon, Boogie Street and cross. We divide ourselves, separate from others and breach commitment. Thus, we sadden the God of Judaism and Jesus, who shows us love, which by the nature God gave us, we do not sustain. It is the wrench of both the Jewish and Christian traditions and the core of their theodicies.
For Cohen, the human condition is Jesus’ condition as he uttered, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Indeed, why has God left us with forsakenness as our continuing iteration?
Moses and Jesus
Moses and Jesus: men of love and forbearance. What grabs Cohen about these two is that they—fully human, riddled with the same fears and temptations that filled him, forsaken by their people and at moments seemingly by God—abandon neither God nor people. They persist in commitment. Jesus, Cohen wrote, “was nailed to a human predicament, summoning the heart to comprehend its own suffering by dissolving itself in a radical confession of hospitality.” Suffering is turned to hospitality. Moses too extends seemingly infinite forbearance to the Hebrews even after the scandalous Golden Calf idolatry. Indeed, he has more patience than God is able to muster (Ex 32:9-14). Moses extends his patience and care repeatedly through the 40-year trek to Canaan, the subject of four of the five Pentateuch books.
Sustaining love amid betrayal and suffering: That captures Cohen’s attention. It suggests one answer to the theodical question of why God allows us to suffer. It brings us to deeper love, as cruciform and soul-making theodicies suggest. In giving himself to suffering and death, Jesus finds the love-that-will-not-leave, a love that is both covenantal and Augustinian. Cohen caught moments of this love in his life, lost it, missed it, and sought it throughout his own suffering. In his 2012 song, “Come Healing,” he writes of Jesus as the one who restores us:
The splinters that you carry
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind.
It is from the splinters of the cross, from the shards of its lesson of suffering-turned-to love, that humanity may be healed.