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Leonard Cohen and the ReligionsBroken hallelujah

When Leonard Cohen gave his last press conference before his death, he announced to the public and journalists: He did not intend to die. Or did he say something else?

"I think I said the other day that I was ready to die. I think I was exaggerating. From time to time you become self-dramatized. I want to live forever."

Broken alleluia. Leonard Cohen and the Religions. A broadcast by Gerald Beyrodt

Three weeks after that press conference, Leonard Cohen was dead.

Every word Cohen utters here about religion, life and death has at least a double bottom, as in many of his songs. Some words also have three to fourfold bottoms. Cohen never let go of thinking about religion and religions, and also doubting them.

What exactly was "exaggerated"? About the approaching death? Or was the idea that one could be ready to die rather exaggerated?

No sooner has the old man accused himself of self-dramatization than he makes a much larger dramatic gesture: He wants to live forever, he breathes into the microphone.

Eternal life, an important concept in the Christian religion, as the punchline of a successful joke - this is how it works. Maybe the joke is so good because there is so much truth in it.

Cohen talks like the length of our lives depends on what we're up to. But doesn't everyone want to live forever somehow?

Complex praise of God

Much irony and lack of seriousness on such a serious topic and so much seriousness in non-seriousness: As ambiguous as Cohen speaks about religion at the press conference, the born Jew, who often dealt with Christian motifs and lived for years in a Zen monastery, also expresses in his songs. No praise of God without a double bottom and hardly a double bottom without praise of God. Religious content is almost always broken by Cohen, but he almost never exposes it to ridicule. Especially in the refraction, his lyrics seem honest and present. Cohen or his lyric self doesn't say anything he doesn't believe. That is why his texts are complex and worth a closer look.

Leonard Cohen was born in Québec - into a Jewish Orthodox family. His maternal grandfather was a rabbi and Talmud commentator, and his paternal grandfather was the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

Being a Kohen - that meant something to Leonard even as a child. Kohén means priest.

Cohen maintained a strong connection with Montreal and the Sha‘ar Hashomaim Synagogue (AFP)

The connection to the Montreal Sha‘ar Haschomaim synagogue, to the Himmelstor Synagogue, has kept Cohen alive. Cohen was interested in all kinds of religions. But it can be seen in his texts and melodies that he knew his way around Judaism very well.

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 lifts,
the baffled * king composing: Hallelujah

"I heard there was a secret chord
played by David and pleased the Lord.
But you don't care about music, do you?
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth,
Minor down, major up:
The confused king composes a hallelujah "

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

"Your belief was strong, but you needed evidence.
You saw her bathing on the roof.
Her beauty and the moonlight overwhelmed you.
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She destroyed your throne and she cut your hair
and she took your alleluia from your lips. "

Art, war, SM

Art, language, power, war, women, sex, SM and powerlessness: all these motifs occur: and almost all of them have to do with King David.

First of all, there is the question of how one can address God: namely with a secret chord. Then comes the first disillusionment: "But you don't care about music, do you?" One can ask oneself here who is actually being addressed with you. The most plausible answer: God doesn't care much about music.

This actually robs the song, because if God cannot do anything with music, there is little point in praising and praising him with singing, as the Hallelujah does.

Ornate tile depicting King David watching Bathsheba (imago stock & people / Artokoloro)

In the second stanza the "you" no longer means God, but a person, probably King David. First of all, there is talk of someone who, despite having strong faith, needs proof. There is no evidence, but there is a naked woman bathing on the roof in the cistern - Bat sheva or Bathsheba, as she is called in Christian translations. In English, "needed proof" rhymes with "bathing on the roof". Apparently, when naked women appear, all questions of faith are secondary.

Anyone who knows the Bible knows that it is not just any woman, but a married woman. King David sends her husband to the front row in the war, is responsible for his death, and has a free run with the beautiful Bat Sheva.

King David is a figure of identification with Cohen because he is an artist and singer, because he is the singer of the great Hallelujah, because he has faults and because he acts immorally, to the extreme. Cohen interweaves the story of David and the women with the story of Samson, who loses his power with his hair. The person addressed in the second stanza is first religious, then dominant, and finally powerless.

Nothing but hallelujah

Then Cohen or his lyrical self speak of themselves again and he refers to the Jewish prohibition on pronouncing the divine name Jud Hey Vav Hey or JHWH with vowels. Today it is unclear how this name of God was pronounced in ancient times. And Leonard Cohen takes up that too.

You say: "I took the name in vain"
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

"You say: I used the name for nothing.

I don't even know the name. "

And if he uses the name, it shouldn't be too bad, says Cohen's lyrical self. In every word be a bright flame. It does not matter whether God heard the "holy" or the "broken Hallelujah". After all, the lyric self stands before God and has nothing to offer but a hallelujah.

The broken alleluia: This includes doubts, questions, maybe even anger and hatred of God, and life as most have lived: life with moral faults of which one is not proud.

And for such a life stands King David, whom Cohen sings about as the substitute for the singer-songwriter. Such a broken alleluia is said to be equivalent to the holy alleluia. While Christianity in particular often referred to doubt as sin, with Cohen doubts and questions are also a form of devotion.

Shabbat and Zen Buddhism

Leonard Cohen kept the Shabbat all his life, it is said, also on tours. Orthodox Jews do not turn electricity on or off on Shabbat because that equates to making a fire and therefore work.

For years Cohen lived as a Zen monk - and continued to keep the Sabbath. Judaism and Zen Buddhism are not a contradiction in terms, he told the New York Times. Buddhism does not preach ideas of God. He has often downplayed the role of religion in his life. The fact that he lived a time as a Zen monk was not due to a particular interest in Buddhism, but to a need for order and structure, he said in a talk show. He said about the relationship with his Zen master.

"After a tour I felt uprooted and longed for some kind of structure. That's why I formalized the relationship with this teacher. If he had been a physics professor in Heidelberg, I would have learned German and studied physics. Now he happened to be Zen -Monk. To be part of his world, I had to shave my head and wear a robe. I was happy to do that, because I knew from the start that he knew a lot more than I did. That's why I wanted to spend time with him. "

Searching for a lifetime (imago stock & people / Brigani-Art)

One can doubt that the structure search and religion only came together by chance.

"I've never considered myself a religious person. I don't have a spiritual strategy."

Leonard Cohen at his last press conference. Again, he downplays the role of religion in his life. But then he has to explain why she plays such a big role in his songs.

"I basically tap around in this area like most. Religion is the vocabulary I grew up with. I am very familiar with the biblical landscape. Of course I use the waypoints of the Bible as references everyone knew and everyone could locate. That's not the case today. But it's still my landscape. I try not to make the allusions too difficult to understand. So I don't dare to claim anything religious for myself. "

Questions and doubts

With Cohen, the questions and doubts play a bigger role than beliefs. This is far less heretical for a Jew than for a Christian: One is a Christian because one professes the Christian faith in baptism. You are a Jew because you were born Jewish.

In addition, Jews in the Midrash brush numerous biblical stories against the grain and make interpretations that would appear heretical to Christians. Midrash means interpretation - and quite literally "out of mind". The Midrash is much more than a commentary on the Bible. Often it is about further narratives.

The culture of correct faith, which is so important to Christians, is less pronounced in Jews. In Judaism, it is more important to do the right thing - such as keeping the Sabbath. On Cohen's last CD, his doubts about religion or religions are expressed in detail - in a text of high poetic density. Treaty.

I've seen you change the water into wine
I've seen you change it back to water, too
I sit at your table every night
I try but I just don't get by with you
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I'm angry and I'm tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty,
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

"I've seen you turn water into wine.
I also saw you turn it back into water.
I sit at your table every evening.
I try, but I just can't get intoxicated with you.
I wish we could make a contract.
I don't care who gets that damn mountain.
I'm upset and tired all the time:
I wish we could have a contract between yours
and make my love. "

Turning water into wine: this is a clear allusion to the New Testament, to the wedding in Canaa. But Cohen's lyrical self feels disenchantment in the face of religion or religions: the wine quickly becomes water again. Religion is anything but intoxicating.

The talk of the contract remains ambiguous. Rousseau's social contract or a generation contract can be meant here. And of course the Jewish talk about the covenant.

The Hebrew Bible contains numerous covenants: for example Noah's covenant between all men and God, or the covenant of Moses between Israel and God. Circumcision is also a covenant - made between Abraham and God. The New Testament sees itself as the New Covenant.

I heard the snake was baffled by his sin
He shed his scales to find the snake within
But born again is born without a skin
The poison enters everything

And I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I'm angry and I'm tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty,
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

"I heard that the beatings were amazed at their sin.

She threw off her scales to find the snake within.

But to be born again means to be born without skin

The poison penetrates everything. "

Cohen makes the biblical images dance here. The Bible does not speak of the snake shedding its skin or its venom. Even the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth brings Cohen into biblical history. It remains unclear whether the snake is the culprit or the victim.

This may represent an everyday experience. Even with many everyday conflicts, it remains unclear from whom they originated. At the end there are images of skinless surrender and of the poison that permeates everything.

And against it stands the wish that there might be a contract - a form of reliability, a relationship that lasts.

I wish there was a treaty we could sign:
it's over now the water and the wine.
We were broken then but now we‘re borderline
I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.

When Mozart saw his death approaching, he composed a requiem and thus took on a task that actually belongs to posterity: mourning. It is as if the artists do not trust posterity and prefer to take the grief into their own hands right away.

The kaddish

Leonard Cohen published a song on his last CD with numerous allusions to the Jewish kaddish. The kaddish is the prayer that the descendants should say every day in the synagogue after the death of the deceased. At the same time it is a praise to God.

With the song, Cohen closes his circle of life. The choir from the Montreal synagogue of his childhood sings, the Schaar-ha-schomaim synagogue, the Gate of Heaven synagogue. And the synagogue cantor has a solo. You want it darker, you want it darker.

If you are the dealer I am out of the game.
If you are the healer I am broken and lame.
If thine is the glory mine must be the shame.
You want it darker. We kill the flame
Magnified, santified, be thy holy name
Villefied crucified in human frame.
A million candles burning for the help that never came.
You want it darker.

Hineini, Hineini, I'm ready my lord.

Hineini, Hiniein - your holy name will be raised and sanctified: these are almost literal quotations from the Kaddish. But then the holy name is corrupted, literally "entrusted", and crucified, a clear allusion to Christianity. And suddenly the praise of God becomes an accusation of God: A million candles burn for the help that never came. That means the dead who die in armed conflicts. And that certainly means: the dead of the Shoah.

It is common to associate God with light, for example in the Christian Gospel of John. But this god wants it darker. He admits the dead to the Shoah. And it even allows murder and cheating, as Cohen's lyrical self sarcastically states. Hineini1 means: here I am. This is what Abraham, Isaac and Jacob say in the Bible when God calls them. Cohen's lyrical self adds: I am ready.

The cantor also speaks or sings "Hineini" on the Jewish New Year festival Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur on the Jewish Day of Atonement. Both days are high holidays. They are all under the sign of the judgment that God is holding over the world at this time - according to traditional Jewish ideas. The Hineini prayer for a Jewish liturgical text is comparatively depressed and its tone is as submissive as the rest of the entire synagogue year. The cantor or prayer leader recites it, in liberal congregations also the cantor or prayer leader, as the congregation's ambassador before God.

Here I am, poor in action, trembling and trembling for fear of him who is enthroned over the hymns of Israel; I came to stand before you and plead for your people Yisrael, although I am not worthy or able to do so. Therefore, God Awrahams, God Jizchaks and God Jaakow, Eternal, Eternal, merciful and gracious God, to implore me and those who send me for mercy.

They're lining up the prisoners
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
Hinini Hineini
I'm ready my lord

The cantor from the Montreal synagogue sings an improvised cantor solo with Cohen Hineini - in the style of Chasanut. While people are on trial on the high holidays, Cohen's song becomes an accusation against God. And yet: When Cohen sings: "Your holy name will be raised and hallowed", then it oscillates between sarcasm and seriousness.

Religion and doubt, accusation of God and praise of God, accusation of the people and being ready for judgment: it seems as if religion kept Leonard Cohen busy. It is true that he hardly ever professes any beliefs. But religion literally means: attachment. This bond can also exist in case of doubt and in the indictment.As Cohen himself put it - it doesn't matter what is heard: the holy or the broken Hallelujah.

* Here in an earlier version it said "Battle King", the official text reads "Baffled King. This play on words can be heard in some interpretations.