Leonard Cohen’s Torah

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Leonard Cohen’s just released You Want It Darker should be the Torah we read this Rosh HaShanah. Here are some preliminary thoughts on the song’s lyrics. (To listen to the song: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/hear-leonard-cohens-hypnotic-new-song-you-want-it-darker-w441274).

If you are the dealer/ I’m out of the game. Gods die when believers outgrow them: the Mad God who saturates the earth in the blood of the Other must be rejected.

If you are the healer/ it means I’m broken and lame. The reference is to Jacob becoming Yisrael, the Godwrestler (Genesis 32:25–30). There is a truer God that teaches us to reconcile with our enemies (Genesis 33:4) and care for the powerless (Genesis 33:13), but the cost of following this God is the shattering of self and selfishness, a price few are willing to pay.

If thine is the glory/then mine must be the shame. We created the Mad God whose glory is found in the suffering and death of our enemies, so the shame of His evil falls on us alone.

You want it darker/We kill the flame. The tribalist God fears the light: the light of reason, the light of love, the light of compassion, the light of justice, and we are always ready to serve Him and plunge our world into ever greater darkness by extinguishing what little light still flickers in our souls.

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name/Villified, crucified, in the human frame. This is Cohen’s Mourner’s Kaddish calling us to mourn the death of human holiness.

A million candles burning for the love that never came. Cohen is referring to the children’s memorial at Yad vaShem remembering the million Jewish children murdered by the High Priests of the Mad God, and bemoaning the fact that we would rather weep over children after they die than to intervene to stop their slaughter in the first place.

Hineni, hineni I’m ready, my lord. Hineni—”here I am”—is Abraham’s response when called by God to murder his son (Genesis 22:1). Hineni is humanity’s response to the same God calling for the sacrifice of our children as well. Hineni: here I am, Lord, what new atrocity can I carry out for you today?

There’s a lover in the story/but the story’s still the same. Though some resist, the story doesn’t change: the Mad God too alluring; the slaughter too addictive; the drum beat of death too seductive.

There’s a lullaby for suffering/and a paradox to blame. We sing comfortingly to our children even as we raise them to kill and die; we love our children but not enough to spare them.

But it’s written in the scriptures/and its not some idle claim. You want it darker/We kill the flame. We wrote our scriptures in blood: the blood of children, the blood of enemies, the blood of animals, the blood of the other, the blood of the damned, the blood of the infidel. And then we read what we wrote insisting it is God’s Word not our own.

They’re lining up the prisoners/and the guards are taking aim/I struggled with some demons/ They were middle class and tame. In the midst of holy terror we numb ourselves to suffering with a self indulgent, bourgeois spirituality obsessed with personal happiness that blames the suffering of others on the choices they make.

I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to main/You want it darker… This is the true gift of the Mad God and His religions: the sanctioning of our darkest impulses that we might unleash our demons while calling them angels.

Hineni, hineni/ Hineni, hineni /I’m ready my lord/ Hineni, hineni / Hineni, hineni

The hymn ends with a chanting of our readiness to darken the world all the more. We have learned nothing. The new year will be only a darker version of the last year.

Cohen has given us a Torah worthy of this year’s Rosh haShanah. I hope we have the courage to wrestle with it.

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7 Responses to Leonard Cohen’s Torah

  1. Ervin Mason September 28, 2016 at 4:11 pm #

    My God, what have I become? Even if I say, “here I am,” I do not know myself intimately enough to welcome this coming God.

  2. Teri September 28, 2016 at 4:45 pm #

    Wow. Further comments require much greater reflection.

  3. Agnes Dippner September 29, 2016 at 7:41 pm #

    Sometimes I ask myself are you on your blog a Rabbi of Darkness ?

    Thank you for introducing this deep, deep song to your readers. For me it is the cry of the soul. For me it is an expression of deep trust and pain. For me it is a prayer to the God of Love and Pain, Longing and Awe. And the Loving God answers in and with the voice of the cantor : Here I Am.

    Listening I can feel the transformation. I am grateful.

  4. Alex Blair October 1, 2016 at 10:42 am #

    I cannot express how much this is right for me…….thank you. Apologies for writing on Shabbat – I do, but respect my friends who don’t. I’m om my own, have agoraphobia and other health issues, and my prayers and blessings and gradual increase of observance are due to online friends and resources. It’s almost five years bp now since I began.

    I have loved Leinard a Cohens music and poetry from the beginning, and this new song is just as you say above.

    I shall very definitely be wrestling with this, this Rosh Hashanah.

    Shana tova from Scotland
    Alex Blair(Miriam Alexandra)

  5. June Wainwright October 1, 2016 at 7:47 pm #

    Thank you again for causing me to reflect if only for an instant breaking the delusion of my personally distorted God. Here I am in the stillness I am listening.

  6. Hannah February 21, 2017 at 5:39 pm #

    You are describing the Gnostic version of Yaweh, that the false god is a demiurge concealing the true loving God, “In truth mother of all.” I think Leonard would accept your interpretation. But remember, he was also dying when he wrote that song and about to enter into the great unknowable. Here I am Blessed Mother of all, I am ready.

    • Rabbi Rami February 27, 2017 at 3:20 pm #

      I didn’t know that he was dying when he wrote that song. I’m assuming he knew.

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