So this week while I was out of town staying at a hotel, I happened on an article about singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewishness and how it impacted his music. Knocked my socks off. I had heard his famous Hallelujah, but was not aware of his other music. Now I am. I wrote a journal entry late at night on a song from his last album. I won’t bother editing or cleaning it up. It is what it is. It’s heavy.
Cohen’s music is searching, pained, edgy, gritty, socially engaged and religiously dissident, but he relentlessly clings to a Jewish biblical landscape. His Judaism, eclectic as it was. Right to the end of his life, he inhabited his Hebrew faith. Or at least its language, worship and narratives as he grasped for meaning at the edge of meaning; and of the grave. It was one of the final songs written and recorded just before his death [in 2016] that utterly captivated me last night: You Want It Darker. I dreamt of it and woke up to write.
His gravelly voice bears all of the gravitas of a man near death, weakened by the decay of his aging body. Haunting.
There’s so much going on in it. The song, addressed to God as “you,” is suffused with the language (and tones) of the Kaddish, Jewish prayers for the dead. Cohen wants his poetry to find its light beneath the long shadow over the atrocities of history, especially those inflicted on the Jews, intended to extinguish the flame of their existence from the earth. He invokes in the song what seem to be phrases from the story of the “binding of Isaac” in Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to slaughter his beloved son, Isaac. The Hebrew word Hineni, which means “Here I am,” is repeated thrice in the song and in Genesis 22 (vs. 1, 7, 11). The first, but not last time it appears in Scripture. It punctuates the song’s relentless, dread reckoning with God’s seemingly complicit flirtation with darkness and murder in the Isaac story. More broadly, it seems to me, Cohen is grappling with the meaning of God’s permissive will — or His ordained will with Abraham — that has allowed death such immense power in the world, above all through the bloodstained hands of His own image, man.
Hineni, which is a word of obedient readiness, is what a faithful Jew says to God when summoned and called; even in the face of the “valley of the shadow of death.” But Cohen is not so willing to embrace this word, indeed “wants out” if the Dealer deals thus. He is not content to simply passively submit without protest against death into mystery. He wrestles, brawls with God. Like Abraham at Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33) and Jacob at Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32) and Moses in the desert (Exodus 32:9-14) and Job in his anguish (Job 31) and Jeremiah in the face of plots (Jeremiah 20:7-18) and the psalmists moaning out of the suffering of exile and slaughter. Cohen refuses to accept the image of a God complicit in injustice — even if by permission.
Undoubtedly the Holocaust, and its countless modern analogues, loom large in his mind as he, a Jew, writes, recites, sings, prays (?) this song.
When Cohen says “Hineni, I’m ready my Lord” to God, what does he declare himself ready for? Unresolved.
“Vilified, crucified in the human frame” — while it’s easy to imagine in this a Christian meaning, for a Jew the very fact that God’s image is marred by human cruelty causes quaking dissonance. A shattering and terrifying paradox, really, as image slays image. Genesis 9:5-6. Cain, Abel; and the slaughter-bench of of history’s endless procession of iconoclastic/image-smashing murderers. Permitted, okay; but permitted to “murder and maim?” Why such horrific latitude? He wonders, grinds within….How does this work in the divine economy? A paradox to blame? Or is their a deeper protest at work in God Himself that is not merely content with some dazzling paradox?
The song is just brilliant. For me, here’s how: It is raw, shocking honesty and protest in the face of the night before the face of God, though not appearing to be rebellion, lays before God cursed evil in an unjustified, un-rationalized state. “Here it is, Lord.” Not cushioned or romanticized or coated or softened, but prayed out of into God. It reminds me so much of absolutely stunning Psalm 88, the only unresolved lament among the psalms that ends its search for God in total darkness. Lamenting beneath heaven’s dread silence. Or I think of the Book of Lamentations — makes you sweat if you really pray into it. At night. Why don’t we have this oft in the Lectionary for Sundays? We human-wailers need its honest desperation turned Godward. Of God, Jeremiah says:
I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He is to me like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding; he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow. He drove into my heart the arrows of his quiver. My soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and my expectation from Yahweh.” (3:1-14; 17-18)
Such prayer, uttered by those who “descend into hell,” is prayer “out of the depths” (Psalm 130:1) in the truest sense. There in the abyss (Psalm 42:7), hope can shine brightest as hope fully blooms only in hopeless spaces where its anchored strength is needed. God cannot redeem what He does not assume, make His own, and He cannot assume what we ourselves do not surrender to Him. The meadows and the sewage. Prayer that emerges from such a radical depth of honesty is that of very few, it seems to me. Those from whom all has been taken. But it alone achieves a form of redemption that — St. John of the Cross says in the Dark Night — makes the entire creation shake to its foundations. Sanatio in radice, “healing in the roots.” Jesus prayed thus on the cross, in His native tongue. Eli! Eli!
I don’t know if Cohen would consider this text a sung (or groaned!) prayer or not, but he is voicing the anguished, tortured prayer of those who sink into the pit, are mired in depression, succumb to the gas chamber, suffer tragic loss, witness the destruction of the innocent — but still turn these upward.
Why have you? Where have you gone? How long, O Lord? Wake up! Such a vision of real faith — Hineni — seeks no facile answers to the mystery of iniquity. No easy comforts wrapped in smiley tinsel. Only wailed protests for justice, cries for mercy that, after they are drained to the dregs, surrender. Hineni.
I think here of David Bentley Hart’s echo of Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. In the novel, the monk protests against a kind of God who intentionally “uses” human suffering for His own good ends:
Answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be architect on such conditions?
In an article he wrote after the 2004 Tsunami, Hart said:
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Cohen shares this same protest that the God who “became sin” Himself took up on a cross, in hell. Passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus, descendit ad infernos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis.