Leonard Cohen, Judaism's Bard

Throughout his career, the singer’s heritage and faith suffused his music.

Luke McGregor / Reuters

Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, Allen Konigsberg became Woody Allen, but Leonard Cohen stayed Leonard Cohen. Coming of age at a time when showbusiness demanded Jews not make their background too obvious, Cohen was happy to be named less like a folk icon than a senior partner in an accountancy firm. It seems an obvious point, but it nods to a larger one that was either overlooked or underplayed in the extensive obituaries that followed Cohen's death last week. Put simply, Cohen was an intensely Jewish artist—along with Philip Roth, perhaps the most deeply Jewish artist of the last century.

Of course, there’s been no shortage of writers or performers with a Jewish sensibility. Allen's earliest films were steeped in Brooklyn shrugs and Manhattan angst, with plenty of Jewish neurotic shtick. Dylan's “Neighbourhood Bully,” telling of a besieged, encircled state of Israel, might be the most AIPAC-friendly song in the rock canon. But the Jewishness of Cohen's work is on an entirely different level.

Sure, he could adopt the requisite shrug of self-deprecation. “I'm the little Jew who wrote the bible,” he sang in “The Future.” And he was finely attuned to the epic forces of 20th-century Jewish history. “Dance Me to the End of Love” was prompted by the knowledge that a string quartet played at the Nazi death camps: “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,” Cohen sings. In 1973, he volunteered to fight for Israel during the Yom Kippur war, saying, “I am committed to the survival of the Jewish people.” Told he was more use wielding his voice than a gun, he entertained IDF troops in back-to-back performances. During a 2009 concert in Ramat Gan, he blessed his audiences with the ancient benediction of the Cohanim—the priesthood from which his name is derived.

But none of this is what sets Leonard Cohen apart as a singularly Jewish artist. Rather it's his deep and serious engagement with not only Jewish culture and history, but with Judaism itself.

His new and last album, You Want It Darker, for example, begins with the choir of the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue he grew up in. The chazan, or cantor, of that synagogue sings on the title track, incanting the single word Hineni, a word of tremendous significance for religious Jews. Here I am. It is the answer Abraham, the first Jew, gave when God called out to him, asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. (The same episode is recalled by Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited.) It’s the reply Moses gives when God speaks to him through the burning bush. It stands as a declaration of submission to divine authority (submission being a frequent Cohen motif). In the song, Cohen follows Hineni with the unambiguous statement, “I'm ready, my Lord”, as if offering himself up for death.

These threads, spun from Judaism's holiest texts, run throughout the Cohen songbook. Hallelujah's invocation of the young King David, playing a “secret chord” on his lyre, is surely his most famous lyric, but for anyone familiar with the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liturgy, it’s “Who By Fire” that strikes the more poignant nerve. Cohen adapts the central Unetanneh Tokef prayer, which imagines God as a judge, determining who shall live and who shall die in the coming year. “Who by fire, who by water,” sings Cohen, “Who in the sunshine, who in the nighttime, who by high ordeal, who by common trial ...” I’ve sat in more than one synagogue during the High Holydays, hearing those verses read out. The claim that the song has become part of contemporary Jewish liturgy is not spurious.

But Cohen also mined less familiar seams of Jewish teaching. One of his most enduring lyrics comes in “Anthem.” It is a verse to alleviate the gloom, urging human beings to see the beauty in their own flaws, to believe that even sadness can lead to joy. “Forget your perfect offering,” he sings, “There is a crack in everything. It's how the light gets in.”

It's a humane, tender idea, but few might realize that it’s drawn from the deepest well of kabbalah. According to the 16th century rabbi and mystic, Isaac Luria, God created vessels into which he poured his holy light. These vessels weren’t strong enough to contain such a powerful force and they shattered: the sparks of divine light were carried down to earth along with the broken shards. Put another way: There is a crack in everything, it's how the light gets in.

This relatively obscure idea—known as Shevirat HaKelim—would be unlikely to have crossed the radar of most artists. But Cohen was a serious student of Jewish mysticism. The 1974 documentary Bird on a Wire shows him onstage in Jerusalem and, when he finds himself unable to perform, he offers a kabbalistic epigram to his audience by way of explanation. In his magnificent New Yorker profile published last month, David Remnick records that Cohen was a close reader of a multivolume edition of the Zohar, the key kabbalistic text, and that he regularly studied mysticism with the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah synagogue, on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles.

That same piece was peppered with Cohen's references to Jewish psalms and religious teaching. He speaks of the prohibition on pronouncing God's name and, in his last quoted remark, sums up like this: “What I mean to say is that you hear the Bat Kol.” The divine voice.

Of course, Cohen was catholic in his religious influences. His songs are replete with Christian as well as Jewish imagery, from the bleeding cross to the Sisters of Mercy to “my sacred heart.” And everybody knows that he was a restless seeker after spiritual truth, spending many years as a monk in the Buddhist retreat on Mount Baldy, California.

But he was always at pains to stress that none of this meant he ever broke from Judaism. He told the BBC in 2007 that his “investigations into other spiritual systems have certainly illuminated and enriched my understanding of my own tradition,” but that “I very much feel part of that tradition—and I practice that and my children practice that. So that was never in question.”

In accordance with his wishes, Cohen's body was buried in the cemetery of that same Shaar Hashomayim orthodox synagogue in Montreal, alongside his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, in a ceremony in keeping with Jewish religious tradition.* It was a final reminder that, in a body of great work produced by an outstanding artist, the message was universal—but the voice was always Jewish.

*This article originally stated that the lyrics from “You Want it Darker” were read aloud at Leonard Cohen’s funeral. We regret the error.