Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah as Midrash

Midrash is a complex type of Jewish exegesis that blossomed as Judaism become Rabbinic. One, and it is only one, of the tools of midrash is using diverse texts from the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) to answer questions asked by hearers of the text. In this way a deep reverence for the text is combined with the poetic imagination—two things which in my view should unite to do justice to Scripture. I am personally convinced that Hallelujah in doing the latter echoes, either consciously or inadvertently, the former. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has become something of a key text in Western culture. Through its use in diverse cinematic contexts, covers by other artists and simply because of its innate qualities of profundity and yet ambiguity, it is known to many at some level. My fascination with it centres on my admiration of Cohen as a poet and the central role of the biblical psalms in the song. What follows here is not meant to be an analysis but only a meditation on this remarkable song. The very title of Cohen’s most famous song is a frequent refrain in the Biblical Psalms. The Psalter would be familiar to Cohen given his Jewish heritage. That this is the case is evident from any number of biographies about Cohen. The Psalter has two collections of psalms united by their use of the word Hallelujah, which means literally ‘Praise Jah’, the covenant God of Biblical Israel. One of these series of psalms, Psalms 146–150, have more common features with each other than any other five consecutive psalms in the Psalter. They each have no heading, unlike the eight previous psalms. They all start with the refrain Hallelujah. They all end with the same refrain. In this way, each is encapsulated in an inclusio which defines exactly what they are, songs with a single purpose of praise. There is no trace here of the complex ups-and-downs of individual and corporate experience. There is, in these five psalms, only cause for praise and its execution. In this way they are, therefore, all apiece when it comes to form and content. Indeed they are so similar that if we had read these five compositions in a poet’s notebook we might have thought she was drafting and redrafting, shaping and perfecting, a single song. Yet, despite their similarity, each brings something to this final party and set together they unite synergistically into something bigger than the each of the parts. They are a most fitting end to the Psalter. This is echoed in Cohen’s Hallelujah which exclaims:

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Of course, for much of the song the singer has anything but the certainty and stability captured at the end. Psalms 111–118 are sometimes referred to as Hallel Psalms or the Hallelujah Psalms. As with concluding five psalms of the Psalter they make extensive use of the word Hallelujah. They do this in a less systematic way than the closing five psalms. Psalms 111, 112 and 113 all start with the word Hallelujah. Psalms 113, 115, 116 and 117 all close with this word. Thus only Psalm 113 has the inclusio device we saw above where the entire psalm is caught between to exhortations to ‘praise the Lord’. Psalms 114 and 118 do not contain Hallelujah. A subset of this series, Psalms, 113–118, are known as the Egyptian Hallel. They are known by this name partly because of their content and especially because they are used liturgically in the Passover meal which takes place on the eighth day of the Passover celebrations. The six psalms are used progressively through the meal: Psalms 113 and 114 are read before the meal. The other four are said at the end of the meal, during the drinking of the fourth cup of wine. So what question might Hallelujah be a midrash on? Perhaps its concern is how King David with all of his failings could be the author of the Psalter? The narrative of the Tanakh says very little about David’s musical ability. The most important thread being his playing of the lyre before Saul (1 Samuel 16:23ff. and 19:9ff.). David’s musicianship variously quietens a demon and angers Saul. Perhaps the former ability makes use of Cohen’s ‘secret chord’? Referring to David as a ‘baffled king’ seems appropriate because his life was full of the most momentous ups-and-downs just like the life of faith recorded in the Psalter—for every Hallelujah there is an opposing problem. Cohen’s song makes a direct mention of a key episode in referring to David’s voyeurism on seeing the bathing Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2). Cohen’s mention of moonlight might refer to the text ascribing the event to the ‘late afternoon’ (NRSV) or it might hint at the madness that was to follow—in biblical times the moon was thought to be a source of mental illness (cf. Psalm 121:6b). The initial result of David’s lust for Bathsheba is that she does indeed draw a Hallelujah from his lips and this results in the conception of a child that dies shortly after his birth. Later they have another son, Solomon. Whether his dalliance with Bathsheba broke his throne, or not, is speculation. The problems David has with his son Absalom might well stem from Absalom’s jealousy over Solomon’s status. Less ambiguous is that the domestic imagery of kitchens and the cutting of hair hints at another leader in Israel brought down by lust for a woman, see Judges 16. Hallelujah  speaks of a Holy Hallelujah and a Broken Hallelujah. These two descriptions are true of the biblical psalms in more than one sense. At one level we have the question of how David, in spite of his immense failings, was chosen by God and indeed favoured by God. How did a broken king write a holy book? Of course David’s identification as the Psalter’s author are idealistic. The psalms are the product of many psalmists. But many of the most poignant are those redolent with the sort of lament that David must have voiced when things went wrong, and in particular his battle, both physical and political, with so many enemies. Such psalms declare the brokenness which is so often the experience of the life of faith. All of the psalms, those from David’s pen and all the others, are of course the work of frail human beings. Yet the mystery is that their collection and canonisation has indeed made them holy to Jew and Christian because their experience is that ‘there’s a blaze of light in every word’. Anyone seeking an explanation or a theology of Scripture would do well to meditate on the midrash that is Hallelujah. Having said this, they might be better off looking to that which is signified rather than only a sign.

Isaiah Tweets: 37 to 66

This is the final collection of Isaiah tweets. I have found journeying through Isaiah day-by-day, tweeting a chapter a day, a refreshing and illuminating experience. I would strongly others to try this as a modern spiritual discipline. As with tweeting the Psalms it remains a challenge to work within the 140 character limit. Yet, in a way this limit is so constraining, it constantly reminds the author that the tweet is a fleeting engagement with a permanent text. The tweets vary in style and include attempts at summary, thematic pointers, prayers or simply key verses or part verses.

Isaiah 37:
Idolatry is a major theme of Isaiah.
What are our modern equivalents?
What distracts us from Yahweh?

Isaiah 38:
The Lord will save me, and we will sing with stringed instruments all the days of our lives in the temple of the Lord.

Isaiah 39:
The book hinges on this chapter.
A heady mishmash of exile, return and future hope now follow.

Isaiah 40:
Tidings of comfort and joy.

Isaiah 41:
No matter how much effort we put into bolstering our idols they are still made by us and prone to topple over.

Isaiah 42:
The Servant of The Lord is a beautifully polyvalent poetic truth.
Judah, Jesus, Church and disciple.

Isaiah 43:
I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; don’t you perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
& streams in the wasteland.

Isaiah 44:
Humankind, all too often, turn creation into idols.
A day approaches when humanity and all creation acknowledge the Creator.

Isaiah 45:
Gather together and come;
assemble, you fugitives from the nations.
#Ecclesiology

Isaiah 46:
Remember the former things, those of long ago;
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.

Isaiah 47:
With literal Babylon long gone, but metaphorical Babylon all around, let’s learn how to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.

Isaiah 48:
Lord, as we walk in the desert, sustain us with your river of peace;
irrigate our communities with streams of life-giving water.

Isaiah 49:
Yahweh has our name engraved on the psalms of his hands.
Where is his name visible in our lives?

Isaiah 50:
Servanthood and discipleship are characterised by taking up a cross.

Isaiah 51:
The New Heaven and Earth will make the wonder that was Eden look like an allotment.

Isaiah 52:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.

Isaiah 53:
This chapter was the subject of the very first Bible Study I attended.
#PersonalParadigmShift

Isaiah 54:
Enlarge the place of your tent,
stretch your tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
strengthen your stakes.

Isaiah 55:
Hungry we eat God’s Word.
Thirsty we imbibe God’s Spirit.
Hallelujah for sweet honey and living water.

Isaiah 56:
Though we were foreigners you welcomed us into covenant.
Hallelujah.

Isaiah 57:
Some of today’s idols are as dangerous and unpleasant as those described here.
Lord, grant us wise eyes we pray.

Isaiah 58:
Lord, help us cultivate rich spiritual disciplines that deepen our care for the poor and marginalised.

Isaiah 59:
Collective wrongs and identification with unjust world-views can both distance a nation from the living God.

Isaiah 60:
Gates that are never closed – now that’s God’s vision.

Isaiah 61:
We join Isaiah and Jesus in continuing the announcement of the year of the Lord’s favour.

Isaiah 62:
Prepare the way for the people.
Build up, build up the highway!
Remove the stones.
Raise a banner for the nations.

Isaiah 63:
Mighty to save and robed in crimson.
Judgement and mercy established by the Father and the servant.
#intertextuality

Isaiah 64:
Our Father in heaven,
we are the clay,
you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

Isaiah 65:
The wolf & the lamb will feed together,
& the lion will eat straw like the ox,
& dust will be the serpent’s food.

Isaiah 66:
Each pilgrim builds for God – home, church, a life and community.
Each is a foretaste of Isaiah’s ultimate vision.