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.

A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord

Liel Leibovitz, A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord, Dingwall: Sandstone Press, 2014.

Liel Leiovitz, assistant professor of Communications at New York University, argues that his book on Leonard Cohen is not a biography. In a similar vein this post is not a book review. Whatever else Leibovitz’s book is, it is certainly a sympathetic account of Cohen. Throughout reading it, the reader is continually reassured that the author has a concern and warmth for his subject. In the preface we read that:

“You feel the same hum at a Cohen concert that you do in a church or a synagogue, a feeling that emanates from the realization that the words and the tunes you’re about to hear represent the best efforts we humans can make to capture the mysteries that surround us, and that by listening and closing your eyes and singing along, you, too can somehow transcend.”

We soon learn that Cohen is not a simple traditional religious type, however, given the fact that rock and roll, and orgasms, make up, along with theology, the three core themes of his canon. After the brief Prelude, the rather lengthier Preface portrays Cohen as the the only person with a sense of perspective and wisdom in a massive Festival (the first Isle of Wight one) gone seriously bad. The account has all the marks of a Legend, yet like all the best legends it has that ring of truth that gives you confidence that Cohen is in a somewhat special league of popular musicians, or indeed human beings.

The story of Cohen’s Jewish upbringing is warmly described, perhaps working especially well given our narrator is also a Jew. A Gentile would have found difficulty in expressing some of the captivating perspective given here:

“It’s a terrific cosmic joke, but it makes for great theology, too. Exiled for millennia, scattered across all corners of the world, the Jews have survived as a nation, outliving so many of antiquity’s proudest peoples, because they had the strange question to ponder: Why us? And what now?”

Cohen’s Jewishness is the key reason what I was drawn to this book. I wanted to find out more about a singer/songwriter whose lyrics exuded the Psalms of Israel, which are a passion of mine. I am still convinced that, Hallelujah, Cohen’s truly iconic song, is a profound meditative reflection on the Biblical Psalter. Surely this is a Holy and yet broken Hallelujah; the words of ‘men’ become the word of God in this treasured collection. Like Cohen’s work they are both poems and songs. Whether my reasons make sense, or not, I have certainly a greater knowledge of, and I hope insight into, Cohen. The reader like myself, who knew little of Cohen, will not be surprised to find out he was a poet long before he was a songwriter. Those like me who have enjoyed the echoes of the soul of the Psalms will find support for their experience in Leibovitz’s claim that duende (a Spanish term for ‘deep song’, similar to the concept of blues) is a key force behind his poetry and songs. For those that know the Psalms this is of course the thread of Lament, or Complaint, so prevalent there.

Throughout the book there are some cameos from major figures of popular culture from the 1960s to the 1980s. Two stand out in particular. When Bob Dylan enters the story you can’t help but feel for Cohen who discovers that Dylan write’s his songs in minutes, whilst Cohen trims and refines over years. When Phil Spector crosses Cohen’s path to work on an album, the reader is moved again. Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ was always going to being incoherent with Cohen’s minimalism. Why did on one realise this at the outset?

At one point I felt that the episodic nature of Leibovitz’s account yields a picture of Cohen as a intellectual Forrest Gump. For it is not only the big players like Dylan and Spector who arrive on stage, but big world events too. Cohen was the only Westerner in Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs debacle who could claim he was just there on a prolonged holiday. Some twelve years later he spent months touring for the Israeli armed forces engaged in the Yom Kippur War.

When the reader reaches the final chapter, A Secret Chord, they are surprised that Cohen’s most infamous song was written as recently as 1984. This song is so many things, not least it is perhaps the most explicit vehicle for the quest for redemption that, Leibovitz suggests, underpins Cohen’s ongoing critique of Jewish and Gentile culture through poetry, novel and song.

I am grateful to Leibovitz for this book, and I commend it to anyone with a passing interest in Cohen as well as those already familiar with this unique artist. On the 23rd September 2014, 2 days after his 80th birthday, he will release his 13th album. Lucky for us.