Leonard Cohen: Poet, Prophet, Eternal Optimist

A famous songwriter whose novels and poems explore Jewish identity and spirituality.

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The Prophetic Voice

Cohen expressed his views on "organized" Judaism again a year after the publication of The Favorite Game, while participating in a symposium held at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. His speech encapsulated his views on the shift within Judaism from the truly spiritual and religious to the superficial and the material. Cohen expressed his belief that Jewish leaders had become more concerned with the corporeal, "nominal" survival of Jews as a group, rather than with the survival of their role as "witnesses to monotheism." He regretted the disappearance of the prophet from Judaism, leaving only the priest.

Alluding to A. M. Klein as the last great Canadian Jewish poet who had tried to be both prophet and priest, he lamented the fact that Klein had "fallen into silence." This silence was a warning, asserted Cohen, against "the rabbis and businessmen" taking over, against the replacement of the community's humble buildings, "established by men who loved books," with imposing edifices bearing plaques honoring not scholars and sages, but wealthy members of the community.

In a poem delivered that day, Cohen asserted that the comfortable, materialistic Jewish community was like a British square, but there was "nothing in the center"--only emptiness--as what the leaders of the community preserved was "themselves / their institutions, their charities / their state within a state." Cohen insisted on the poet's "old rich dialogue between the prophet and the priest" and on "the larger idea of community."

Disillusioned by the establishment's failure to address his concerns, Cohen found poetry (and later song) as his new form of prayer, the religious duty of priest inherent in his name transforming into that of poet.

Biblical Influences

Cohen has said that the Bible was the most important book in his life, that he felt privileged to know the "old tradition."

His second book of poems, The Spice-Box of Earth, published in 1961, is filled with allusions to the Hebrew Bible and to Jewish religion and customs--from the Sabbath ("After the Sabbath Prayers") to the King and psalmist David and his beloved Bathsheba ("Before the Story"), the Messiah ("To a Teacher"), and the bondage of the Jews in Egypt ("Credo")--indicating their prominence in Cohen's literary imagination. Frequently, however, these influences mingle with Hellenism, fairytales, and Greek myth intertwining with Hebrew lore, all serving Cohen's poetic endeavor.

"I've never been able to dissociate the spiritual from the practical," Cohen commented in an interview, providing a useful explanation as to the choice of title for The Spice-Box of Earth. The spice box, used in the Jewish Havdalah ceremony at the termination of Sabbaths and Festivals, marks the distinction between the sacred and the ordinary. Poetry is, for Cohen, a form of prayer eliminating the boundaries between the spiritual and the practical, the religious and the secular, the sacred and the mundane. He seems to have dissociated God from the organized stream of Judaism he found unacceptable in Montreal, religion becoming "a technique for strength and for making the universe hospitable," and God having no "evil associations or...organizational associations."

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Sharonne Cohen

Sharonne Cohen is an Israeli-Canadian writer, editor, translator, and teacher. She currently lives in Montreal.