Leonard Cohen: Poet, Prophet, Eternal Optimist

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

Print this page Print this page

While Cohen is a practicing Zen Buddhist, he sees no conflict between this and his Jewish observance. In February 2009, he was described in the New York Times as an observant Jew who keeps Shabbat, even refusing to give concerts on Friday nights. "I'm not looking for new religion," he told the Guardian in 2004. "I'm quite happy with the old one, with Judaism."

Concluding a performance attended by nearly 50,000 people at Ramat Gan Stadium in September 2009, Cohen recited--in Hebrew--the Birkat Kohanim (priestly blessing), originating in the Book of Numbers: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord let His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord look kindly upon you and give you peace.” As he raised his hands in the traditional formation for the blessing, known as Nesi’at Kapayim (the lifting of the hands), Cohen uttered its final word: “shalom.”

Cohen takes a religious, humanistic approach to the predicaments of the present. His own prophetic sense relates to impending social and political collapse, as seen in his song "The Future" ("I've seen the future, brother: it is murder"). Cohen does, however, find optimism even in imperfection, urging for perseverance and faith, despite the brokenness of everything around us:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in.

("Anthem," The Future)

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Sharonne Cohen

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