Leonard Cohen’s “Cold and Broken” Hallelujah
August 26, 2020
Aubrey L. Glazer, PhD, is the author of several books, including Tangle of Matter & Ghost: Leonard Cohen’s Post-Secular Songbook of Mysticism(s) Jewish & Beyond (2017). He serves as senior rabbi of Congregation Shaare Zion in Montréal, Canada, and is the founder of the think tank and publishing house Panui (San Francisco, California).
“Hallelujah,” written by Montral’s iconic poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, has become for many a post-modern psalm. Why? What is it about this contemporary classic that gives it the power of a canonical prayer? Or is it heresy to make such a claim?
“Hallelujah” was a sleeper hit for Cohen. When originally released it was panned in the US but drew strong interest from generations of devoted listeners in Canada, Europe, and Israel. It is now even sung in Hebrew, Arabic, and Yiddish! Truth be told, when I began writing my book on Cohen’s post-secular poetics, I did not see the need to devote a chapter to “Hallelujah” as it had already been discussed by several cultural critics and recorded more than 80 times by many different artists. However, just before Cohen’s passing on November 7, 2016, I had a change of heart; I was convinced that Cohen’s “cold and lonely Hallelujah” needed to be reexamined since it dovetailed so powerfully with his final death-bed psalm, “You Want it Darker” (2016), which also explores the possibility of discovering meaning amidst the pain and suffering of life (and death).
“Hallelujah” purportedly has at least fifteen stanzas, of which less than half made it off the editing room floor into the version most of us recognize. Cohen performed the first version in 1985 on the world tour for Various Positions, and then the second version on his 1988 and 1993 tours, releasing it on the 1994 album Cohen Live. Contrary to urban legend, Jeff Buckley did not write the other verses in his angelic cover of the song; it is only that Cohen never performed both versions as one merged piece—that was first done by John Cale (with Cohen’s blessing and eventually recorded by Cale on the tribute album I’m Your Fan).
Of all the stanzas, I think the one that most satiates our appetite “for something like religion,” as Cohen once described his work at a Jazz festival, is the following:
[Now] Maybe there’s a God above
As for me, all I’ve ever seemed to learn from love
is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
But it’s not a complaint that you hear tonight,
It’s not the laughter of someone who (claims to) have seen the light –
no, it’s a cold and it’s a very lonely Hallelujah!
It is Cohen’s willingness to confess his uncertainty, doubt, and pious agnosticism—what I refer to as his avowedly “post-secular” inclination—that speaks so profoundly to listeners today. While there were many who claimed that modernity was the ultimate realization of secularism and that the enchantment of religion was dead and gone, Cohen insisted that there remained a hunger for spiritual re-enchantment. Interwoven with references to the biblical figures of King David (the “sweet singer”) and Bathsheba, and Samson and Delilah—who are among the more complicated and compromised characters in the Hebrew Bible—he invites us to explore the precariousness of human life, including our capacity to act as both heroes and scoundrels. Further, Cohen opens for us a discussion of the act of prayer in the very messiness of life. Is there a God—“Maybe.” If so, why is it that love and hate, violence and peace constantly compete for ascendancy? What is the seeker to do in such a world—cry out in lament (“complaint”)? Assume the triumphalist posture of “someone who (claims to) have seen the light”? No, the only thing Cohen can do is utter his “cold” and “very lonely” Hallelujah—for what is, what is not, and for what could be.
This posture of pious agnosticism allows Cohen to respond to his critics—inner or outer—who question his experimental and tentative life quest (including an intensive period of Buddhist study and practice):
“You say I took the Name in vain;
I don’t even know the name.
But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word;
it doesn’t matter which you heard,
the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!”
Cohen insists that there are revelations to be discovered along the winding path of life—between Mount Sinai and Mount Baldy (where he lived as a Buddhist monk for a few years)—when eternity utters a moment, when we truly see the “blaze of light” hidden in a “word” (“every” word). Cohen, the high priest of heresy, invites us to embrace our broken heartedness while holding out hope for healing and greater holism. Like the Hasidic master Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk taught over 150 years ago, “there is nothing as whole as a broken heart.” This, to me, is the enduring power of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Our Favorite 5 Recordings of “Halleluyah”:
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
American Civic Life
Rufus Wainwright & Public Choir