The following excerpts are from How the Light Gets In – Leonard Cohen’s Biblical Vision By Christian Raab (Commonweal: April 27, 2017). Photo by Rama. The complete article is available at the link.
In a secular age, artists are often the closest thing we have to prophets. Leil Leibovitz’s A Broken Halleluiah (W. W. Norton) argues that the work of Leonard Cohen is, in fact, best understood and appreciated in the Old Testament prophetic tradition. Leibovitz is not reaching. Cohen was raised in an observant Jewish home and was the grandson on both sides of rabbis of considerable renown. Even if Cohen, like many famous people, often failed to be a paragon of private virtue (his womanizing and drug abuse, especially during his early career, are well established), spiritual concerns nevertheless framed his life and art. The language and imagery of his lyrics came from a biblically formed imagination. His personal faith, as he reaffirmed many times, was in the God of the Torah, and his flashes of prophetic genius were his insights into the application of biblical logic to the contemporary world. If, like many of his peers in rock stardom, he often failed to live at the center of righteousness, he, unlike most of them, maintained a sense of where that center remained, and of how to find it again in prayer and repentance.
While Cohen’s critique of contemporary sexual mores is somewhat self-evident in his lyrics, his esteem for traditional marriage is revealed mostly in his interviews. Although Cohen never married, and never personally achieved more than episodic monogamy, he pointed to marriage as the surest, if one of the most difficult, paths to true freedom, as opposed to the illusory freedom described in “Closing Time.” Cohen had already said in 1974, “I think marrying is for very, very high-minded people…. It is a discipline of extreme severity. To really turn your back on all the other possibilities and all the other experiences of love, of passion, of ecstasy, and to determine to find it within one embrace is a high and righteous notion. Marriage today is the monastery; the monastery today is freedom.” Understanding that in an age of sexual chaos, marriage could provide a route to the peace, self-knowledge, and self-transcendence for which the culture truly longed, Cohen called marriage, in 1988, “the foundation stone of the whole enterprise.” In 1993, while admitting his own failure to attain what he believed in, he reiterated: “Monogamous marriage and commitment, all those ferocious ideas, are the highest expression of a male possibility.”