A Rabbi and an Archbishop Discuss Leonard Cohen

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By Frank Flegel

“A Rabbi and a Bishop walked into a synagogue,” began Beth Jacob Synagogue President Barry Braitman as he welcomed a full house for an evening of Leonard Cohen’s music as reviewed by Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen and Rabbi Jeremy Parnes. The two are fans of Cohen’s music and, at the invitation of Bolen, he and Parnes presented videos of Cohen’s music and took turns analyzing and discussing what influenced Cohen’s music and lyrics. It is of particular interest to the two because Cohen, an observant Jew, composed lyrics and music that often contained Christian themes and symbolisms.

The evening began with Hallelujah, one of Cohen’s most well-known compositions.  “I hadn’t paid much attention to his music until I heard K.D. Lang sing Hallelujah at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic,” Parnes admitted. Both talked about the verses as reflections of human frailty, brokenness, hope, and praises to God ending with some allusions to Psalm 150. Bolen commented that Cohen is said to have composed over 80 verses to the song and most of those were never made public.

They continued with The Window, written in 1979; Come Healing composed in 2012; Who By Fire, 1974; Treaty, 2016; and You Want it Darker also from 2016 which Parnes said was Cohen acknowledging that he was coming to the end of his life. There was also an excerpt from Book of Mercy released in 1984, which Bolen called, “A stunningly beautiful prayer.”

The event was held on October 26, exactly the first anniversary of Cohen’s death, according to the Jewish calendar. When the discussion was finished everyone was asked to stand; Parnes then chanted a traditional memorial prayer, following which everyone sang Hallelujah.

A reception with light refreshments ended the evening. Audience member Lyn Goldman said the evening gave her a much broader understanding of Cohen’s work, “It certainly enlightened me about Leonard’s work and his deeper thoughts in what he was writing.” Goldman said she wasn’t familiar with the biblical context or prayers, “but you can see they are actually relevant all the way through.” Dave Bamford, another member of the audience, said there was a religious element in all of Cohen’s writing ‘going way back’ especially in his last album, “You can tell he is talking about bringing all religions together. He speaks not as a Christian or a Jew, he is everything.”

 In an interview with the Prairie Messenger following the presentation both Archbishop Bolen and Rabbi Parnes described Cohen as an ordinary, humble guy but a man of faith who used his music to speak to the world. “To speak to us not only about meaning but also calling us to ask questions, pointing to darkness and calling us to light. There is a deep hope embedded in his writings. He is a person of faith,” said Bolen. Parnes commented, “He really needed first of all, to make some meaning of life and give meaning to life and a big part of that meant challenging and accepting the Higher Authority and understanding it’s not just the good and the bad but all of it together; he embraced all of that, in my opinion. It is remarkable!”