Interpreting Leonard Cohen’s Tantric “Hallelujah”

Not many admirers of Leonard Cohen’s artistry know that he was a Zen Buddhist monk for five years even though he kept ties with the synagogue affiliated with Ashkenazi Orthodox Judaism throughout his life. His Lithuanian mother, Masha Klonitsy, was the daughter of a Talmudic rabbi. His Polish father’s surname, Cohen, was a strong influencer that was at the core of his faith. Throughout his life, Cohen (1934-2016) received a “Messianic childhood” because his Kohen surname (in Hebrew for the “priestly” class) came from a hereditary caste descending from Moses’s brother, Aaron. Among the many song themes of Cohen, he explored loss, religion, romance, and sexuality. “Hallelujah” is an overmind mix of those listed themes, both religiously and secularly, and are explored below. Without a doubt, his songs tapped into the universal human condition.

Through the eyes of Nona, one of the primary spiritual dancers in the novel Daughters of the Dance, the protected and spiritually evolved Nona knew (chapter 28), as did Cohen, how everything in life is impermanent, including her tantric union with Ariel. Leonard touches on that in the sixth stanza. Oh, the secret is out! In her case, the Hallelujah feeling was unbroken, for hers was an internal practice she took with her wherever she went. For Nona, her tantric practice was a ritual act that integrated her body, speech, and mind.

On the surface, we can agree that Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is about a mourning of a broken but true love and a journey of pain, suffering, and fleeting joy. “Hallelujah” is a metaphor for his journey. What we may fail to see is the mysticism that he brought into the words as phrased, including the count of the word Hallelujah.

Hallelujah appears 24 times in The Book of Psalms, which is attributed to King David, although not all modern scholars agree. After all, he was king and had scribes to write songs for him. Hallelujah has always been a term to invite songs of praise. However, having a history of liturgical prayer among Jews and Christians alike, Cohen did not necessarily use Hallelujah (which translates into a joyous praise to boast in the Hebrew God (Jah) of the Israelites) in that manner exclusively. The Buddhist Zen monk in him explained, “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘hallelujah’.” Cohen had learned to work with his human condition, not against it.

Cohen did not let hallelujah be just a sound validating dubious praise; he was invoking the feminine, not just sexuality, both of which are fleeting. For him, the song was a form of existential crisis, a deep emotion of something broken. Was it about the broken shards referenced in the Kabbalah? An artist and mystic often see multiple dimensions whereas non-artists only see two. Cohen was a poetic mystic as well.

Briefly on the origins of the Kabbalah tradition—the kabbalistic knowledge was traditionally transmitted orally by sages (hakhamim in Hebrew) and other influencers, and was eventually interwoven into religious writings and culture. It is held that there was an open knowledge of the Kabbalah, which literally means reception, by the people of ancient Israel (10th century BCE). Due to foreign conquests, the Jewish spiritual leadership of the time hid the knowledge and practices, fearing it would be misused in the wrong hands. It resurfaced in the 10th century C.E. Thus, the esoteric and mystical aspects of such knowledge lends itself today to many flavors of interpretations as it has become popular in these times.

More to the point, the Kabbalah tradition views the infinite God—Ohr Ein Sof—as having contracted from His/Her creation to design an empty space for humans to have free will, thus creating a dynamic crisis-catharsis in the divine flow of light, a divine light of influence that fills all existence. One view is that God created the material world as vessels (HaKelim) in the empty space that was full of His/Her light. But these material vessels of light were not strong enough to hold His/Her powerful light. Thus,  the vessels of light shattered into many shards also made of light. With divinity still in the light, it was up to the humans to repair the broken shards, energizing the light once more to become whole and at one with God. That is why Cohen makes reference to the “light” twice and to “broken” thrice. For a lovely reading on this topic of kabbalistic light , visit https://architizer.com/blog/practice/details/architecture-plus-kabbalah/https://architizer.com/blog/practice/details/architecture-plus-kabbalah/

There are many attempts at interpreting Cohen’s lyrics. Remember that Cohen was deeply versed in Judaic scripture and teachings. A key point, I believe, is that Cohen was grappling with a quote from the Book of Isaiah 45:7:  “God says, ‘I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I, the Lord, do all these things.'” So, why did God create duality?

Now for another interpretation of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” written in 1984, as follows:

Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah (4x)

Cohen implies that the person he addresses does not care for the technicalities of music making, especially about the esoteric secret chord; but he does explain the complexities of creating music as he is hinting the song is multidimensional.

In the Book of Samuel, prophet Samuel is also  the last judge of Israel, who records that David is a skillful lyre (harp) player and the sweet psalmist of Israel. As baffled king, David had his highs and lows with his God. Some of his psalms reveal his depression, too, when he feels he has lost a connection to his God. In Psalms 43:3 , David beseeches God to “send me your light and your faithful care, let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.”

I would be remiss if I did explain the ancient symbolism of the Star of David. As a hexagram, the base equilateral triangle represents the masculine, and the inverted equilateral triangle represents the feminine. When combined, or equally matched, the Star of David represents union, similar in meaning to the Yin-Yang symbol.  

Your faith was strong but you needed proof | You saw her bathing on the roof | Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you | She tied you to a kitchen chair | She broke your throne, and she cut your hair | And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah | Hallelujah (4x)

In this stanza, Cohen conflates two heroes, first King David and then the strongman Judge Samson. Both of them, as was Cohen, loved the company of women.

We know the story of King David and Bathsheba. David’s involvement with Bathsheba broke his rule/throne. He had garnered disfavor before his God’s eyes for coveting another man’s wife; thus, he had to hand over his reign as punishment to his son Solomon with Bathsheba when Solomon became of age.

Though Delilah, possibly a Philistine prostitute, may not have tied Samson to a kitchen chair; but she did attempt to bind him three times and failed. She was after a lucrative monetary bribe by Philistine chiefs. On her fourth attempt, she managed to get his secret of his source of strength. His seven tresses were cut off his head while he slept. In so doing, she finally succeeded and turned him over to the Philistine chiefs who captured him and gouged out his eyes. His tresses represented the power of Israel among enemy nation. The Samson story is about him having a relationship with a non-Jewish woman and having a decline in his spiritual state by violating his Nazarite oath, mainly, refraining from cutting the hair on one’s head and allowing the locks of the head’s hair to grow (similar to uncut hair by men who practice Sikhism).

In any event, stanza involves two women who brought about distress or downfall in the rapture of embrace with these women. To draw from King David/Samson’s lips the hallelujah is a very strong metaphor, an ennui toward depression and not wanting to condemn womanhood.  

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 | Hallelujah (4x)

Whether or not Cohen felt he took God’s name in vain, he is making reference to a name which is so holy that it cannot be pronounced—YHWH and El, Eloah, Elohim, Elohai, El Saddai, Tzevaot, Jah, Yah, Ein, Ohr Ein Sof, Eternal One, Elyon, Yaweh, Jehovah, including the Shekhinah, to name a few. He wrote, “I don’t even know the name,” because there were many in his tradition.  But I think it is the Ohr Ein Sof that intrigued him.

I did my best, it wasn’t much | I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch | I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you | And even though it all went wrong | I’ll stand before the Lord of Song | With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah | Hallelujah (4x)

Cohen had many relationships with women. The known ones he loved and who loved him back were Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Marianne Ihlen, Nico, Suzanne Verdal, and Suzanne Elrod. Sharon Robinson, however, was his platonic muse during the period this song was written. With all these goddesses in his life, how could he not sing Hallelujah? Nonetheless, there was an overriding numbness—had to touch—because he could not feel his mind-body connection.

Baby I’ve been here before | I use to live alone before I knew you | And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch | Love is not a victory march | It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah | Hallelujah (4x)

I may have solved the mystery of the line, “And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch“. He was referring to the Fascist flag. The woman he called the “perfect Aryan ice queen” is one of his known lovers: Nico, a German singer whom he seemed to have been batty over, following her all over New York. Her real name was Christa Päffgen. One day she told Cohen, “I like young boys. You’re too old for me.”

The incurable Cohen said in 1990, “I loved her.”

There was a time you let me know | What’s really going on below | but now you never show it to me, do you? | And remember when I moved in you | The holy dove was moving too | And every breath we drew was Hallelujah | Hallelujah (4x)

It is in this stanza where Cohen gets very honest in describing his sex with a special woman, literally or figuratively. There was a break in their sexual contact. He was feeling no heat of desire that caused him to ask, “What’s really going on below.”

He was remembering their ecstatic moments—tantric in nature—when he conjoins the sexual act to the holy dove. Likely this holy dove is not the Holy Spirit of the Greek scriptures but the Shekinah herself of the ancient Hebrew scriptures—the glory of a divine presence.

Sexual orgasm, as short-lived and evanescent, is a reason for enjoying the act, because that is when the glory of divine presence is felt. Not being able to take it beyond is to admit the “Hallelujah” would remain broken. There would be no permanent union of the energized consciousness and the conscious energy of existence—the Shakti. In the Kabbalah, the Shakti is Binah and resides opposite to Keter, the masculine in the Tree of Life.

Unpretentiously, Cohen spoke of the height of tantric achievement, but unfortunately, with clinging. It would remain a broken shard of light.  

Maybe there is a God above | But all I’ve ever learned from love | Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you | And it’s not a cry that you hear at night | It’s not somebody who’s seen the light | It’s a cold and a broken Hallelujah | Hallelujah (18x)

Like many agnostics, there is doubt either way about the existence of a benevolent God. For him, as was King David’s plea to see the wisdom light again, Cohen is saying that existence is muddled and that dissatisfaction and suffering are due to lack of trust in others and an inability to know knowing.

So why 18 Hallelujahs at the end of the last stanza? In numerology, 1 and 8 are blended to the higher frequency of nine. Nine is considered a cardinal number and a complete, perfect, and divine number. It is to harmonize the development and creation of the will of God. To reduce it to its essence, it symbolizes wisdom and spiritual energy—what Leonard Cohen was searching for throughout his life—through song, relationships, sexual ideation, and his flavor of Judaism.

As for repeating Hallelujah four times after each previous stanzas, it could be another way that Cohen honors the mystery of womanhood and gives tribute to the four ancient Jewish matriarchs—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachael, and Leah).

Five years in a Zen monastery as a monk, he was given the name Jikan (it means normal or ordinary silence) that was to become his spiritual achievement to combat his depression of existential angst. When he left the Zen monetary, he wrote some of his amazing work, including being inducted to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF) in 2006.

IN MEMORY OF A MAN WHO FELT TOO MUCH

“Never lament casually but within the constraints of dignity.”

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