Leonard Cohen with the words to "Hallelujah" and their popular substitute, Psalm 150. by the Forward

How Jewish is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah?’ A Forward investigation in 9 verses

I

Our story, like its subject, starts in several places.

The balmy parapets of Jerusalem, where David gives into temptation. The third-row pew of a Montreal synagogue, where the shul president’s grandson learns about the Bible’s most calamitous affair. A movie theater in Mohegan Lake, N.Y., where a 10-year-old Jewish boy watches a movie called “Shrek” and hears plaintive piano while an ogre surveys his ransacked swamp, catching a glimpse of his reflected face in shattered glass as these words play:

I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?

I was that 10-year-old kid, hearing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for the first time, and wondering what it had to do with the giant green guy I’d been watching for the past hour.

Like most people, I haven’t been able to escape the song, an infectious melody with cryptic verses and a simple chorus of a sacred word and too many covers to name. In some ways, as the poet sang, it doesn’t matter which you heard. Not because all versions were created equal, but because in two decades the song has become so pervasive as to signify nothing and everything.

A case in point: Just a few months after the Republican National Convention featured two unauthorized versions of “Hallelujah” set to fireworks, gospel singer Yolanda Adams performed a version approved by Cohen’s estate on the eve of President Biden’s inauguration, as part of a memorial to 400,000 dead of COVID-19. Both uses, played mere feet from each other on the National Mall, seemed to hit the wrong note.

The song is too accepting of fallibility to champion Trump. It’s too sexual to mourn the dead. It’s too Jewish to work as a Christian-inflected hymn. But like the story of David, the tune means so much to so many, that it’s hard to pin down a single interpretation. Online, debates about its meaning take on a Talmudic intensity.

I wanted to understand the song — what Cohen meant by it, and if that meaning was lost to other musicians. I needed to know Cohen’s spiritual biography. I had to find out how the song worked in synagogues or at klezmer festivals, in Hebrew and in Yiddish. I wanted to know what the song meant in the modern state of Israel and what it had to do with the Bible figures it winks at. In short, I needed to know if the song, perhaps the most misunderstood popular work of the last 40 years, was truly Jewish and what, if anything, that means for its status as a global anthem. Does its popularity mean that Jewish thought has gone mainstream, or, as the critics trumpet, that many interpreters simply don’t get what the song’s really saying?

To try to figure it all out, I talked with the man who wrote the book on “Hallelujah.” I chatted with Cohen’s rabbi, his cantor and his manager. I spoke with songwriters who adapted it for Jewish venues and faith leaders who use it as liturgy.

I found in “Hallelujah” a song that draws from Kabbalah, the Psalms and Hasidic thought. It is a manifesto of a man whose life was spent appealing to, and wrestling with, the absolute, and touching the mundane with the divine. It is the living text of a new Psalmist, who birthed a melodic prayer used in synagogues — but who never meant for it to be heard in those sacred spaces. “Hallelujah,” with its layered contradictions, is a mark of Cohen’s spiritual consistency, and finally, his work as a Jew hoping to comprehend a holy, broken world. But before it became all that, it was yet another struggle to find the right words.

II

A Baffled King Composes “Hallelujah”

Alan Light first started thinking about “Hallelujah” when he heard it as part of Kol Nidre services at Beit Simchat Torah, a progressive synagogue in midtown Manhattan. When I asked if the song was Jewish, Light, author of 2012’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah,’” resisted a simple answer.

“This song has permeated the world and people’s lives and their own experiences in such a way that pretending this song is about this specific thing — we’re not there anymore,” he said.

How the song rose, from an obscure, synth-heavy track on Cohen’s 1984 album “Various Positions,” proves “Hallelujah” can’t be confined to any one meaning or definitive version. As outlined in Light’s book, soon to be a documentary film, its journey was a group effort: an act of collage in which Cohen’s original was soon surpassed by other, sparer interpretations.

To begin with, “Various Positions” was a tough sell. Columbia refused to even release it, leaving the job to independent label Passport. Few reviews of the album mentioned the first song on the second side: a strange, pseudo-gospel composition with a decidedly gospel-sounding title.

Bob Dylan was the first to recognize the song’s promise, playing “Hallelujah” on two occasions on the 1988 leg of his “Never-Ending Tour.” Some time before that, the Prophet of Hibbing and the Prince of Bummers from Montreal were having coffee in Paris. Dylan asked how long it took Cohen to write it. Cohen lied and said two years — in actuality, it took around five.

While there are four verses in the cut on “Various Positions,” Cohen wrote about 80 for the song, originally titled “The Other Hallelujah.” Describing his process, Cohen once conjured an agonized picture of a supplicant before his muse. He was in his underwear at the Royalton Hotel, banging his head on the floor, saying “I can’t finish this song.”

And he was never done fine-tuning it. The lyrics suggest Cohen’s hesitation when putting the song together. Instead of narrative unity, there are fragments of scene and sentiment, all connected by the word “Hallelujah,” which comprises the chorus and the final word in each verse. The word is a Hebrew compound of “Hallelu” (praise) and “Ja” (God), in a command form. In the Bible, it’s most frequently found in the Psalms attributed to David.

The song begins with David, the “baffled king.” But Cohen’s pronouns are slippery and his subject changes. The first verse mentions David’s playing, which placates the Lord — either the tempestuous King Saul or God — and a “you” who doesn’t care for music. In the second stanza, the “you” appears to be David, seeing a woman bathing on the roof, as he did Bathsheba. But then, in the second half of the line, the “you” appears to allude to Samson, tied to a kitchen chair as Delilah cuts his hair.

The biblical archetypes suggest tragic sexual encounters — or, in the case of David, Cohen’s own affair with a married woman. But the song then departs from biblical imagery, moving on to accusations of blasphemy, introducing the idea of a “holy or the broken hallelujah.” Finally the speaker laments his inability to please that ever-shifting “you” — then, ultimately, shrugs it off.

Cohen had second thoughts about the song’s biblical references, leaving them out in concert and using unrecorded verses in their stead. But for all of his tinkering, he ended his live versions like this: “Even though it all went wrong/I’ll stand before the lord of song/with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.” The words, an exaltation in surrender to the world in all its contradictions, were key to the song’s message.

“It’s a rather joyous song,” Cohen said on the release of “Various Positions,” and, he argued often, a secular one. He wanted to push the words of praise back to Earth, “to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

But when the Velvet Underground’s John Cale was preparing to sing the song for “I’m Your Fan,” a 1991 album of covers made by notable Cohen admirers, he rejected some of the unused lyrics because they seemed too religious — or at least too Jewish.

“Some of them, I couldn’t sing myself,” Cale told the Boston Globe of the countless alternate verses Cohen faxed him. “Some of them are about Yahweh, about religion, and reflecting Leonard’s background.”

It’s tempting, but probably a mistake, to use this remark as evidence of the song’s Jewishness. For all the variations of “Hallelujah,” those other words were never recorded, and it was Cale’s new, intimate arrangement that would make the song an anthem.

III

A Cold, Broken and Tragic “Hallelujah”

In the early ‘90s, Jeff Buckley, son of folk singer Tim Buckley, was cat-sitting for a friend in Park Slope. One day he discovered “I’m Your Fan” in her record collection and heard Cale’s “Hallelujah.” Scored to urgent piano, it was an unfussy lover’s lament, with dark meditations on solitude, good and bad sex and the bitter lessons of a doomed relationship. With alternate verses supplied by Cohen, and no cheesy choir, this version sounded nothing like the original — but then, Buckley, like so many others, had never heard the original. Music history might well be different if he had.

The just-emerging Buckley started playing the song at gigs, ending as Cale did, not with the joyous “nothing on my tongue,” but with “It’s not a cry you can hear at night/it’s not somebody who’s seen the light — it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah!”

The song’s meaning shifted. It had a sexier edge and a more tortured conclusion with a new brand of vulnerability. Cale’s world-weary delivery and Cohen’s arch humor (“You said I took the name in vain/I don’t even know the name/And if I did, well really, what’s it to ya?”) were gone, replaced by what Buckley called the “hallelujah of an orgasm.” That eroticism was trapped forever on Buckley’s album “Grace,” where the track begins with an exhausted exhale.

Light says the difference in the versions was inevitable: Cohen recorded the original when he was 50; Buckley was 27 — and wouldn’t make it past 30.

After Buckley drowned on May 29, 1997, his “Hallelujah” accrued the air of the sacrosanct. The song was further tethered to tragedy a few years later, when it became the unlikely backing track for 9/11. As Light’s book recounts, VH1 played Buckley’s “Hallelujah” under a hastily-assembled tribute video made of on-the-ground footage of New York after the attacks. The footage played constantly that September of 2001.

Soon the song appeared in montages of crisis and uncertainty on network TV shows, boosted by the appearance of Cale’s version in “Shrek,” a national calamity and Sony’s eagerness to license it. Next it showed up in singing competitions and, owing in part to its religious-sounding refrain, weddings and funerals. It’s now in the repertoire of every kid on YouTube and every busker with a street corner, each with different variations and, with each reorganization, a different takeaway. Paul Simon told Light that Cohen’s song had supplanted “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as a multi-use standard. Despite the objections of many tired listeners, nothing yet has toppled “Hallelujah.”

Last year, a doctor in Cincinnati sang it to COVID patients as they left the hospital. When Italy was on lockdown, the song was heard from the balconies. “It still fulfills these people,” Light said.

It’s hard, and perhaps cruel, to quibble with those who find their own deep, adaptable meaning in the song. We are squarely in the realm of death of the author. But how Cohen lived, and chose to die, tells us where the song came from, and what Cohen wanted it to say.

IV

The Time Cohen First Heard “Hallelujah”

Leonard Norman Cohen, Hebrew name Eliezer, was born in the Westmount neighborhood of Montreal, a notable Jew among Jews.

On his father’s side, he was the grandson of the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the great-grandson of a rabbi and, of no small significance to his self-perception, a Kohen, a descendant of Aaron and a member of the priestly class. His mother’s father was a Talmudist and rabbi with whom he studied the Book of Isaiah. Much of his early Jewish education — and his experience of the liturgy he loved and drew from frequently — was in shul.

“The first time he heard a choir sing the word ‘Hallelujah’ was in my sanctuary,” said Gideon Zelermyer, the cantor at Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue where Cohen’s grandfather and great-grandfather served as presidents and where they, and he, are buried.

There, Cohen may have first heard about the exploits of David, the holy and broken author of his beloved Psalms. He’d later dedicate a poem to the king’s tryst with Bathsheba, decades before “Hallelujah.”

“King David, he probably felt some kind of a kinship with as another voluptuous musician,” said Zelermyer, who had an almost 10-year correspondence with Cohen and is featured on his final two albums.

Zelermyer said Cohen’s use of biblical references was never arbitrary. While Cohen began exploring Buddhism in the 1970s, danced with the Hare Krishnas, dabbled in Scientology and took a lot of drugs to find his way to a greater truth, he was no dilettante when it came to spiritual experience.

“Leonard was not one of these people who would tie a red thread around his wrist and wear a Hamsa necklace because it was fashionable,” Zelermyer told me. “Leonard would walk the walk before he talked the talk with anything. And that was certainly the case with his Judaism. It was certainly the case with his Buddhism — he didn’t just read a couple of books and go to a couple of meditation classes; he went up to Mount Baldy for years.”

Any talk of Cohen’s spiritual biography runs against a seeming contradiction. For several decades, this deeply Jewish writer was living at a Zen retreat in Mt. Baldy, Calif., becoming perhaps the world’s most famous Buddhist monk outside of the Dalai Lama. Still, as Sylvie Simmons chronicles in her Cohen biography “I’m Your Man,” his Zen practice only deepened his Jewish one.

In 1984, the year Cohen recorded “Various Positions,” he laid tefillin daily, studied the Talmud and published the poetry collection “Book of Mercy,” — written he said, to “affirm the traditions I had inherited.”

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Cohen’s rabbi for the last decade of his life, read from the collection every year at the High Holidays at Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles. When he told Cohen he viewed the poems as liturgy, Cohen replied, “I thought all my poetry was liturgy.”

Finley said Cohen’s “Jewishness was thoroughgoing.” The singer described Buddhism as simply a tuning fork for his consciousness. As a group of hapless Chabad ambassadors hoping to win him back to the faith would learn, after a holiday-timed trek up Mt. Baldy, Cohen lit candles for Hanukkah in his monkish quarters.

When he came down the mountain in the mid-2000s, his revelation continued. He read the Zohar with Finley, recorded the last album before his death with the cantor from his home synagogue, and still found the energy to push back on a question of Jewish identity in his final interview, with David Remnick of The New Yorker in 2016.

“I don’t like to be identified with Jewish thought,” Cohen told Remnick, and then, at least in the podcast edit, immediately launched into some deeply Jewish thinking.

“One of the great themes of Kabbalistic thought is the thrust of Jewish activity, is the repair of God,” Cohen said, his voice still a sturdy baritone even though, at 81, he was months away from death. “God, in creating the world, dispersed itself. The creation is a catastrophe. There are pieces of him or her or it that are everywhere. And the specific task of the Jew is to repair the face of God. The prayers are to remind God that it was once a harmonious unity.”

It seems as close to a mission statement as he ever provided. “Hallelujah,” while less grounded in tradition than “If It Be Your Will” — also on “Various Positions” — or “Who By Fire,” his take on a High Holidays prayer, carries with it the theme of a fractured universe resolving into a cosmic, contradictory whole. When Finley reads the lyrics, his eye goes to the lines about the “holy or the broken.”

“We’re in the Lurianic idea of Shevirat haKeilime, the breaking of the vessels,” Finley said, referring to the school of Kabbalah he and Cohen studied together. “There’s an aspect of the Divine that’s broken. There’s an aspect of ourselves that’s broken. And that’s one of the ways that we connect with the divine is through understanding our brokenness and being in touch with the divine brokenness.”

But, Finley noted, there’s also an irony to Cohen’s hallelujah — there’s nothing really praising God here, even if that’s what the word itself commands.

That analysis reflects Cohen’s own opinion. Even if Cohen considered his work liturgy, when Zelermyer sent him a YouTube clip of “Hallelujah” used in a service, the singer wrote back that while the performance was lovely, he never meant for the song to be a prayer. That hasn’t stopped anyone from using it that way.

V

A Holy “Hallelujah”

On Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781, Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl changed the plans for her morning sermon. She knew what song she’d sing as a tribute.

On guitar at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, Buchdahl sang a yearning rendition of “Hallelujah” accompanied by slides of the late justice’s life. The melody was Cohen’s, the words were David’s, taken from Psalm 150. The clip went viral.

“I knew that our High Holidays were being viewed on livestream this year by half a million people from a hundred countries,” said Buchdahl, whose Days of Awe services are broadcast on TV on Jewish Broadcasting Service as well as online. “I knew already that a number of non-Jews also watch.”

Using Cohen’s tune was a way to be ecumenical, reaching a wider audience by keying into something familiar, tied to the passing of an icon beloved by Jews and non-Jews alike.

The performance is but one example of how “Hallelujah” can be deeply affecting as a prayer. Many Reform congregations incorporate the melody into their liturgy with the Hebrew words of Psalm 150, the conclusion of the Psalms. With a refrain of “Hallelujah” and references to harp, lyre, lute and pipe, the psalm is a natural fit for an engaging and musically eclectic service. Predictably, it’s a bit rarer, if not unheard of, for Cohen’s original lyrics — at least the sexy or spiritually doubtful parts — to make the leap into shuls.

Jews aren’t the only ones who have seized on the song’s potential for worship, though Jews who know Cohen — even with his occasional allusions to Jesus — may be uniquely confused by how some Christians have chosen to use it.

“Hallelujah” is puzzlingly pervasive on Christmas records. An “Easter version” by Canadian artist Kelley Mooney, detailing the crucifixion of Jesus (“A crown of thorns placed on his head/He knew that he would soon be dead”) currently has north of 345,000 plays on Spotify. Recorded for Easter 2021, a cover of Mooney’s adaptation performed by two young sisters from Fort Frances, Ontario, who sing to each other over a lit candle in a darkened room, is fast approaching 5 million views on YouTube.

“The meter of the lyric is so elegant that almost anyone can rewrite the lyric using another set of religious imagery,” said Robert Kory, Cohen’s final manager and the trustee of his estate. “The problem is that when you bastardize the lyric to a system, you become part of the Pharisees, you give up the experience for a belief.”

Buchdahl sees it differently.

“There is a long tradition of understanding that there can be sacred sparks in everything,” she said, noting the history of secular tunes being set to holy words. “We have a role as Jews to elevate the sacred spark.” That’s what Cohen is doing, if in reverse, marrying the “Hallelujah” to the mundane and the ecstatically futile.

As Cohen sings, alluding to the black and white fire of the Torah, “there’s a blaze of light in every word.” There’s a potential for transcendence in any word we choose, heretical or hallowed.

And those words don’t have to be English ones.

VI

“Hallelujah” Finds Its “Original” Language

Daniel Kahn spent part of the summer of 2016 walking around Weimar, Germany, muttering “ooya, ooya, ooya.”

The Detroit-born, Berlin-based musician, who was in Weimar for a summer Yiddish program, had just been handed the daunting task of translating one of the world’s best-known songs into the mamaloshen for KlezKanada’s annual festival in Quebec. Kahn was told to just translate a couple of verses of “Hallelujah.” He ended up doing all seven of the ones we know.

A self-described “Hasid” for Cohen, he approached the assignment with a sense of “reverence and trembling,” seeking input from other Yiddishists before the translation’s debut. That September, while visiting New York, Kahn recorded his version in the studio of the Forward offices. The video now has more than 2 million views for reasons few could predict.

The clip was published Nov. 9, 2016, the day after the 2016 election. The following day, the news broke that Cohen had died on Nov. 7. That Saturday, Kate McKinnon appeared on “SNL” coiffed as Hillary Clinton, and played a mournful rendition on the piano. Once more, the song was attached to a moment of grief.

But if McKinnon’s tearful, overearnest performance bordered on parody — and it would later be parodied on the same program — Kahn’s version is more than a novelty. It strikes at something elemental in the song while drawing out its Jewishness.

Kahn’s philosophy in translation is to capture a song’s original gesture, or the “ur-meaning” that precedes the original language. When taking on “Hallelujah,” he realized that each verse contained the word “but.”

“I think this is a song of great contrasts — the contrast between devotion and doubt, the contrast between desire and loss, the contrast between the holy and the profane, or the sublime and the subverted,” he explained. “These levels of doubt and paradox are within a Jewish framework.”

Adapting the song to Yiddish naturally gave it more Jewish weight. Because each verse ends in “ooyah,” Kahn found himself using a lot of Loshn Koydesh, words with Hebrew and Aramaic roots that contain those sounds. Since the David story is known to most Yiddish speakers, his paramour, and later wife, could be named. “You saw her bathing on the roof” becomes “Basheva bodt zikh afn dakh” — Bathsheba bathes on the roof.

It gets richer. The “minor fall and the major lift” that Cohen claims for David’s chord progression, is translated to “a mishberekh heybt a kol.” The Mi Shebeirach is a prayer that gave its name to a minor mode in klezmer music. That minor scale then “heybt a kol,” or “raises its voice,” with the major lift. The new line invokes the contrast and collision of the holy and the worldly, facilitated by a language rife with both. But in making the song more explicitly Jewish, Kahn was careful not to remove the song’s ambiguity or ambivalence — perhaps its most Jewish feature.

“It is an inalienably Jewish song at its heart,” Kahn said. “But so is Leonard Cohen — he’s not around to contradict me on that.”

VII

When Rav Cohen Came To Israel, And The Israelis Sang Back

A short time after his 39th birthday, Leonard Cohen went to Tel Aviv, thinking he might enlist in the Israel Defense Forces and fight in the Yom Kippur War, which had started just days before. Instead, he played for the troops. Needless to say, he’s beloved in the Jewish state — though not necessarily for his Jewishness.

“I have never heard someone here is feeling connected to him because of him being Jewish — no one cares about that,” said Yasmin Levy, an Israeli singer-songwriter of Ladino music. “It’s all about his courage, his imagination and his intelligence.”

Cohen’s connection to, and reception in, Israel — the land where David first strummed his harp — trails its own legend. His most famous song is ubiquitous there, both in secular and religious spaces.

“Hallelujah” is played on Saturday evenings on the IDF radio channel. It’s a popular melody for “Lecha Dodi,” a hymn sung to welcome Shabbat. Levy recorded a Spanish version of the song for her 2009 album “Sentir,” drawing from Flamenco music and the sounds of her childhood synagogue.

One of Cohen’s favorite interpretations of “Hallelujah” was a Hebrew translation by the IDF choir.

In a performance posted to YouTube, uniformed soldiers, bathed in blue light, start to sing one by one. The soundscape builds and more voices join the chorus. Harmonies and instrumentation reach a crescendo before abruptly stopping, leaving an echo behind.

“He felt a tremendous sense of pride to see young Israeli soldiers singing his lyrics translated into modern Hebrew,” said Zelermyer.

But I think there’s more to Cohen’s love of the performance than this. The version seems to fit his intention; the language — once sacred, now quotidian — expresses the song’s tension of the divine and commonplace and, more importantly, the communal.

In the IDF interpretation, a song that for years had gestured at earnestness and ego, a stripped down solo showcase for Buckley or any odd “American Idol” contender, returns to the summer of “Various Positions,” when Cohen brought a choir of “regular people” — kids and friends and members of the band — into a New York studio to sing the chorus and “ooh” behind the poetry. With a corps of singers, it becomes a common exercise of shared experience — the “Hallelujah” we all know, and one that young soldiers may understand acutely.

These singers’ conflicts are not just metaphysical, and yet, they fit Cohen’s most substantial explanation of the song.

“This world is full of conflicts,” Cohen said in a 1988 interview. “The moment you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, ‘Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all — Halleujah!’ That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

VIII

Who Does “Hallelujah” Belong To?

In 1985, when she was 18 or 19, Anne Laurent did something profoundly uncool. She bought “Various Positions” from her local record store. It was the latest addition to her collection of cultural Judaica, in which Cohen was a central icon.

Laurent grew up in Brest, a city in the Brittany region of France. There were no Jews there, among the postwar cement buildings, and her family was Catholic, but not religious.

When she was 8, her atheist mother finally gave in to her questions about God, placing a small, gilt-edged, onion skin-papered Bible in her hands. She was told she could skip the boring parts.

“I was reading books about dogs and cats talking, fighting with each other,” said Laurent. “And then I’ll open this book and it’s like God creating our world. And I kept reading, and it was about grown-ups. Stories that I didn’t have access to and that suddenly were open to me. Relationships, people cheating on each other, sex — all of that.” When she wanted to know more, having no rabbi on hand, she found a thinker who made the same connections.

Most of Laurent’s peers only knew Cohen through an album of French covers by the singer Graeme Allwright or as someone their parents listened to. But she was a disciple, eagerly un-sleeving Cohen’s first record in six years and finding a Hebrew word she knew: “Hallelujah.”

Cohen was more than a passing interest. He was Laurent’s only living window into Judaism and the subject of her master’s thesis, which became a dissertation that brought her to the U.S. where she’d meet her husband, convert to Judaism and later receive ordination as a rabbi. Naturally, she is protective of those who usurp Cohen for “American Idol” idolatry.

“Hallelujah” belongs to everyone, Laurent acknowledged, begrudgingly, “but in my gut, I always have a sense of ownership.”

Many of us feel similarly, even if few can claim Laurent’s transformative connection to the material.

Why do we care so much? It’s far simpler to dismiss this song as the ballad of a lovesick ogre or the cringeworthy show of sincerity from an insipid torch singer. But this, I think, is part of why Jews try to claim “Hallelujah.” Like everyone else, we’re tired of hearing it. (Even Cohen, in 2009, jokingly agreed that a moratorium might be in order, saying, with a laugh, “It’s a good song, but too many people sing it.”)

If asserting this song’s origins in our tradition can save it — make it meaningful or beat back the meaningless renditions — we’ll want to try, if only to salvage it from what the young Cohen once called the “dull, dead, totalitarian center” of universality.

We’re used to having our culture co-opted and altered to mean something different, and we’re understandably defensive. It unsettles me to see “Christian” alternate lyrics to the song, which suggest that this, too, needed Jesus to be complete.

Arguing this song is Jewish is by its nature tribal, but for what it’s worth, Christians have tried to “save” the song too.

A blog called “reasonsforhopejesus.com,” proclaims that the lyrics for “Hallelujah” are blasphemous, concluding that standing before the Lord of song with nothing but a “Hallelujah” as an offering will “count for nothing.”

With all due respect — says who?

IX

Before the Lord of Song

If there is a hint of the holy in our broken world, Leonard Cohen’s comeback might well prove it.

Around 2005, Cohen learned that his longtime manager Kelley Lynch embezzled more than $5 million from his accounts while he was away from the world on Mt. Baldy. Cohen, then in his 70s, was left without a nest egg and suddenly found himself in the midst of a protracted legal battle. Lynch, who inundated Cohen with abusive emails and voicemails, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for harassment in 2012.

Cohen did what made sense for his bottom line: He went back on tour after a 15-year hiatus. In that time, “Hallelujah” had become his best-known song. With his comeback, he was now the prophetic voice delivering it.

Zelermyer said that Cohen’s crew transported an unprecedented amount of sound equipment with them so that the audience could make out every word. But here’s the remarkable thing: When it came to “Hallelujah,” everybody already knew them.

When Cohen performed at Coachella in 2009, Stacey Anderson captured the revival-like scene in Spin magazine, writing, “When the keys kicked up the first strains of ‘Hallelujah,’ those ascending notes led a seismic reaction — offstage, as an ecstatic audience sang every word back in hymnal, and onstage, where Cohen removed his hat and peered out into the audience with reverent, brimming tears.”

No one documented the crowd’s religious affiliations. There was no guarantee that anyone there knew the Jewish thought behind the song. But the experience must have been religious, insomuch as it was transcendent.

I don’t know if I can ever be so moved by the song. The same tradition that stuns me to silence in Cohen’s “Who By Fire” and the chilling “Hineni” in “You Want it Darker” will never be able to find its way back to a work so overexposed, so uprooted from its original particulars. It takes Hebrew or Yiddish — an infusion of something else that fortifies its message — to rescue it from the generic. Had I heard “Hallelujah” in 1984, seen the countless notebook pages, witnessed it when it was new, the story might well be different. Instead, I heard it in “Shrek,” and despite his name, the ogre spoke like a Scotsman, not a landsman.

There is a way that Cohen’s song fulfills its own vision, with versions that are sublime and many more that aren’t worth much, but still add up to something. Its legacy is a messy experience made up of countless voices — a soundtrack to life’s minor falls and major lifts.

“‘Hallelujah’ is a Hebrew word which means ‘Glory to the Lord,’” Cohen once said, in what might have been, but never will be, the final word. “The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist. I say all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value.”

Author

PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com .

How Jewish is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah?’

Your Comments

The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. All readers can browse the comments, and all Forward subscribers can add to the conversation. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Forward requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters or repeat offenders will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Recommend this article

How Jewish is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah?’ A Forward investigation in 9 verses

Thank you!

This article has been sent!

Close