My Unconventional Rebbe

Caryn Aviv
September 13, 2013
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 “If it be your will,  That I speak no more, And my voice be still, As it was before,  I will speak no more, I shall abide until, I am spoken for, If it be your will.”  

Leonard Cohen became my rebbe this year.

In a botanic garden with hundreds of people, I will be pray-singing many of the simple, aching lyrics of Leonard Cohen that give voice to our deepest longing during the Yamim Noraim: the Days of Awe.

Two years ago, I had never really listened to Leonard Cohen.  Now all I want to do is sing his repertoire as part of my own spiritual practice.   Cohen, who grew up Orthodox in Montreal and embraced Buddhism in the 1970s, has long reached for Jewish themes of justice and compassion in his poetry and songs.   So too has he plumbed the depths of his own legendary cravings and attachments, to examine the impermanence of our existence.

Many of Cohen’s seemingly secular lyrics explore the liturgical themes of these High Holy Days:  gentle invitations to wake up to life with all its challenges; urgent reminders of our fragility; and especially, his pleas to make amends and love and forgive one another, especially when we screw up.    In his gravelly voice, he implores us to atone, to return back to what is righteous and good.  “Who by fire, and who by water?” opens his melancholy riff on Unetaneh Tokef.  No stranger to catastrophe, Rebbe Cohen shares with us fragments from his life experiences, knowing that the process of teshuvah (return) doesn’t come easy to anyone.

In song after song, Cohen asks variation of the same questions: how can we get back to ourselves and to the source?  Can we stop hurting ourselves, and each other?   How can we let go of our illusions and attachments that cause such suffering and destruction?  Why do we choose greed and cynicism over freedom and rights for everyone?  How can we wring meaning out of our fleeting existence?   Is it possible truly connect to one another, and to live in community peacefully?

Have you ever seen Rebbe Cohen perform?   Here are two clips: and .    What is he doing?  He’s praying, of course!  Not only is he praying, but he’s praying with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his (waning) might.

Rambam, in Hilkhot T’fillah  (Laws of Prayer), writes:What sort of *Avodah* is there with the heart? – tefillah. The number of [daily] tefillot is not mandated by the Torah, nor is the liturgy of tefillah mandated by the Torah, nor does tefillah have a set time from the Torah.”  In other words, Rambam, and Leonard Cohen both show us that praying from the heart is what ultimately matters.   It doesn’t matter if it’s the official liturgy or the right time.   If the intention and the feeling are there, that’s what’s important.

When Cohen sings in Anthem: “The birds they sang, at the break of day, ‘start again,’ I heard them say, don’t dwell on what has passed away, or what is yet to be.  Ring the bells, that still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering.  There’s a crack, a crack, in everything.  That’s how the light gets in” he’s calling us to worship.   He’s telling us to just forget about getting it ‘right.’  Whether it’s ‘right’ or not doesn’t matter.  Just worship from the heart with vulnerability and sincerity.   Just sing it, or speak it, or whisper it, or sway with it, or cry it – but do it.  Ring the bells.  Throw your crumbs into the water.   Ring the bells.   Say you’re sorry.  Ring the bells.   Do it now.

When you walk out from a three-hour “service” with Rebbe Cohen, you might not use the language of the sacred, but you know they have glimpsed something holy. You feel uplifted, moved, and for some people, absolved of your shortcomings and transgressions, if only for the moment.

For me, Cohen’s prayers/songs have come to embody the most vulnerable expression of avodah she’balev, service of the heart.  Singing Leonard Cohen songs for the High Holidays has given me fresh permission to dive deep into the waters of human suffering, to examine our collective shortcomings, and to ask for forgiveness.  If that’s not Yom Kippur liturgy, what is?


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Caryn Aviv is Associate Director/Jewish Educator with Judaism Your Way in Denver, CO. Caryn taught Jewish Studies at various universities for ten years, and has published widely in the areas of contemporary Jewish culture, gender and sexuality in Judaism, and Israel Studies. In her voluminous spare time, she's an aspirational vegan yogini and is studying for rabbinical ordination through ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

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