idealism and tragedy

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idealism and tragedy

Post by johnny7moons » Wed Mar 03, 2010 3:31 pm

This is going to be a long ramble, I'm afraid... It is Cohen-related, eventually, but I'll have to ask you to bear with me for a couple of paragraphs first...

Last night I went to hear Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, speaking about 'Defining a Moral Compass for the Twenty-First Century'. The first thing I should say is, if you ever get a chance to hear Rabbi Sachs speak, take it, you won't regret it – he's an extremely graceful and eloquent and sometimes very funny speaker, even if some of his points (and some of his gags) turn on Hebrew terms that mostly go over the heads of gentiles like me.

Anyway. Among other things, Rabbi Sachs was talking about the 'tragic sense of life' in religion – the sense that the world is just basically fallen, beyond redemption, and the gap between our aspirations and our reality will never be closed. This tragic vision, he said, is what draws people towards 'other-worldly' religious visions, visions that turn away from the world and look towards distant heavens and the afterlife (this is the kind of vision that the Christian theologians call, and condemn as, Gnosticism). This tragic vision, the Rabbi said, comes from the Greek strand of Western culture, and is categorically not Jewish – in fact, it's fundamentally incompatible with the Jewish faith. Because Christianity (and Islam) in many of their forms incorporate this vision of a corrupt world and a perfect afterlife, they have historically been able to make their peace with morally questionable regimes on earth (to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's).

Judaism, on the other hand, holds out no promise of a bliss-out in heaven after we die. So the message of Judaism must be that we can make God's will manifest here on Earth, and that we must maintain the hope and faith that this world is perfectible; that we can close the gap between ideal and reality.

(He had a nice little routine about how Jews could never have written the Shakespearean tragedies, or you would've had a Jewish mother coming in halfway through the second act of Othello saying, "oy vey, your majesty, sit down, have some chicken soup, and let's talk this out..." – the Rabbi's gag, I stress, not mine.)

As I was walking home afterwards I was thinking about Anthem – "forget your perfect offering / there is a crack in everything / that's where the light gets in" – and about Hallelujah – "even though it all went wrong / I'll stand before the Lord of Song / with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah". It seems to me that Cohen's vision – at least, as expressed in these two great songs – is neither the Judaic idealism that Sachs was articulating, nor the tragic Gnostic "spindrift gaze towards paradise" that Sachs saw in some Christianity and Islam. Cohen maybe leans a bit closer to the tragic, but these songs seem to express an acceptance that 'everything is broken' and a capacity to love it in all its brokenness and disappointment.
So, I'm hoping that my fellow forumsters, especially those with better education in Judaic matters than I have, will have something to say about this. What do you think? Is Cohen's vision a Judaic vision in these terms? Do you accept the premises? Is Cohen an idealist? Or a tragedian? Or something else entirely?
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Re: idealism and tragedy

Post by holydove » Thu Mar 04, 2010 12:29 am

johnny7moons, I'd say Cohen's vision in the songs you mention (and others) is in the "something else entirely" category - it is the vision of Zen & Tibetan Buddhism. It is a core teaching in these schools of Buddhism, that we exist in the realm of "samsara" - a realm where there is constantly the feeling that something is "wrong" - (I say "feeling" because the realm exists in our minds - it is not really outside of ourselves, as it seems to be). Nothing in this phenomenal world ever matches our concepts of perfection, and never will. Whereas other eastern (Hindu-related) philosophies teach that "everything is perfect as it is" and we just have to change our perception in order to see the perfection, Buddhism teaches that the imperfection is reality, & the way to deal with it is to develop the skill to really see & experience the imperfection head-on, and embrace it. This does not mean that we should never try to change anything (as some mistakenly interpret it) - it means, in fact, that it is only when we are willing to really "go into" the pain & suffering, that we will be able to function from a place of true compassion, & thereby change things through the energy of compassion. But I digress (your question is not about changing things!) - the point is that, according to these teachings, the realm in which we live will always be filled with imperfection, pain & suffering, and the ability to embrace it all is the true spiritual attainment. (Easier said than done, of course!)

Mr. Cohen, as we know, has studied these Buddhist teachings, and although he is still devoted to Judaism, my sense of it is that he feels the "chords" of truth in Tibetan & Zen Buddhism, as well, & expresses it in incomparably beautiful ways, through his poetry & song.

And remote1, if you read this, please forgive me for bringing up this theme of Buddhism yet again - I just couldn't resist (lol)!
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Re: idealism and tragedy

Post by remote1 » Fri Mar 05, 2010 12:35 pm

8) Hey Holydove, you know I love reading what you write on Buddhism!

I was recently reading an article on current developments in Western psychology, e.g. 'mindfulness' and 'compassion focused therapy', and found that they are all influenced by Buddhist psychology. What was described in the article corresponded very closely to what you explain here, and fits with your idea, johnny7moons', that
[Leonard's] songs seem to express an acceptance that 'everything is broken' and a capacity to love it in all its brokenness and disappointment.
All of this is very interesting to me!

A bit snowed under with work at the moment but will definitely get a thread started soon on Leonard's lyrics and Buddhism (perhaps with a poll?). And then we'll see if it takes off! :D
Last edited by remote1 on Sat Mar 06, 2010 12:35 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: idealism and tragedy

Post by holydove » Fri Mar 05, 2010 5:33 pm

Remote1, thank you for your response. Mindfulness & compassion are definitely emphasized in Buddhism - it would be interesting to know just how Western psychology is using those aspects.

The more I contemplate Leonard's works, the more Buddhist influences I see, & I think it increases through the years (with more of it in his later works). I think, in terms of spiritual teachings/philosophy, Kabbalah & Buddhism are LC's biggest influences - but then, Kabbalah & Buddhism (esp. Vajrayana Buddhism) have certain similarities.

Good luck with your work - hope all goes well. . .
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Re: idealism and tragedy

Post by Lilifyre » Tue Apr 06, 2010 4:22 pm

Johnny7moons, I'll offer my opinion on you questions. That is all it is, MY opinion and not to be taken as representative of any particular school of thought. However, if you have read some of the other threads I've participated in, you know that I see things from a Jewish perspective. Getting 2 Jews to agree on anything is nearly impossible ;-) The saying, "For every 2 Jews you get at least 3 opinions" is quite accurate.

The Rabbi you mentioned gave his opinion on life/human existence/after-life whatever you want to label it. I've found Leonard's work highly influenced by Judaism. He had a strong Jewish education as a child and into adulthood. True, Jews in general, place very little emphasis on the after-life. That is not to say we don't believe in an after-life, we do. Some schools of Jewish thought have a strong concept of reincarnation as well. Where Judaism differs from Christianity and many other religions is that we don't LIVE for the next life. Judaism teaches that, yes, this material world is imperfect, but it is our job as partners of G_d to perfect it. No one person can do that, but that doesn't excuse any of us from trying. We are expected to do what we can to make this a better world, not so that we will be rewarded in the next life, but so that we leave this world a better place for our having been here.

The line you quoted: "forget your perfect offering / there is a crack in everything / that's where the light gets in" strikes me as VERY Jewish in tone and feeling. There is a Midrash (story to explain or elaborate on a Biblical concept) that states when G_d created the Universe, all Truth (the mysteries of existence) were contained in clay jars. These jars shattered to create the Universe. These jars contained the Light/enlightenment. When the jars shattered, the Light escaped. It fell to the Earth. The Earth/this World, being imperfect has those same "cracks" to allow the light to shine thru/in. I'd say that the cracks are more to allow the light thru than in or out. It is the task of humanity to gather those sparks....those bits of bring wholeness to the World.

You also mention the line from Hallelujah: "even though it all went wrong / I'll stand before the Lord of Song / with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah" I see this as a VERY Jewish thought/expression. Christianity, I believe, teaches that humanity can never achieve perfection and therefore requires the "Grace" of deity to enter Heaven. Humankind must seek "forgiveness of sins"(I may be over simplifying). I'm basing my statement on what has been told to me by many Christian friends(?) who have informed me that no matter what I do in this life, no matter how good I am, I can never be good enough to deserve Heaven unless I accept Jesus as "lord and savior". Judaism sees things totally differently. These lines from Hallelujah point out that difference. In essence, these are the words of a person who has tried his/her best, and even tho he/she has failed, can still stand before G_d without shame or guilt, able to praise G_d for the experience and the opportunity of living a life here in this World. The lines just before those lines state:
"I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you" indicating a sense of honesty, full disclosure. In other words, you have a person standing before G_d at the time of judgment, imperfect, humble, yet completely honest "warts and all" saying "Here I am, I tried, I did the best I could, I made mistakes, but I know that You are the ONE PERFECT SOURCE OF ALL BEING!

So, your question was: Is Cohen's vision a Judaic vision in these terms? Do you accept the premises? Is Cohen an idealist? Or a tragedian? Or something else entirely?

To the first, I would say, most certainly, these lines (from both songs) are VERY Jewish in thought. As for them being "idealistic" or "tragic", I would say no, neither of those. I would add that we Jews generally see the world realistically. It's not perfect, but it's all we have for now. We are partners with G_d. There is always hope for improvement. How else could we have survived for thousands of years with so many groups trying to kill us? If we only saw tragedy, we would have given up long ago. Likewise, if we only saw the ideal, we would have been destroyed before we even began as a people. In the words of the famous Rabbi Hillel: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?

"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
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