rags of light

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
Lilifyre
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Re: rags of light

Postby Lilifyre » Sat Aug 08, 2009 10:31 am

Just now I was reading some of the selections of Leonard's book, Book of Mercy. When I read selection #15 I came across something that seems to fit this thread. It reads:
This is the way we summon one another, but it is not the way we call upon the Name. We stand in rags, we beg for tears to dissolve the immovable landmarks of hatred. How beautiful our heritage, to have this way of speaking to eternity, how bountiful this solitude, surrounded, filled, and mastered by the Name, from which all things arise in splendour, depending one upon the other.
One school of thought within Judaism claims that the true, magical "name" of what we term G-d was deliberately forgotten by the authors of the Torah. This comes from the belief that to know ones "name"...that true divine "name"...is to have power to command. No one can or should have such power over the supreme being, creator of the Universe, therefore, it was erased from the very deepest of memories of mankind. This is why Jews often refer to the supreme being simply as "HaShem", literally "The Name". So Leonard is speaking here of calling upon that creator. To do so, we humble ourselves and "stand in rags". Our very tears remove all negative emotions. We stand before the divine as newborn babes, clad only in the swaddling rags used to give comfort and security to one so recently freed from the womb. Those same scraps of cloth that give comfort to a newborn are the same rags used in Biblical times to bind a corpse prior to burial. When you think about it, both birth and death are the same...a transition from one state of being to another. So when a Jew speaks to G-d, s/he must remove all the trappings of the world and enter that transition state..."In our Rags of Light"...put away all ego and self importance, and stand humbly, accepting the Will of the divine.

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
Lilifyre
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Re: rags of light

Postby Lilifyre » Wed Sep 02, 2009 4:13 am

At the risk of speaking only to myself, I'll go ahead and add some thoughts that just came to me a couple of hours ago on this topic.

Jews around the world are in the midst of preparing for the High Holy Days...Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur. These holidays are actually post Biblical, they were not part of the "pilgrimage festivals" commanded in the Torah. It has been traditional for Jews (men only until recent years) to own and use a special ritual garment known as a Kittel. This is a white "coat" worn for very special occasions...at the Passover Seder, wedding, and High Holy Day services. It is also customary for a Jew to be buried in this garment. Jewish burial is by tradition in a simple wooden box as opposed to an elaborate coffin. The principle behind this is to equalize all Jews. While some of these garments are elaborately decorated with fancy needle work, such decoration is not necessary. If someone has a Kittel that is elaborately decorated, it was generally done by a close relative...mother, sister, wife...as an act of affection. It occurred to me that this Kittel certainly qualifies as "rags of light". So again we have the "rags of light" as an equalizer of individuals.

There is also another (actually 2 other) ritual garment that can be considered "rags of light". That would be the Tallit. (aka prayer shawl) This is the 4 cornered garment with special fringes attached at each corner. I said there are actually 2 forms of this garment. The Tallit Katan (small tallit) is "Jewish underwear". It is literally a rectangle of cloth with a hole in the middle for the head to go thru, pancho style. Again each corner has a special fringe attached. This is worn under the shirt but the fringes are pulled out to be visible to all, 2 on each side. It is worn daily by Jewish males (usually just the Orthodox presently). The fringes are a reminder of god. When a Jew prays the Sh'ma he holds these to give him a physical reminder of his creator. The fringes are knotted in a special way. Originally, one blue thread was to be among the other threads making up the fringe. This was discontinued when the recipe for the blue dye used was lost.

Now the larger Tallit (prayer shawl) is generally only used during services and/or private prayers. It has the exact same fringes as the smaller Tallit Katan. The larger Tallit is only used during the 1st 2 prayer services of the day, not in the evening. However, there is one time a year that it is worn for evening prayers...Kol Nidre...the service of the night of Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre literally means "all vows". It is the time when at the beginning of the Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur when Jews ask to be released from all vows forced upon them. This came about when Jews were forced to convert against their will (as happened many times throughout history...Inquisition, etc.) So again we have the Jew, wrapped in "rags of light", humbly asking god for forgiveness for any wrongs performed within the last year.

The one thing that ties (pun intended) all these examples of "rags of light" together is the act of humility, humbling oneself before the creator of the universe. These flimsy bits of cloth have often been the only protection from the evils of the world for countless Jews for thousands of years.

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
Steven
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Joined: Tue May 03, 2005 12:32 am

Re: rags of light

Postby Steven » Wed Sep 02, 2009 7:06 am

Hi Lili,

You weren't speaking to yourself, at all. Thanks for thoughtful comments on "rags of light." If kittels
and tallit don't bestow a wearer with humility, but are donned for show (appearance of righteousness),
yeah, they'd seem then to be "rags of light." But as associated with reverence and submission/connection
to God -- and accordingly regarded, it doesn't seem to me that they'd be "rags." Just an initial impression
arrived at from your observations, when I'm tired very late at night. Might think otherwise upon further
consideration. :D Thanks again for your posts on this.
Lilifyre
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Location: Birmingham, AL, USA

Re: rags of light

Postby Lilifyre » Wed Sep 02, 2009 10:43 am

Steven wrote:Hi Lili,

You weren't speaking to yourself, at all. Thanks for thoughtful comments on "rags of light." If kittels
and tallit don't bestow a wearer with humility, but are donned for show (appearance of righteousness),
yeah, they'd seem then to be "rags of light." But as associated with reverence and submission/connection
to God -- and accordingly regarded, it doesn't seem to me that they'd be "rags." Just an initial impression
arrived at from your observations, when I'm tired very late at night. Might think otherwise upon further
consideration. :D Thanks again for your posts on this.
Hi Steven. You make a good observation, but the problem lies in the intention of the wearer/maker, not the garment itself. The purpose of the Kittel and the Tallit is to equalize the individuals. Call it a uniform, if you will. I think, tho that it is human nature to break from the masses. Look at military uniforms, for example. All are identical, but as a soldier works his way up in the ranks, he distinguishes himself by adding certain insignia to represent his rank, his accomplishments, and his valor. So it is with Jewish ritual garments. They start out the same. The Kittel in particular, starts as a simply white coat, not unlike a medical lab coat. Historically, a woman would make a Kittel for her husband as a wedding gift. To please him, show her affection, or just demonstrate to others that her "man" was special, she would add needlework designs. Perhaps these would be done in a white on white pattern. Well, her friend or sister would then want to show that her "man" was superior and she might employ a touch of color in the designs she added to the simple white coat.

Now, what I've seen in practice is the garment, regardless of the decorations added, in most cases, is still that equalizer. It is also a removal of the mundane, or everyday clothing. It can be summed up with the phrase I was told by a 12 step friend of mine..."You are unique.........just like everyone else."

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
Steven
Posts: 2140
Joined: Tue May 03, 2005 12:32 am

Re: rags of light

Postby Steven » Wed Sep 02, 2009 5:16 pm

Hi Lili,

I'm not sure, but I think that tallit are buried along with prayer books and other sacred items, when
they've reached their expiry because of their being highly regarded. I like the theme that you've expressed
with the uniformity of people and garments. :) Sackcloth, worn historically and biblically, would be more in-line
with "rags." Nowadays, there are some pretty fancy and expensive tallit worn by some.
Yes, there is a practice of making performance of mitzvot a beautiful thing (etrogim or
esrogim, if you will, fetch a high price if unblemished and visually perfect, in accordance
with this), but there is no shortage of people seeking to impress others. Thanks for having
given us the opportunity to consider the theme you presented.

P.S. Come to think of it, if tallit are worn as fashion statements, in the eyes of God, perhaps
they'd be seen as "rags." :D
Lilifyre
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Joined: Fri May 08, 2009 7:29 am
Location: Birmingham, AL, USA

Re: rags of light

Postby Lilifyre » Wed Sep 02, 2009 6:51 pm

Steven, I think I see what you are going for with sackcloth being "rags". To that, I'd say that literal "rags" can also take on a role as "fashion". I'm thinking of the singer Antony Hegerty (I think that's how he spells his last name). He has covered some of Leonard's songs, most notably, "If it be your Will". Every video clip of him that I've seen, he is wearing a torn and tattered sweater...quite literally a "rag"...I'm known to refer to it as a "schmatte" (Yiddish for rag). I really can't say why I seem to fixate on that tattered garment, but it really bothers me on a subconscious level.

If price is the determining factor, then we would have to redefine "rags" as something of no monetary value. I don't think that is what was intended by the sages. That is just my personal opinion and I'm sure many would disagree. We've all seen jeans that are barely held together by a few threads selling for several hundred dollars as a fashion statement. Look at any Rock Band and you'll see some VERY "holey", tho not "holy" rags being worn ;-)

As one who has used a tallit for prayer, I can say that it can be quite an effective "shelter" from the mundane. You seem to be fairly familiar with Jewish ritual, so I assume you've seen how synagogue worship is carried out. Especially at the High Holy Day services, I find that being wrapped in "rags of light" in the form of a tallit very helpful in removing myself from the distracting conversations of those who attend only at those times and have no kevannah (spirituality) to their presence.

As I write this, I am amazed that it is the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen that has brought me back to a spiritual path I had all but abandoned.

One last note...it's not necessarily the tallit itself that is buried because of its status as a "Holy" garment, but the fringes or Tzitzit, that possess the sacredness. I sent my son to an Orthodox day school thru 8th grade and he wore the tallit katan daily (he's given up that practice presently). I made these garments/holy underwear for him as he didn't like the ones that could be bought ready made. Several times a year, I would remove the tattered tzitzit and tie new ones. The ones removed were given to one of many rabbis in the community and would be properly "laid to rest" with damaged prayer books and other "retired" ritual items in a Jewish cemetary.

Hmmmmmmmmmm, perhaps it is then the tzitzit/fringes that would be the "rags of light"????? :idea:

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
Steven
Posts: 2140
Joined: Tue May 03, 2005 12:32 am

Re: rags of light

Postby Steven » Thu Sep 03, 2009 1:17 am

Hi Lili,

I saw Antony on a video tribute to Leonard Cohen singing "If It Be Your Will." Liked his cover of
the song. Something about his mannerisms reminded me of early Meatloaf or a Tony Newly.
I don't remember the sweater though. Seems that his sweater bothers you on a conscious
level. :) Haven't seen him in other videos. Dylan went to great lengths to look uncontrived,
according to an ex-girlfriend who wrote about his doing so. There could be other performers
that seek that special schmatte look and others who just prefer old, broken-in garments.

Cloaking one's self isn't only among tallit donners. Some other cultures cloak in garments
when meditating. The lack of kavanah and prevalence of talking isn't mitigated by
putting on tallaisim in some congregations. Good that it helps shield you from those
distracting people.

I'm not amazed, but happy for you, that Leonard Cohen's music and poetry has had
the spiritual affect on you that you wrote of. There's power in that music and poetry.

Re: the tzitzis being "rags of light," that's a knottie shylah (pun). :) L'Shana Tova.
Lilifyre
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Re: rags of light

Postby Lilifyre » Tue Sep 22, 2009 4:41 pm

This past weekend was Rosh Hashana and I was once again in attendance at my local shul. The words of "If It Be Your Will" echoed thru my head. As I looked around the sanctuary, I saw the familiar sight of Jews of all ages together for the annual event. Yes, in some cases it was a "fashion show". Some were there because that's what "Jews do" on that day. Some came to sincerely pray and reflect on the year past and the one about to begin. Some were there just to see and be with family and friends. Whatever their reasons, they were there. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are probably the only days of the year when the sanctuary is filled to capacity and then some as overflow crowds gather in the chapel and social hall. But, as I said, they were there.

This thread has been used to examine the phrase "rags of light" as used in this beautiful song/prayer by Leonard. Some would take the word "rags" very literally as in "scraps of cloth, dirty, discarded, humble, a display of penitence." However, after observing the ritual of Rosh Hashana, I think we may have a different interpretation. Rather than taking that one phrase, "rags of light" out of context, let's look at it IN context:
And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will
First of all, Leonard's family was in the garment business...also known as the "rag trade" among insiders. So "rags" need not mean "sackcloth and ashes", but any garment. And what about the phrase "all dressed to kill"? Perhaps this isn't as popular an expression as it once was, but it never meant dressed in dirty scraps of cloth. "Dressed to kill" is commonly thought of as "dressed in ones best garments"

When looked at in this context, it perfectly describes the scene at High Holy Day services. The whole purpose of those services, the liturgy, and feeling...even among the "once a year Jews" is coming before G-d to reaffirm our "peoplehood" dressed in our finest (our rags of light), "dressed to kill" (wearing the best we clothing we own, whether to show off to others or out of respect for HaShem) and asking to be "inscribed in the Book of Life" IF it is G-d's will.
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
MaryB
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Re: rags of light

Postby MaryB » Wed Sep 30, 2009 1:07 am

Lili,

I like your common sense approach to these lines.

Best regards,
Mary
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Steven
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Re: rags of light

Postby Steven » Wed Sep 30, 2009 10:29 pm

Hi Lili,

Hope that you found attending the shul to be a meaningful and beneficial experience. Poetic lyrics,
sometimes function best in their ambiguity, or openness to varying interpretations, and the raising
of questions, rather than facilitation of clear, forthright answers. And, these lyrics of "this
beautiful song/prayer," to my ears, are consistent with this. :) The "rags" continue to me
to resonate with an "all is vanity" sentiment of The Book of Ecclesiastes and the crushing humility
that accompanies the nullifying of egoistic donnings. There is a tradition within Judaism that
emphasizes nullification of ego as character development. It was prominent in middle ages
and continues among some Haredi (black hatted) types. Some aspects of Leonard's monastic
experience have parallels to this. I don't want to get into an extended conversation on
this (lack of time). Others can, if they like. :D
holydove
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Re: rags of light

Postby holydove » Fri Oct 02, 2009 3:10 am

I found this passage in my book on the Kabbalah, and it immediately made me think of "rags of light"; It says:

"When powerful light is concealed and clothed in a garment, it is revealed. Though concealed, the light is actually revealed, for were it not concealed, it could not be revealed. This is like wishing to gaze at the dazzling sun. Its dazzle conceals it, for you cannot look at its overwhelming brilliance. Yet when you conceal it - looking at it through screens - you can see and not be harmed. So it is with emanation: by concealing and clothing itself, it reveals itself."
- - from The Essential Kabbalah by Daniel C. Matt

So maybe the "rags of light" are our physical bodies, or any part of the worldly manifestation, which covers or conceals the true, pure essence of being, or "the light", that resides within; and compared to that true essence, our physical manifestations are "rags", (or "screens").

Thank you to everyone who has commented on this thread - very fascinating; I read it a while ago, and will go back to it again when I have time. Just thought I would share this angle for now.
holydove
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Re: rags of light

Postby holydove » Fri Oct 02, 2009 4:43 pm

Just wanted to add that, in my previous post, I wasn't implying that the implication (of "rags of light") is that the physical form is less than sacred; my take is that it is totally infused with the light of the emanation. I think the term "rags" is more an expression of humility than denigration. Or, more accurately even, the phrase "rags of light" would imply a manifestation that is simultaneously sacred and "profane", or as Zen and Tibetan Buddhism would say, describes the "inseparability of samsara and nirvana"; meaning that the "worldly" state of mind and the enlightened state of mind are, in absolute reality, one and the same. Or, to put it another way, emptiness and appearance, or the physical manifestion and the source from which it emanates, are not separate as they appear to be, but one and the same.

I realized after I logged out last night that when I said, "compared to the true essence our bodies are like rags" that that might sound like a kind of denigration of the human form, but that wasn't what I meant at all; I get the sense that when Leonard is singing "If It Be Thy Will", he sees himself ( or I see him) standing right there before the Creator, or "the Lord of Song", and I think the word "rag" is another word for garment, mixed with a tinge of humility, in the face of that powerful, blinding light.
Lilifyre
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Re: rags of light

Postby Lilifyre » Fri Oct 02, 2009 6:05 pm

Holydove, I like your explanation. I think Leonard would probably be the first one to say that the song/prayer/words mean what they mean to you, whoever you may be. Each person puts his/her own spin on things. That's what I like about poetry in general. It is open to interpretation. It's kind of like the difference between how an average person would see a landscape and how an artist would see the same landscape. The average person might say, the sky is blue, the grass is green, there's a black bird in the sky and a brown deer leaping across the green grass. The artist would see a multitude of colors in each of those things. The blue sky might have tinges of pink, or yellow, or orange, or black, or white, or any of an infinite number of colors that the average eye would see as blue. Both are right. One does not negate the other. So it is with poetry. One person sees these "rags of light" as "sackcloth and ashes", another as ones finest garments, and yet another as "screens" that simultaneously hide and reveal the truth of the light. Each one of these explanations is a beautiful interpretation of 3 rather simple words "rags of light".

One other comment I wanted to make concerning my idea of the "rags of light" as the clothing worn on the Jewish High Holy days. It is traditional that on Yom Kippur, no leather is worn. There are several interpretations of this practice. One is that you show respect to all animal life by not wearing the skin of an animal on this day. Another is that leather was traditionally worn by the wealthy, so as an act of humility, you don't wear leather like the wealthy would. There are other interpretations, too numerous to mention. The result is that in Orthodox and many Conservative synagogues on Yom Kippur, you will see people attending services with their finest clothing, expensive suits and dresses, "dressed to kill". On their feet you'll see cheap canvas tennis shoes, some quite old and tattered. It presents a strange picture to those unfamiliar with the custom, but to those who have lived it, it is as natural as breathing.

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
holydove
Posts: 1559
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

Re: rags of light

Postby holydove » Sat Oct 03, 2009 2:13 am

Hi Lili, I meant to mention yesterday (but forgot to), that I also love your interpretation of "rags of light" as the Jewish prayer garments. Leonard's poetry always has layers of meaning, and I think both of our interpretations are valid and not mutually exclusive; they would fit very well as simultaneous meanings. I attended shul as a child and I remember the canvas shoes with the suits (I don't think the women wore canvas on their feet, though, I remember them wearing their regular shoes ( but the shul I went to was not orthodox, maybe that's why).

I've been pondering how the "dressed to kill" phrase would fit with my interpretation; at the risk of discussing something that interests noone, here are my thoughts: if we view the naked human form as the most beautiful "garment" that exists, (worn by the soul/emanation or whatever one wants to call it), then we are already dressed in our finest ("dressed to kill") without putting on any clothing.

Or, if "dressed to kill" refers not to high fashion but to actual killing as in war or murder, it could mean either that being in a physical body facilitates the impulse to kill; or it could refer to the uniforms donned by soldiers, the garments with which we clothe the garments of our bodies,

Or, "dressed to kill" following the "in our rags of light" phrase could refer to the Jews (or any other religious group) feeling the need to resort to the violence of war in order to defend and preserve their "holy garments", said garments representing their religous teachings/beliefs. And the prayer to "end this night" could refer to many forms of darkness/dark states of mind, one form possibly being the dark night of war.

I love it that three small beautiful words can inspire such extensive contemplation. . . that's Our Man!

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