25. Dirty Saints, Monstrous Hermits
Let us do it with drugs or whips or sex or blasphemy or fasting; but let men begin to feel the perfection of the universe.
Today I want to share a speech by Leonard Cohen which he gave in 1964.
Cohen is speaking to Jews about Jewish identity, but his message is worth hearing by anyone with any kind of spiritual instinct. So while Jewish listeners will find Cohen’s message particularly pointed, I believe the most important aspects are accessible to non-Jews as well. It’s a testimony to God in a godless time, equally opposed to ‘psychiatric atheism’ as to uninspired religious orthodoxy.
I found this 7-minute speech very moving, and it clicks dangerously well with how I think about spirituality, and some of the topics I’ve tried to cover in this eclectic newsletter.
So here it is.
Leonard Cohen speaks about G-d consciousness and Judaism (1964)
Judaism is the secretion with which an Eastern tribe surrounded a divine irritation; a direct confrontation with the absolute. That happened once in history, and we still feel the warmth of that confrontation - divorced as we are from the terms of it.
That happened a long time ago. Today we covet the pearl, but we are unwilling to support the irritation, the burning nucleus.
Our spiritual life today has the exact consistency of an unclean oyster, and it stinks to heaven. We cannot face heaven. We have lost our genius for the vertical. Jewish novelists are sociologists - horizontalists - and the residue of energy left from that great vertical seizure we had 4000 years ago, that we turned toward ourselves. We knock on our own doors and wonder that no one answers. We create this insane Talmud of identity that must end in psychiatry or Zionism, but never in a prayer of praise.
Perhaps our taste for the absolute was too intense. We could not bear the light. We could not support the annihilation of the world inherent in the light. Perhaps we lost the land because we no longer wished to possess it; the light made the cities and the temples irrelevant.
There is an awful truth which no Jewish writer investigates today, which no Jewish poet articulates. It is a truth that the synagogues and the cultural establishment cannot efface, and it is this truth: we no longer believe we are holy. This is the declaration that I wait to hear going out from synagogues and from the lips of cultural Jews and ethical Jews. This is the confession without which we cannot begin to raise our eyes to the absence of God in our midst.
And it's interesting that in the two symposia that I have been to in within the Jewish community in the past few months, no one has mentioned the word God! And I am laboring under the misapprehension that the Jewish people represents that testimony on the earth, and that without that testimony informing its actions, Jewish survival is nominal and no more important to me than Armenian survival or Greek survival.
The absence of God in our midst is a deep rotten cavity that has killed the nerve of the people. We are ready to accept psychiatric solutions for our suffering. We are ready to accept ethics instead of sanctity. Each generation of men must continue the ancient and holy dialog between the material/secular/artificial/ethnocentric on the one hand, and on the other the spiritual/ascetic/natural/experiential. Certainly, we have built too much on the other side - the balance has hit the ground.
Let us refuse the title ‘Jew’ to any man who is not obsessed by God. Let that become the sole qualification of Jewish identity. Let us encourage young men to go into the deserts of their heart and burn the praise of perfection. Let us do it with drugs or whips or sex or blasphemy or fasting; but let men begin to feel the perfection of the universe. Let us declare a moratorium on all religious services until someone reports a vision or breaks his mind on the infinite.
Jews without God are lilies that fester. Let us discard the mentality of the minyan. The danger which it was meant to shield us from - lonely self-annihilation in the spirit, is unfortunately no longer a danger. Let us make it a danger! Let us see Jewish monasteries; our families are strong enough to support the dialectic. We need our dirty saints, and our monstrous hermits; let us create a tradition for them, for they light the world.
Look, 4000 years ago the world was idolatrous and a small Eastern tribe repudiated the experience of the world to develop a difficult idea that has burnt a people for 4000 years. That is what I mean by variety - of course, the world is idolatrous today, that's why the Jews have a particular vocation! That's why we're here tonight examining a special unspoken kind of anguish about our identity, because we're not fulfilling it.
There was a time when all Israel, when all Judah’s neighbors were idolators and some madman decided to smash the images and turn himself into light! Now that is the challenge for Jews in every generation, whether it's a ghetto or whether it's a metropolis is: whether they are burnt, or whether they are citizens.
Question from audience: Are you saying the Jews have a special duty to save the world?
Leonard: The Jews have a special duty to save God, in the world.
[Question from the audience] Can you explore a little further the differences that are innate in the Jew?
Leonard: I couldn't do that while standing on one foot. It's a matter of... the knowledge that each person in this room has. There is a time, you know, when we must start discarding definitions, start discarding the problem which we create for ourselves. We know what God means, we know what the word means - we don't need a definition. We know what the word Jew means - we don't need a definition.
There comes a time when the definition only obscures the human reality. Now let us return to the human reality we know how we feel in the world. Jews know how they feel in the world! All I ask is for some allegiance to that feeling. Let us refuse to clarify; let us only follow the allegiance that we know we owe.