With the seders freshly in mind, let’s start with four questions. Our topic? Jews and Judaism in American pop music.
1. Which American Jewish singer-songwriter used the High Holiday musaf service as the inspiration for a song about the terror of random death in a secular universe?
2. Which American Jewish singer-songwriter used the Sacrifice of Isaac as the guiding image for a song protesting war profiteering?
3. Which American Jewish singer-songwriter announces in one of his songs that “I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible?”
4. Which American Jewish singer-songwriter is really Canadian?
Perhaps only you Wicked Sons out there will know the answers!
In this season of liberation from bondage, be released from the ethnocentric Dylanolatry of American pop-music journalism! May we merit to receive the Sinaitic truth that the greatest American-Jewish singer-songwriter of the rock era is not Bob Dylan — and not even American. The honor belongs, hands down, to Montreal’s Leonard Cohen.
Not only is Cohen’s oeuvre more musically varied and poetically far more sophisticated than Dylan’s, but in comparison to Cohen’s complex weaving of Jewish liturgical and literary tradition into his lyrics, Dylan’s Jewish cultural literacy is exposed as thin and superficial, consisting primarily of a few ill-digested allusions to well-known Biblical texts.
Consider the opening lines of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, a classic from his early “electric” phase:
God said to Abraham, Kill me a son.
Abe said, Man, you must be puttin’ me on.
God said, No! Abe said, What?
God said, You can do what you wanna, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run!
Well, Abe said, where you want this killin’ done?
God said, Out on Highway 61.
With that, the Biblical story drops entirely from the ongoing tale of the song and is never resumed.
Does Dylan teach us some new angle about the Akedah by wrestling it out of the Torah’s time and space into his song about life and death on the Great American Highway? What’s Abraham got to do with it? God only knows. The Biblical background, “updated” here at the crudest level, is comic — a trivial opportunity to rhyme “son” and “sixty-one.”
Contrast this with Cohen’s re-write of the Akedah in his haunting hymn, “The Story of Isaac.” The narrator is a 9-year-old Isaac. The door to his room opens slowly as Abraham enters, eyes shining with divine inspiration:
He said, “I’ve had a vision and you know I’m strong and holy,
I must do what I’ve been told.”
So he started up the mountain, I was running, he was walking,
and his axe was made of gold.
Well, the trees they got much smaller, the lake a lady’s mirror,
we stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over, broke a minute later
and he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle but it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar, he looked once behind his shoulder,
he knew I would not hide.
Cohen takes the core of the biblical narrative and retells it, weaving in his own embellishments. The retelling is every bit as elusive and symbolically laden as the original, but to the end of what message?
The first chorus answers the question, drawing a careful moral distinction between a prophet’s obedient resolve to do the unthinkable, and a far more routine modern rite of child-sacrifice:
You who build these altars now to sacrifice these children,
you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision and you never have been tempted
by a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now, your hatchets blunt and bloody,
you were not there before,
when I lay upon a mountain and my father’s hand was trembling
with the beauty of the word.
I think you’ll agree that Cohen’s version of the Akedah is far deeper in its moral message than Dylan’s allusion in “Highway 61.”
But let’s compare like with like: how does Cohen’s critique of war profiteering stack up with Dylan’s statement on the same theme in “Masters of War?” Despite a lapse or two into cliché (“even Jesus would never forgive what you do”). Dylan’s effort remains a powerful song of protest against the wasting of young life.
By contrast, Cohen’s vision transcends the “protest” genre altogether, joining a tradition of reflection on the moral mystery of Abraham’s “test” that begins in the Midrash and calls forth the best efforts of moderns from Kierkegaard to Rav Soloveitchik.
But why play the nostalgia game? Let’s ask each alter rocker the main question: “What have you had to say lately?” Well, you know from my last column exactly what I think of Dylan’s Modern Times. By contrast, nearly every track of Cohen’s latest effort, 2004’s Dear Heather, stretches our notion of the popular song. If you don’t believe me, just slide it into your CD player, stoke up the fire, pour yourself a scotch and ascend to the Tower of Song. A mechayeh!
In this medium, I can only suggest the sensibility that shines through Cohen’s ghostly vocals, as the famous rake of “Chelsea Hotel” and “I’m Your Man” — now a codger of 74 who “aches where I used to play” — confesses to the ironic loss of his masculine powers (“Because of”):
Because of a few songs wherein I sang of their mystery,
Women have been exceptionally kind to my old age.
They make a secret place in their busy lives,
And they take me there.
They become naked in their different ways, and they say to me:
“Look at me Leonard.! Look at me Leonard!
Look at me one last time.”
Then they bend over the bed and cover me,
Like a baby that is shivering.
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.