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The hidden truth in ‘Hallelujah’

It is one of the most covered songs in history. There is far more going on here than meets the ear.

In this April 17, 2009, file photo, Leonard Cohen performs during the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, California. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)

(RNS) — If there were a competition for biggest rabbinical admirer of Leonard Cohen, I’d say, “Sign me up.”

I believe I might qualify.

I have been a Leonard Cohen fan since I was 13 years old — ever since the release of his first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” which happened when Leonard was already 33 years old, He had already established himself as a novelist and poet, a significant part of the Canadian Jewish literary establishment. His poetry collection, “Selected Poems,” was the first book I ever bought for myself.

So, you can well appreciate that my summer movie is the new documentary about his life and career, “HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song.”

It is beautiful, tender and often quite moving. The scene of Leonard blessing the crowd at the Ramat Gan Stadium in Israel moved me to tears. It was good to see my colleague, Rabbi Mordecai Finley, who was Leonard’s rabbi, adding his deep insights.

But, in fact, the movie is the story of one song — “Hallelujah” — and how that song successfully captured the souls of so many people. With more than 300 covers (this is a rough estimate), it is one of the most covered songs in popular music history. (The Beatles’ “Yesterday” probably wins the prize, with more than 2,200 cover versions.)

“Hallelujah” is a beautiful piece of music, with a soaring melodic structure — and with how many verses? Six? Fifteen? Eighty? More than a hundred?

So, how does a singer choose which ones to sing?

The book to read on this is “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & The Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah.’“But, I guarantee you: There is a Ph.D. dissertation in this for someone: “A Comparative Analysis of Verse Choices in ‘Hallelujah.'”

Here goes.

The “standard” verses of the song fall into three categories.

The first category: the religious stuff. These would be the verses that contain the biblical references to King David and Samson:

I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

You could throw in the subsequent verse: “Now maybe there’s a God above …” In other versions of the song, there were more references to religion: “You say I took the name in vain / I don’t even know the name / But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?”

The second category: the “regular” stuff. For example:

Oh people, I’ve been here before

I know this room, and I’ve walked this floor
You see, I used to live alone before I knew you
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
But love is not some kind of a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a very lonely hallelujah.

The third category: the explicitly erotic (or, what some people in the film call, the “naughty”):

There was a time you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never even show it to me, do you?
Now remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove she was moving too
And every single breath that we drew was hallelujah.

If you listen to the various covers of “Hallelujah,” you will discover the vast majority of singers start with the first two verses — the biblical material.

I have often wondered how many people really understand what is going on in those verses.

Biblical literacy in this country is not exactly at an all time high.

And yet, you would need that kind of literacy in order to understand that the song begins with David, who was king, psalmist, warrior and lover (and not always in that order). You would need to recall the story of how David spied Bathsheba bathing on the roof (and then sent her husband, Uriah the Hittite, to die in battle). You would then need to know that Leonard shifts the focus midverse from David to Samson, whose hair was cut by his lover-betrayer Delilah.

But when John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground, recorded “Hallelujah” on the 1991 tribute album “I’m Your Fan,” he cut the biblical material.

In an interview:

I’m glad I didn’t take on singing the liturgical verses. I didn’t take on the religious side of the song … That’s what I’m glad I did over the years, was to stay away from the religious side. I’m not a religious guy. But I was interested in, in how … I asked him what that meant to him as a Jewish religious figure — I think he was trained to be a rabbi. [Actually, no — JKS]

And yet, in other recorded versions (“Hallelujah — Fragments Version”), Cale restores the biblical verses.

Then, there was the late Jeff Buckley’s version. Perhaps because of its inclusion in the film “Shrek,” it has become the standard version of the song. But, even though his version owes much to Cale’s version, Buckley restored the biblical verses.

So did Rufus Wainwright. So does K.D. Lang. But, she excises the erotic verse.

Leonard himself was not averse to editing out the biblical verses. Check out this live version from a concert in Austin, which starts with “Baby, I’ve been here before … ”

My takeaway: The song is not only Leonard Cohen’s most famous composition. The song actually is Leonard Cohen — an amalgamation of the sacred, the not so sacred and the erotic.

Which is to say: The song is actually all of us — the sacred, the not so sacred and the erotic.

Cale’s omission of the biblical verses testifies to his avowed secularism.

And yet, in later versions of the song, he reinserted the biblical verses — perhaps because we are never quite as secular as we think we are — at least, not all the time.

And, Leonard’s own omission of the biblical verses in Austin? Who can say? That sometimes our own faith is challenged? Or, that he thought those verses would not play well in that context and with that crowd?

One last thing. Leonard Cohen died on Nov. 7, 2016 — one day before the election of Donald Trump. That week, in the cold open on “Saturday Night Live,” Kate McKinnon, in her persona as Hillary Clinton, sang “Hallelujah,” and said: “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”

We will not give up. Because there is another Ph.D. dissertation in the making: Leonard’s use of the word “broken.” That word permeates his writing.

We are all singing a broken Hallelujah.

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