A few small bites of this delectable and potent text. Created for Judaism Unbound's 2022 Shavout programming.

What is a prophet? What is the practice of prophecy?

Excerpts of a talk by Leonard Cohen at the Jewish Library in Montreal, a few days after Christmas, 1964

Reconstructed by Liel Leibovitz from Cohen's notes and audience recollections

Delivered at a pivotal moment in Cohen's early career as he transitioned from poetry to song

The priest kept the community intact. And the community was “like an old lady whose canary has escaped in a storm, but who continues to furnish the cage with food and water and trapezes in the convinced hope that the canary will come back. The priest tries to persuade her that this optimism is religion.”

The priest, [The poet A.M. Klein, Cohen's teacher], failed. The community needed something else. It needed a prophet.

Realizing that history is just the narrative describing the path of “an idea’s journey from generation to generation,” Cohen marched on. The prophet continues to chase the idea as it fluctuates, mutates, changes forms, “trying never to mistake the cast off shell with the swift changing thing that shed it.” The prophet follows the idea wherever it goes, and ideas, by their very nature, like to travel to dangerous places. The chase, then, is a lonely sport, and the community, observing the prophet, becomes suspicious. Most people would rather visit lifeless and antiquated things in air-conditioned museums than seek thrills in steaming swamps, running the risk of getting bitten by something wild.

“I believe we have eliminated all but the most blasphemous ideas of God,” he said as he ended his speech. “I believe that the God worshipped in our synagogues is a hideous distortion of a supreme idea—and deserves to be attacked and destroyed. I consider it one of my duties to expose [the] platitude which we have created.”

That was a job for the prophet…. Leonard Cohen declared….He would also have to stay stoic as his fellow Jews labeled him a traitor for daring to think up other possibilities for spiritual life—possibilities, like love and sex and drugs and song, for which there was little room in the synagogue. He was ready.

Read the whole thing in full here: https://newrepublic.com/article/117177/leonard-cohens-previously-undiscovered-montreal-library-speech

Isaiah's central and very radical message:

(יא) לָמָּה־לִּ֤י רֹב־זִבְחֵיכֶם֙ יֹאמַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֔ה שָׂבַ֛עְתִּי עֹל֥וֹת אֵילִ֖ים וְחֵ֣לֶב מְרִיאִ֑ים וְדַ֨ם פָּרִ֧ים וּכְבָשִׂ֛ים וְעַתּוּדִ֖ים לֹ֥א חָפָֽצְתִּי׃ (יב) כִּ֣י תָבֹ֔אוּ לֵֽרָא֖וֹת פָּנָ֑י מִֽי־בִקֵּ֥שׁ זֹ֛את מִיֶּדְכֶ֖ם רְמֹ֥ס חֲצֵרָֽי׃ (יג) לֹ֣א תוֹסִ֗יפוּ הָבִיא֙ מִנְחַת־שָׁ֔וְא קְטֹ֧רֶת תּוֹעֵבָ֛ה הִ֖יא לִ֑י חֹ֤דֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת֙ קְרֹ֣א מִקְרָ֔א לֹא־אוּכַ֥ל אָ֖וֶן וַֽעֲצָרָֽה׃ (יד) חׇדְשֵׁיכֶ֤ם וּמֽוֹעֲדֵיכֶם֙ שָֽׂנְאָ֣ה נַפְשִׁ֔י הָי֥וּ עָלַ֖י לָטֹ֑רַח נִלְאֵ֖יתִי נְשֹֽׂא׃ (טו) וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶ֣ם כַּפֵּיכֶ֗ם אַעְלִ֤ים עֵינַי֙ מִכֶּ֔ם גַּ֛ם כִּֽי־תַרְבּ֥וּ תְפִלָּ֖ה אֵינֶ֣נִּי שֹׁמֵ֑עַ יְדֵיכֶ֖ם דָּמִ֥ים מָלֵֽאוּ׃ (טז) רַֽחֲצוּ֙ הִזַּכּ֔וּ הָסִ֛ירוּ רֹ֥עַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶ֖ם מִנֶּ֣גֶד עֵינָ֑י חִדְל֖וּ הָרֵֽעַ׃ (יז) לִמְד֥וּ הֵיטֵ֛ב דִּרְשׁ֥וּ מִשְׁפָּ֖ט אַשְּׁר֣וּ חָמ֑וֹץ שִׁפְט֣וּ יָת֔וֹם רִ֖יבוּ אַלְמָנָֽה׃ {ס} (יח) לְכוּ־נָ֛א וְנִוָּכְחָ֖ה יֹאמַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֑ה אִם־יִהְי֨וּ חֲטָאֵיכֶ֤ם כַּשָּׁנִים֙ כַּשֶּׁ֣לֶג יַלְבִּ֔ינוּ אִם־יַאְדִּ֥ימוּ כַתּוֹלָ֖ע כַּצֶּ֥מֶר יִֽהְיֽוּ׃
(11) “What need have I of all your sacrifices?”
Says the LORD.
“I am sated with burnt offerings of rams,
And suet of fatlings,
And blood of bulls;
And I have no delight
In lambs and he-goats.
(12) That you come to appear before Me—
Who asked that of you?
Trample My courts
(13) no more;
Bringing oblations is futile,-c
Incense is offensive to Me.
New moon and sabbath,
Proclaiming of solemnities,
Assemblies with iniquity,-d
I cannot abide.
(14) Your new moons and fixed seasons
Fill Me with loathing;
They are become a burden to Me,
I cannot endure them.
(15) And when you lift up your hands,
I will turn My eyes away from you;
Though you pray at length,
I will not listen.
Your hands are stained with crime—
(16) Wash yourselves clean;
Put your evil doings
Away from My sight.
Cease to do evil;
(17) Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice;
Aid the wronged.-e
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.
(18) “Come, let us reach an understanding,-e
—says the LORD.
Be your sins like crimson,
They can turn snow-white;
Be they red as dyed wool,
They can become like fleece.”

Self-nominating for prophecy:

(ח) וָאֶשְׁמַ֞ע אֶת־ק֤וֹל אֲדֹנָי֙ אֹמֵ֔ר אֶת־מִ֥י אֶשְׁלַ֖ח וּמִ֣י יֵֽלֶךְ־לָ֑נוּ וָאֹמַ֖ר הִנְנִ֥י שְׁלָחֵֽנִי׃
(8) Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me.”

The gender of the Divine, as per Isaiah's vision:

(ז) וְעַתָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה אָבִ֣ינוּ אָ֑תָּה אֲנַ֤חְנוּ הַחֹ֙מֶר֙ וְאַתָּ֣ה יֹצְרֵ֔נוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂ֥ה יָדְךָ֖ כֻּלָּֽנוּ׃
(7) But now, O LORD, You are our Father;
We are the clay, and You are the Potter,
We are all the work of Your hands.
(יד) הֶחֱשֵׁ֙יתִי֙ מֵֽעוֹלָ֔ם אַחֲרִ֖ישׁ אֶתְאַפָּ֑ק כַּיּוֹלֵדָ֣ה אֶפְעֶ֔ה אֶשֹּׁ֥ם וְאֶשְׁאַ֖ף יָֽחַד׃ (טו) אַחֲרִ֤יב הָרִים֙ וּגְבָע֔וֹת וְכׇל־עֶשְׂבָּ֖ם אוֹבִ֑ישׁ וְשַׂמְתִּ֤י נְהָרוֹת֙ לָאִיִּ֔ים וַאֲגַמִּ֖ים אוֹבִֽישׁ׃
(14) “I have kept silent far too long,-f
Kept still and restrained Myself;
Now I will scream like a woman in labor,
I will pant and I will gasp.
(15) Hills and heights will I scorch,
Cause all their green to wither;
I will turn rivers into isles,
And dry the marshes up.
(ג) וְאַל־יֹאמַ֣ר בֶּן־הַנֵּכָ֗ר הַנִּלְוָ֤ה אֶל־יְהֹוָה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר הַבְדֵּ֧ל יַבְדִּילַ֛נִי יְהֹוָ֖ה מֵעַ֣ל עַמּ֑וֹ וְאַל־יֹאמַר֙ הַסָּרִ֔יס הֵ֥ן אֲנִ֖י עֵ֥ץ יָבֵֽשׁ׃ {פ}
(ד) כִּי־כֹ֣ה ׀ אָמַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֗ה לַסָּֽרִיסִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִשְׁמְרוּ֙ אֶת־שַׁבְּתוֹתַ֔י וּבָחֲר֖וּ בַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר חָפָ֑צְתִּי וּמַחֲזִיקִ֖ים בִּבְרִיתִֽי׃ (ה) וְנָתַתִּ֨י לָהֶ֜ם בְּבֵיתִ֤י וּבְחֽוֹמֹתַי֙ יָ֣ד וָשֵׁ֔ם ט֖וֹב מִבָּנִ֣ים וּמִבָּנ֑וֹת שֵׁ֤ם עוֹלָם֙ אֶתֶּן־ל֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֖ר לֹ֥א יִכָּרֵֽת׃ {ס}
(3) Let not the foreigner say,
Who has attached himself to the LORD,
“The LORD will keep me apart from His people”;
And let not the eunuch say,
“I am a withered tree.”
(4) For thus said the LORD:
“As for the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,
Who have chosen what I desire
And hold fast to My covenant—
(5) I will give them, in My House
And within My walls,
A monument and a name
Better than sons or daughters.
I will give them an everlasting name
Which shall not perish.
(ב) לֹֽא־יָבֹ֧א פְצֽוּעַ־דַּכָּ֛א וּכְר֥וּת שׇׁפְכָ֖ה בִּקְהַ֥ל יְהֹוָֽה׃ {ס}
(2) No man whose testes are crushed or whose member is cut off shall be admitted into the congregation of יהוה.

“Human,” Sivan Har Shefi, Zarqa

Translated by Levi Morrow

Breaking barriers like
A sonic boom
In the heavens, like objects in a full belly
Great prophecies eventually
Say: Human

For the bottom line—
The great gospel—
Is to be a mentsch

Prophecy, a language of one phrase:
Where are you?
And attention to the human hiding in the human

Prophecy, the mother tongue of humanity
Became a foreign tongue, forgotten.

Sometimes I flee from my assignment.
Slipping from the image to the isolated shade.
I show my back.
Stepping away fro
Mu mumbling
Slowly slowly the main thing
Becomes the main thing.
A language hard, wondrous—and human.

The sourcesheet aims to pass The Kranjec Test.