Simon Jacobson Headshot
10 May 2017

The Silent Koan of a Holy Kohen


The Article that Lead to a Profound Interaction between Rabbi Simon Jacobson and Leonard Cohen

By Simon Jacobsons

(This article was written by the wise and sagacious Rabbi Simon Jacobson. It spurred an as yet unpublished profound written conversation between him and Leonard Cohen. I thank him for the permission to reprint. Discover more of Simon’s articles here. And stay posted for the link to the correspondence. We invite you to join the conversation by posting your thoughts below.)

Simon.Jacobson.Headshot.BWA few years ago, at a Passover Seder, I was seated near a French Jew who, during the course of his lifelong spiritual search, had discovered Zen. Amazingly hale and spirited at 70, Julian was a self-proclaimed atheist whose primary belief was in nature, a belief supported by many years following the ways of Native American life on Indian reservations in Canada.I sensed that Julian was resisting any attempt to be engaged in the discussions at the table about Judaism. As we began conversing, he shared with me — almost to demonstrate his antipathy to anything Jewish — that he was always absorbed by Zen thought, particularly its koans (theoretical mental exercises). There were, however, two koans that continued to elude him:

Koan #1: “A hand slips down into the water, but the sleeve does not get wet. How?”

Koan #2: “A bull crashes through a window. Its head, body and legs come crashing through, but not its tail. Why?”

The First Koan Kohen and the Sound of Silence

As the evening progressed, and we both had some Passover wine (him more than me), I felt an opportunity to respond to Julian’s dilemma. I asked him if he was familiar with the original and foremost ‘Koan’ of them all. The Hebrew word “Kohen” means priest, referring to the Kohanic priests who served in the Holy Temple.

In the Holy Temple, there were two types of service: The service of the Kohanim and that of the Levites. The Levites served G-d through song, each day composing a new melody praising G-d. The Kohanim served in silence. However great the power of song, it cannot compare to the power of silence. The hush of the Kohanic service accessed the most intimate dimension of the Divine, whose intensity cannot be contained even by the most beautiful melody.

From our limited perspective, sound is louder than silence. From the perspective of true Reality, however, silence is more powerful than sound. Not because G-d is closer to silence than He is to sound, but because silence allows us the ability to rise above our limited perception and senses to experience the sublime.

Now, I said to Julian, let’s get back to your first koan: “A hand slips under water, but the sleeve does not get wet. How?” Can water get wet? No. Because water is wetness. From our limited perspective a dry hand and sleeve that slip into water get wet, because dry and wet are two different states. Reality, however, is neither dry nor wet and therefore includes and integrates both. When we sublimate ourselves (“tevilah,” submersion in a mikvah, are the same letters as “bittul,” self-nullification) in the “pure waters of knowledge,” when we experience silence, then our sleeve and arm and entire being cannot get wet, for we are wetness itself.

Why and Why-Not?

To your second koan: “The entire bull crashes through the window and the tail does not. Why?” Let me ask you, “Why not? Why should the tail follow?”

A philosophy professor asked his graduate students to write their dissertation responding to a one-word question: “Why?” All the students, writing lengthy treatises, failed except two. One student received an A for answering “Because.” The other received an A+ for replying “Why not?”

All our “why” questions originate from the fact that we begin with defined principles that are “givens” and therefore we ask “why?” However, from G-d’s perspective, one which is beyond all definitions and paradoxes, any “why” question, and for that matter any question, is absurd. Before G-d “why not?” is the more appropriate question.

The bull, our aggressive side, crashes through a window. We, our logic, expect all of it to come crashing through, including the tail. When the tail does not, we ask “why?” My friend, I said, suspend your logic and be silent. And now, “why not?”

The Frenchman jumped from his chair, “Of course! After all these years — of course, of course…” He continued muttering to himself, punctuated by brief bursts of laughter … “Why not? Why not? Why … not?”

The Koan that Hits Home – Personal Suffering

He sat still for some time. Then he looked at me in silence. A silence that was louder than any words. And he said, “So why did this G-d — your G-d — allow the Holocaust?”

He did not need to explain his segue.

Leonard CohenI was quiet. Then I looked truth in the eye — in my eye and in his — and I said to him, “You just struck the greatest ‘koan’ of all. Having spent your entire lifetime intrigued, searching for the mysteries of the ‘koan,’ you are troubled by the ultimate ‘koan,’ the ultimate paradox.” He leaned closer to me, staring in my eyes, listening with everything he had. “Why are you ready to accept the transcendental experiences that result from the intrinsic paradoxes inherent in all the ‘koans,’ yet unwilling to accept the paradox of a good G-d allowing for evil? If G-d is Reality — the entirety of Reality — is it not possible that G-d transcends our limited definitions of good and evil? Namely, that G-d is neither good nor evil (in ways that we define the terms), neither ‘wet’ nor ‘dry,’ neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no,’ and we therefore cannot ask ‘why’ or even ‘why not.’

“The reason that you — and I, and everyone, for that matter — agonize over this ‘koan’ is that this one hits home…other ‘koans’ are theoretical exercises that are both intriguing and beguiling and may even lead to some greater truth. But at the end of the day, we live and sleep peacefully with the knowledge that our logic does not comprehend the sound of one hand clapping, or the dry hand in wet water. However, we cannot sleep peacefully when we know and feel the agony of innocent children being mercilessly gassed, their ashes blown away in the wind, of helpless blood being absorbed by the grasses of the Bavarian soil.

“This, my dear friend, is the ultimate ‘koan.’ And I have no answer for it. None of us will ever have an answer. Indeed, G-d Himself may never have an answer that we can understand, and G-d, too, does not sleep peacefully. When the Romans were putting to torturous death the greatest sages and saints of their time, and doing so with unbridled barbarism, the celestial angels cried to G-d: ‘This is Torah and this is its reward?!’ G-d did not go into any theological explanations. He simply said, ‘Be silent…’”

Silence. The only response.

Julian tilted his head ever so slightly. He looked at me for an eternity. And did not utter another word all evening. And neither did I.

But before he went home he said to me at the door, “It is so difficult. The pain is so deep.”

Not until later did I learn that this French Jew and Holocaust survivor is a Kohen, a Holy Kohen.