YOU COULD say the first time Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen was appointed chief rabbi
was when he was 20 years old and incarcerated in a Jordanian POW camp in
When he recalls how the Circassian camp commander came to his tent
and informed him he was formally in charge of the religious needs of the 600 or
so inmates, he recites the sentence in fluent Arabic, spoken with a Jerusalemite
Even before Cohen reaches this part of his life story, it is
clear that there is more to the gray-bearded rabbi dressed in a smart black suit
than meets the eye.
We meet in his modest office in Haifa’s Religious
From 1975 until 2011, Cohen served as Ashkenazi chief
rabbi of the city, and is still considered chief rabbi emeritus. “If I hadn’t
been a prisoner of war, I wouldn’t have become a chief rabbi,” he says of his
It was Haifa deputy mayor Yosef Blustein, who had been
imprisoned with him, who recommended Cohen for the position, having been
impressed by the way he handled the diverse population of the camp. The POWs
ranged from members of the strictly secular Hashomer Hatza’ir to the religious
Bnei Akiva, and the ultra-Orthodox Breslovers.
“There were differences of
opinion. It wasn’t easy,” admits Cohen.
Despite living and working in
Haifa, Cohen still considers himself a Jerusalemite. He quips that his regular
visits to the capital, where he maintains an apartment, are “home leave,” and he
refers to himself as “Ish Yerushalayim,” even though, on his 80th birthday, he
was awarded the title of Honorary Citizen of Haifa.
life story is inextricably tied to life in the capital of the Jewish state. Only
now is his biography being written – “I didn’t initiate it and I was even a
little cross with the idea,” he said – although over the years he has often
inspired groups by telling his tale.
I first heard Cohen’s personal
history when he addressed – in excellent English – a meeting of the Jewish
Vegetarian Society in Jerusalem a couple of decades ago. His story, his manner
and his compassion made a lasting impression.
His full name is Eliyahu
Yosef She’ar Yashuv Cohen – “people often mistakenly think that She’ar Yashuv is
Yosef is his grandfather’s name; She’ar Yashuv expresses the
desire both for a return to the Land of Israel and for religious repentance. The
name Eliyahu was added when he became very ill at the age of
Eliyahu is the prophet Elijah. Cohen notes that the name was given
to him – long before anyone knew he would become chief rabbi of Haifa, where
Elijah’s story took place – because his “first words, before Abba and Imma, were
’Yahu ’Navi,” when they sang “Eliyahu Hanavi” after Havdala on a Saturday
THE WALLS of his office are decorated with pictures of some of the
greatest rabbinic authorities in modern times, from Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook
and his son Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook – with whom he enjoyed an especially close
relationship – to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who hid from the Communist regime in
the home of She’ar Yashuv Cohen’s maternal grandfather.
There are also,
of course, photos of his father, Rabbi David Cohen, known as the Nazir of
Cohen is the 18th-generation descendant of a family of rabbis
and Torah luminaries. His mother, Sarah Etkin, was among the founders of a
religious organization that developed into the Emunah movement. When he speaks
of his parents, even at the age of 85, Cohen’s voice carries a special tone of
respect and unmistakable affection.
His parents were cousins and the
first generation of his family to arrive here: “They were engaged for 12 years
before they married in the Land of Israel,” he says.
They met in Russia,
but his father traveled to Germany to study and was trapped there when World War
I broke out, followed by the Russian Revolution. Eventually, he was able to get
to Switzerland, but traveling to pre-state Israel was still very hard. It was
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook – Harav Kook Hagadol – who helped them reunite by
inviting him to assist in establishing his yeshiva in Jerusalem as a more
“They had remained faithful to each other for 12 years!” Cohen marvels. “The
wedding was in Rabbi Kook’s home in Jerusalem. You could say I was born in his
Given the constraints of a short interview, it is hard to get
to the depths of the meaning of being a nazir, which Maimonides equated with
being a prophet. Like the biblical Nazirites – including Samson and Samuel – the
Jerusalem Nazir and his family abstained from the fruit of the vine, wearing
leather, eating meat and cutting their hair. “It was a way of reaching a higher
spiritual level,” Cohen explains.
Throughout our conversation, he peppers
his speech with quotes from the Torah and rabbis ranging from the Tannaites to
American talmudist Joseph B.
Soloveitchik, although he is clearly also in
touch with what is happening in the non-religious world.
[She’ar Yashuv’s father] developed a means in which Judaism is built not on
sight, but on inner hearing.... Polishing the sense of the inner ear is the one
of the highest levels, and being a Nazirite [with its abstinence] was part of
this polishing process,” he says.
She’ar Yashuv Cohen grew up with his
hair uncut and wearing only canvas shoes. Even today, he notes, he does not
drink wine or grape juice; does not eat meat or fish, out of respect for the
sanctity of life, and he only started wearing leather shoes after his leg injury
The change in his practice came against the backdrop of
the War of Independence. The young Cohen became a member of the Brit
Hahashmonaim (Hasmonean Covenant), “the religious wing of Betar, affiliated to
the Lehi [Stern Group] and IZL [Irgun Zva’i Leumi],” he says.
“It was not
practical to be part of an underground movement [against the British Mandate]
and having long hair.”
At the age of 12, in the presence of a special
beit din (rabbinical court) of Jerusalemite rabbis which convened in his home,
he took upon himself the Nazirite way but without the neder (“vow”). He finally
relinquished that path – again in the presence of a special court – at the age
of 16, by which time he was very active in the underground
“We were taught to fight for the Land of Israel in the ranks
of the underground, but to seek unity. The only place where the three
underground movements, the Hagana, Lehi and IZL, cooperated was in the Jewish
Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem,” Cohen says.
He was part of a group
of yeshiva students who volunteered to help defend the Jewish Quarter – the
Moria Brigade – the local head was a member of the Hagana and his deputies,
members of IZL and Lehi.
The main problem was that the British had closed
off the Old City and the Jewish would-be defenders had to find a way to sneak
in. Cohen did it by hiding under the canvas cover on the back of a supply
Once he arrived in the Jewish Quarter, he and his comrades were
warmly received and provided with an apartment where they studied eight hours a
day, went on guard duty for eight hours a day, and slept: “You could say it was
the model for hesder yeshivot long before they were established,” he says with a
note of evident satisfaction.
Cohen served in the IDF for seven years,
reaching the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He sounds almost nostalgic when he
mentions wearing Israel Air Force uniform as the IAF’s chief rabbi.
my opinion, anyone who can combine his [religious] studies with serving in the
army is fulfilling a Torah mitzva,” he says.
The question of women
serving in the army he calls “delicate,” saying the structure of military
service and authority is not suitable for many young women.
“I’m in favor
of sherut leumi [civilian service] and I’m in favor of military service for
those women whose personality suits it.”
Cohen’s American-born wife, Naomi, is also the scion of a well-known family –
daughter of Dr. Hayyim Shimshon (Herbert S.) Goldstein, a rabbinic leader and
long-time president of the President of the Union of Orthodox Jewish
Congregations of America among other organizations, and granddaughter of the
philanthropist Harry Fischel. She is a doctor of philosophy who has lectured at
Tel Aviv, Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities.
Unprompted, Cohen says with
pride that their only child, their daughter Eliraz, reached the rank of captain
in the IDF, serving in an educational position, and all his six grandchildren,
both the boys and the girls, also did military service.
IT WAS during the
fighting in the Old City that Cohen received the serious leg injury which left
him with a permanent limp – he has used a walking stick ever since.
it was here he was taken prisoner, held together with other Jewish fighters,
workers from the Naharayim electric plant, and residents of the Etzion Bloc when
it fell to Jordanian and Arab Legion forces. He was held as a POW for seven
months in a desolate camp known as Um el-Jamal (the Camel’s Mother).
was the express orders of Jordan’s King Abdullah I that the captives not be
harmed. Those who fell in Syrian and Egyptian hands were not so
Cohen later learned that his official appointment as camp
rabbi, carried out under the auspices of the Red Cross and offering him a
certain standing, was negotiated by Moshe Dayan and others with the Hashemite
monarch. Due to his wound, he was among the first POWs to be
Technically, he had been retroactively recruited into the IDF
after he had already fallen into captivity in the hopes that having the status
of a serving soldier would help protect him under the rules of the Geneva
At the signing of the peace treaty with Jordan in October
1994, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin invited Cohen to recite some psalms. “I
recited: ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord who made Heaven and Earth….’” Rabin later
introduced him to King Hussein, Abdullah’s grandson.
After the peace
treaty was signed, Cohen took part in a delegation of former prisoners to see
the site of the camp where they had been held, “but all that was left were the
latrines. They were the only indication of where the camp had been.”
1967, Cohen, by then a Jerusalem city councillor for the National Religious
Party, was one of the first civilians to visit the Western Wall and reunited Old
City. Accompanied by his father and Rabbi Kook, he joined his brother-in-law
Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then chief IDF chaplain and later Ashkenazi chief rabbi of
Israel, who was married to Cohen’s sister Tzefiya. It was his only – extremely
emotional – visit to the liberated Temple Mount, although he favors building a
synagogue at the site after carefully mapping out where it would be permissible
under Jewish law.
Cohen does not like religious labels such as
dati/religious, hardal/haredi-national religious and
“You can’t be a Jew without being dati,” he says.
“You can be a Jew who doesn’t keep the commandments [lo shomer mitzvot] or keeps
only some of the commandments.
There is hardly any Jew who doesn’t keep a
single commandment,” he declares, citing, for example, the fact that nearly all
Jewish boys are circumcised.
As chief rabbi of a city known as Red Haifa
for its traditional political orientation, he saw his role as being responsible
for all Jews, including the secular, and to try to bring people
“Baruch Hashem, I think in Haifa it was rather successful,” he
says, typically not claiming the success as his own.
colorful past, it is only natural that there were times when his life touched on
the history of The Jerusalem Post. When he studied at yeshiva, before his
captivity, he was close to the offices of what was then still called The
Palestine Post, and remembers the night of the bombing in 1948.
all, since Cohen served for 18 years on the Jerusalem Municipal Council, he has
memories of the Post’s founding editor-in-chief Gershon Agron, who left the
paper to become mayor.
“We often held completely contradictory views,” he
notes. The first argument was over the plans to build a Reform center in
Jerusalem, which Agron supported and Cohen opposed. Nonetheless, despite their
differences, Cohen says he and Agron “were on excellent terms.”
ability to stand up for his own beliefs and principles while looking for common
ground and avoiding conflict can be seen in other fields for which Cohen is well
known, including his relationship with the Vatican.
He is chief of the
senior council for dialogue between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the
Vatican, and serves as chairman of the council for dialogue between Judaism and
Islam, in addition to being an emissary of the Israel Chief Rabbinate to
interfaith meetings and a member of the Board of World Religious Leaders for The
Elijah Interfaith Institute.
“[In October 2008] I was invited by the pope
to address the Synod on the Bible,” he points out. While the Vatican referred to
the Old Testament, Cohen spoke only of “the Bible,” and its role in Jewish
religion and liturgy, but was “well received,” in his own words.
relations with the Vatican foundered, however, when he and the Chief Rabbinate
opposed the moves to beatify pope Pius XII despite his silence during the
Holocaust, and Cohen admits he was on better terms with the previous pope than
the current one – not the sort of statement you would expect from many Jerusalem-born rabbis – but
as recently as March 2012, he paid an official visit to Rome.
received the Sovlanut (Tolerance) Award in 1991 for his work on interfaith
As the chief rabbi in a city with a religiously diverse
population, he made a point of maintaining good relations with Muslim, Christian
and other religious leaders – something he believes is a moral
The trick, he says, is to concentrate on tackling issues of
common concern to all the religious leaders, such as the decline in morality,
and striving for peace and against bloodshed. “We agree not to look for the
divisive topics.” He jokes that Greek Catholic Patriarch Elias Shakur says he
has an agreement with the rabbi, and here he quotes him in English, saying:
“When the Messiah comes, we’ll go over to him and ask him: Is it your first
visit or your second?” WITH A law degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
as well as experience in Jewish jurisprudence, Cohen’s many positions include
dean of the Harry Fischel Institute for Research in Jewish Law and Seminary for
Rabbis and Rabbinical Judges. It seems natural that he would found the Ariel
United Israel Institute, which he describes as “an important institute for
training rabbis and dayanim [judges of religious law].” He notes that its
establishment was initially opposed by ultra-Orthodox authorities “but today
everyone understands that it is a positive thing and hundreds of rabbis and
judges have completed their studies there.”
The northern branch of the
institute came under scrutiny several years ago over the alleged improper
running of one of its courses for police and security personnel, and although
Cohen was not considered directly responsible, when he officially announced his
retirement from the post of Haifa chief rabbi last year, some reports suggested
it was a compromise to avoid facing possible charges. The case is still being
discussed in court. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that Cohen has no regrets
about his role in training the next generation.
In answer to a question
about changes he has seen in Israeli society, Cohen says he is sorry that today
some of “the feeling of historic shlihut [having a mission] that we dreamed of
for hundreds, almost thousands, of years, is not so much a part of the
collective experience [nahalat haklal] as it was in the prestate period, the
time of the underground movements and early years of the state. Politics has
slightly harmed the glory of Zionism and settling the Land of Israel.”
notes the ideology of Rabbi Kook that settling the land was a religious and
social value. “I don’t know to what extent those values have been
preserved. In my opinion they exist, but there is less education in
them,” he says.
Immediately after the War of Independence, Cohen was part
of the first IDF delegation to the US, “where we addressed the Bonds.” He was
asked to appear in uniform and he recalls with obvious pride what an impression
it made on the members of the Jewish community he met there.
Zionism is to come and settle in the Land of Israel, not just to support life in
the Land of Israel,” he declares. He rejects excuses of “waiting for the Messiah
to come” before moving to Israel, saying it is “a mitzva [commandment] for all
times, not just after the Messiah.” One of Cohen’s favorite quotes is: “Yeshivat
Eretz Yisrael shekula keneged kol hamitzvot.
The mitzva of settling the
Land is more important than all other mitzvot... What more can I say?” He does
not want to be drawn into predictions of what will be the headlines in The
Jerusalem Post or the news media in general in another 80 years.
hard to say. To a large extent it depends on how relations develop with what is
today known as ‘the Palestinians.’… I don’t oppose peace, but I’m not willing to
give up on the historic right of the People of Israel to the Land of Israel. How
to solve that issue, to make the square peg fit in a round hole, it’s very hard
to say. The [process of] the last century of miracles – and tragedies – is not
over. We’re still at the beginning of the road,” he says.
In the Post
archives, I find an opinion piece Cohen wrote in June 1975, when he accepted the
Haifa appointment, entitled “The rabbi and today’s challenge,” in which he
explains how a religious leader should behave above all by “personal
“To be an effective spiritual leader in this generation the
rabbi must possess three qualities: the ability to enlighten and to make oneself
heard and warmth of spirit.” Cohen still possesses those qualities, and if
anything, they are more necessary than ever before.
We speak of his life
and work for just over an hour, but when I ask him what makes him most proud, he
mulls the question for a second before answering: “To tell you the truth, my
grandchildren,” and he rolls off the elite combat units in which they
“I’m proud that we managed to pass on the legacy that I inherited
from my father.”
His face also lights up when he talks of his
I am reminded of Proverbs 20:7: “The righteous man
walks in his integrity: his children are blessed after him.”
As he leaves
the office, Cohen takes up his walking stick. If you were to see him from a
distance, you might just see an elderly religious man with a cane. I immediately
think of his explanation that listening is more important than looking. I feel
privileged to have heard his story – and to be able to share it.