Rabbi Shar-Yishuv Cohen. 2007.
(photo credit: REFAELLA ABBO-EVRON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Rabbi Eliyahu Yosef She’ar Yashuv Cohen, who died at his Haifa home on Monday evening, was buried on Tuesday in the capital. He was 89.
Cohen served as Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Haifa from 1975 until 2011, after which he was considered chief rabbi emeritus. He was also the president of the city’s rabbinical courts.
The funeral procession set out on Tuesday morning from the rabbi’s home and continued to Jerusalem to bury the rabbi at the Mount of Olives. Cohen was born in Jerusalem, to Rabbi David Cohen – known as the Nazir of Jerusalem – and Sarah Etkin. He also served as the deputy mayor of the capital in the 1960s. He never ceased to consider Jerusalem as his home, despite having been awarded the title of Honorary Citizen of Haifa, on his 80th birthday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his sorrow at the rabbi’s death, hailing him as a “great scholar, who always strove for unity among the people of Israel, as he did too for the various communities in the city of Haifa.” Both Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin referred to Cohen as a “man of the book and the sword,” referring to his participation in the War of Independence, when he fought with the Irgun. Netanyahu mentioned how Cohen was wounded in the battle for Jerusalem’s Old City, how he was taken hostage in Jordan by the Arab Legion, and how he later served seven years in the IDF, where he reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel and was the chief rabbi of the Israel Air Force.
Netanyahu further described the rabbi as “pleasant, knowledgeable and a genius”, adding that he taught chesed (loving-kindness) and peace. “He left behind him many rabbinical judges, students, residents and neighbors who had a spiritual leader and halachic mentor, and many deep and fascinating stories that will continue to remind us of him for generations to come.”
The President’s Office stated that Rivlin heard about the rabbi’s passing with regret and extended his deepest condolences to Cohen’s family and students. Rivlin described Cohen as one of the “heroes of Jerusalem” and said he was one of the special leaders of his generation: “A man of opinion and conversation, a clever scholar, a mentor and a man who was a leader in every way.”
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav also eulogized Cohen, saying that the rabbi knew how to turn religion into a bridge between all segments of the population, Jews and non- Jews alike.
Cohen built bridges all his life, even as a 20-year-old prisoner of war in Jordan.
In an interview with Jerusalem Post editor Liat Collins in 2012, he related how he was put in charge of the religious needs of some 600 inmates. “If I hadn’t been a prisoner of war, I wouldn’t have become a chief rabbi,” he said of his experience.
It was former 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 prisoners of war ranged from strictly secular to religious to the ultra-Orthodox – a mix of opinions which Cohen said “was not easy” to manage.
Cohen built bridges with other faiths too, both in the city he headed and on an international level. He was chief of the senior council for dialogue between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Vatican, and served 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 2008, Pope Benedict XVI invited Cohen to address a Vatican assembly on the Bible.
Unlike his father, Cohen decided not to maintain the Nazirite lifestyle in which he was brought up, but he always remained vegetarian and abstained from wine and grape juice. Cohen was the 18th-generation descendant of a family of rabbis and Torah luminaries. His mother was among the founders of a religious organization that developed into the Emunah movement.
In 1979, Cohen founded the Ariel United Israel Institute, whose northern branch came under scrutiny several years ago over the alleged improper running of one of its courses for police and security personnel.
Although Cohen was not considered directly responsible, when he officially announced his retirement from the post of Haifa chief rabbi in 2011, some reports suggested it was a compromise to avoid facing possible charges.
Cohen passed away on the anniversary of the death of the renowned Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Kook, who had been an important figure in his life.
Liat Collins contributed to this report.