Rabbi, warrior and seeker of peace

She’ar Yashuv Cohen has not only witnessed more than 80 years of local history, he has taken part in it.

Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen 521 (photo credit: Liat Collins)
Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen 521
(photo credit: Liat Collins)
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 1948.
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 accent.
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 Council building.
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 experience.
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.
Cohen’s extraordinary 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 my surname.”
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 three.
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 night.
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 Jerusalem.
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 academic institution.
“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 household.”
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.
“Harav Hanazir [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 and captivity.
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 resistance.
“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 truck.
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.
“In 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.
And 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).
It 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 fortunate.
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 returned.
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 Convention.
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.”
In 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 haredi/ultra-Orthodox.
“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 together.
“Baruch Hashem, I think in Haifa it was rather successful,” he says, typically not claiming the success as his own.
GIVEN COHEN’S 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.
Above 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.”
This 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.
Cohen’s 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.
Cohen received the Sovlanut (Tolerance) Award in 1991 for his work on interfaith dialogue.
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 imperative.
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.”
He 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.
“True 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.
“It’s 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 example.”
“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 serve.
“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 greatgrandchildren.
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.