Incendiary rabbi to become Shas spiritual leader

Rabbi Shalom Cohen will never have even a fraction of the authority and control of the party that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef wielded.

thousands of haredim at yosef memorial 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
thousands of haredim at yosef memorial 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Rabbi Shalom Cohen, a leading Shas rabbinical figure, is set to inherit the role of the movement’s spiritual leader from the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Cohen has been a divisive figure in recent months and years and has made numerous inflammatory remarks, specifically in reference to the Bayit Yehudi party and the national religious community.
Since the death of Yosef in October last year, Shas’s longtime revered and charismatic leader, there has been a void in the spiritual leadership that, if not a large practical obstacle, has presented an image problem for the haredi party and its political legitimacy.
But in a low-profile manner, Shas’ political leadership has now quietly anointed Cohen as the inheritor of Yosef’s title of maran, or our master.
This week’s edition of the party’s weekly newspaper Yom L’Yom Maran has been appended to his name, and the party will conduct several events during Passover at which Cohen will be unveiled as the new leader.
He is also set to serve as head of the four-man Council of Torah Sages, of which he has been a member since the movement’s inception in the mid-1980s, but will not be referred to as president of the body as Yosef was.
In practice, Cohen does not have the authority and control of the party that Yosef wielded.
Yosef’s outstanding knowledge of all facets of the Torah, his status as an unequaled arbiter of Jewish law, and his charisma and appeal to the Sephardi community, religious and non-religious alike, lent the party legitimacy and gave him total control over its workings.
Cohen, who is 83-years old, has been the yeshiva dean of the prestigious Porat Yosef yeshiva for many years but has never held public office and has spent his entire life in the closed confines of the yeshiva world.
He is considered a conservative figure in Shas’s rabbinic leadership in terms of his approach to Jewish law and issues of public concern, such as haredi enlistment.
Of late, he is probably best known for his incendiary remarks about the national- religious community, referring to them as Amalek, the ancient enemy of the Jewish people, and labeling Bayit Yehudi supporters Reform Jews, as a form of insult and saying anyone who voted for them would go to hell.
But Cohen is close to Shas party chairman Arye Deri and it is thought that Cohen’s promotion as the new spiritual leader has largely been advanced by Deri in an effort to acquire rabbinic cover for his political control of the party and the leadership of the Sephardi haredi world.
Cohen’s credentials as a conservative figure would help to preserve support from Shas’s hardcore haredi voters but would in no way prevent the defection of the party’s traditional and non-religious electorate.
Shas holds 11 Knesset seats but recent polls have put them at just seven mandates if new elections were to be held.
The decline in support is largely because, with the passing of Yosef, the non-haredi Sephardi supporters who used to vote for Shas no longer have a reason to do so, and will certainly not be swayed by the appointment of Cohen as the new spiritual leader, who for many such people is completely unknown.
But the installation of a new maran and spiritual leader is an important step for Deri and the political leadership in their efforts to protect the party’s position as the representative of the haredi Sephardi community.
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, formerly the Sephardi chief rabbi, had a severe falling out with Deri and Yosef when the former torpedoed his chances of serving a second term as chief rabbi.
Amar has since then quietly gone about building his own court and circle of influence and his Bible scholarship and rank as Rishon Lezion, one who serves or has served as Sepahardi chief rabbi, with the cloak and headdress that accompanies it, gives him serious legitimacy as an alternative spiritual leader.
He has not yet made any declaration of any possible political pretensions but the possibility remains a threat to Deri and Shas.
One Shas insider said in conversation with The Jerusalem Post that Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, son of Ovadia and a renowned Bible scholar in his own right, will most likely inherit the leadership of the Shas movement in the long term.
But for now, his public role precludes him from having any political position or function and his 10-year tenure as chief rabbi that has only just begun means that there are many pitfalls for Shas before he can safely take on his father’s mantle.