My Word: Fighter, rabbi and peacemaker

A tribute to Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen.

RABBI SHE’AR YASHUV COHEN in his Haifa office in 2012. (photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
RABBI SHE’AR YASHUV COHEN in his Haifa office in 2012.
(photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
‘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.” Thus wrote Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen in an opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post in June 1975 when he was appointed chief rabbi of Haifa, a position he held until 2011.
He abided by those values until his death on September 5 at the age of 88.
I met Cohen twice, the first time when he spoke to the Jewish Vegetarian Society in Jerusalem in the 1990s, and the second when I interviewed him for the Post’s 80th anniversary supplement in December 2012.
What you saw – an old, bearded Orthodox man wearing a dark suit and walking with a cane – was the cover of the book. You have to hear or read his story, inextricably tied to life in Jerusalem and the Jewish state, to appreciate how remarkable a man he was.
“If I hadn’t been a prisoner of war, I wouldn’t have become a chief rabbi,” he told me in the interview.
In 1948, when he was just 20, suffering from a serious leg wound and incarcerated in a Jordanian POW camp, a fellow captive, Haifa deputy mayor Yosef Blustein, recommended Cohen become the official spiritual leader, having been impressed by the way he handled the diverse population of prisoners.
His full name was Eliyahu Yosef She’ar Yashuv Cohen, and his appointment as “camp chief rabbi” was not completely unexpected. Cohen was 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. His father, Rabbi David Cohen, was known as the Nazir of Jerusalem.
His office walls were decorated with pictures of rabbinic authorities 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.
His parents were cousins and the first generation of his family to arrive here. Divided by the First World War and Russian Revolution, “they were engaged for 12 years before they married in the Land of Israel,” he marveled.
Like 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, “as a way of reaching a higher spiritual level.”
“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 said.
When She’ar Yashuv dropped some of those habits it was not a teenage rebellion, but against the backdrop of the War of Independence.
“It was not practical to be part of an underground movement [against the British Mandate] and having long hair,” he said.
He finally gave up his vows – in the presence of a special rabbinic court – at the age of 16. Later he hid under the canvas cover on the back of a supply truck to sneak into Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, where he was captured when the Old City fell.
“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, Stern Group and Irgun Zva’i Leumi, cooperated was in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem,” Cohen recalled.
He continued to refrain from drinking wine or grape juice; and never ate meat or fish, out of respect for the sanctity of life. He only started wearing leather shoes after his leg injury and captivity.
After the war, Cohen served in the IDF for seven years, reaching the rank of lieutenant-colonel as chief rabbi of the air force.
“In my opinion, anyone who can combine his [religious] studies with serving in the army is fulfilling a Torah mitzva,” he said in answer to a question.
Regarding women, he said: “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, a university lecturer in philosophy, is the daughter of president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Dr. Hayyim Shimshon (Herbert S.) Goldstein and granddaughter of the philanthropist Harry Fischel.
Unprompted, Cohen noted that their daughter Eliraz Kraus, their only child, had been a captain in the IDF, and all their six grandchildren did military service. He also spoke with love and pride of his great-grandchildren.
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 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 visit to the Temple Mount.
Cohen did not like religious labels. “There is hardly any Jew who doesn’t keep a single commandment,” he declared, citing the example that nearly all Jewish boys are circumcised.
As chief rabbi of “Red Haifa,” he saw his role as being responsible for all Jews, including the secular.
Cohen received the Sovlanut (Tolerance) Award in 1991 for his work on interfaith dialogue with the Vatican, Muslim leaders and as a member of the The Elijah Interfaith Institute.
He believed maintaining relations with Muslim, Christian and other religious leaders is a moral imperative.
The trick is to concentrate on issues of common concern, such as the decline in morality and striving against bloodshed, while avoiding the divisive topics, he said.
In October 2008 pope Benedict XVI invited him to address the Synod, but his relations with the Vatican foundered when he opposed the moves to beatify pope Pius XII despite his silence during the Holocaust. Cohen said he had been on better terms with John Paul II.
WITH A law degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and experience in Jewish jurisprudence, Cohen’s many positions included president of the Harry Fischel Institute for Research in Jewish Law, and he founded the Ariel Institutes to train rabbis and dayanim (judges of religious law).
Although he resigned as Haifa chief rabbi in 2011 when the northern branch of the Ariel Institutes came under scrutiny over alleged improper running of one of its courses, he clearly did not regret his role in training the next generation (and no charges were filed).
Asked what changes he had seen in Israeli society, Cohen told me: “Politics has slightly harmed the glory of Zionism and settling the Land of Israel.”
Awarded the title of Honorary Citizen of Haifa on his 80th birthday, Cohen nonetheless referred to himself as “Ish Yerushalayim,” a Man of Jerusalem.
It is only natural that his final resting place is the ancient cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
May his memory be for a blessing.
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