Personal reflections on a true Cohen

The softspoken rabbi represented religious-Zionism at its best.

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)
Complexity of life made serenely livable – such was the essence, to my mind, of Harav She’ar Yashuv Cohen, who died this past Monday night, the third of Elul 5776. Always fully engaged in the times through which he lived, Cohen literally battled for the creation of the Jewish state – wounded and taken as a POW, going on to reach the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the IDF – at the same time as being a man of peace among all beings, whether joining interfaith dialogue or never partaking of meat or wine.
The softspoken rabbi represented religious-Zionism at its best.
He originally filled the position of deputy mayor of Jerusalem.
Later, serving as chief rabbi of Haifa for 36 years, he was an exemplar of people – all people – living together. As one who studied Israeli law and who became a leading sage of Jewish law, Cohen applied it with a caressing hand.
Clear-thinking, always relevant, forward-looking, principled and sensitive, one can see that he had a unique ability to put himself in the other’s shoes, understanding the other’s predicament and point of view. This is part of what made him a truly great rabbinical court judge, beyond his outstanding scholarship in Jewish law.
Not only could he could address the needs of the individual standing before him – whether in a pastoral capacity, as a judge, or as a participant in interfaith dialogue – he tried to address the needs of the generation, of the society in which he lived and even of other peoples belonging to other religions and societies.
Truly, this man bettered our world and the greater world.
Even his body language conveyed his engagement with others.
He would bend down or lean forward to hear better what one was saying, imparting the message that the opinion of the individual with whom he was conversing was of serious import.
Cohen quietly proposed initiatives that other rabbis would never dream of, for fear that their peers would find fault in them.
What other Israeli rabbi would meet with the pope and not fear for his Orthodox image? Rabbi Cohen did so with supreme elegance, simply because it was the right thing to do and it will help the people of Israel and the world at large.
On a personal level, Harav She’ar Yashuv, as he was called by those who loved and respected him, initiated the publishing of my book under the auspices of the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem, which he founded. Just that fact alone is amazing – a rabbi asked to publish a halachic work by a woman! Add to that the fact that the subject matter of the book, prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal, was considered to be a daring challenge to the rabbinic establishment.
Understanding fully that for a rabbinic institute this was unheard of and possibly a contentious step, which may even cause ridicule, Harav She’ar Yashuv, with quiet strength not only insisted that I bring my book to him for publishing, but he penned an impressive introduction, citing the serious need for the prevention of get-refusal and the resolution of the aguna problem in our time.
Here was a living paradigm of the incorporation of life with the Torah, faith and the State of Israel. A man of truth, deep thought and sensitivity while simultaneously a man of action, bringing to realization the pursuit of harmony in the lives of individuals and societies.
Traditionally, a Cohen is a spiritual guide and teacher – a man of the spirit, in touch with man and God. At the same time, a true Cohen has the ability to lead others in a determined manner in bringing peace within mankind in front of God. Such was Harav She’ar Yashuv Cohen.
The writer is the first female rabbinical court advocate to sit on the Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges; holds a PhD in Talmud; and is one of the authors of the Israeli prenuptial ‘Agreement for Mutual Respect.’