Friday, June 09, 2023

Reviewing: “Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace,” by Yechiel Frish and Yedidya HaCohen, translated by Dr. Irene Lancaster. Urim Publications. 334 pages. 2017. ISBN-10: 9655242536.

The hero of this book—Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen, z”l, (1927-2016)—was probably the most influential and greatest Israeli rabbi that you might never have heard of (if you don’t live in Israel). His biography, translated from the original Hebrew edition with an added chapter, makes for fascinating (and at times even amazing) reading. That’s not only because of his personality and accomplishments, but equally a result of the fact that through this book the reader will traverse somewhat familiar, and much not-so-familiar, but critically important, Israeli history.

Here’s only a partial list of Rabbi Cohen’s positions and accomplishments (not in chronological order): chief rabbi of Haifa for 36 years (!); deputy mayor of Jerusalem from right before its reunification in 1967 until 1973 (how he went from Jerusalem to Haifa is a story unto itself); chief rabbi of the Israeli Air Force; founder and president (for decades) of the Harry Fischel Institute for Research in Talmud and Jewish Law (an institution that graduated a myriad of influential rabbis); a member of the Haganah (seriously wounded and captured in the Old City by the Jordanians, and subsequently spending months as the Israeli government’s “unofficial rabbi” of the POW camp in Jordan—he had not yet gotten smicha (ordination); the official Israeli delegate to the Bilateral Commission of the Chief Rabbinate and the Holy See (Vatican); and the list goes on.

At the end of a person’s life, however, the worth of an individual is not measured in titles but in what we call “menschlichkeit”: how he relates to and treats others. In that respect, Rabbi Cohen can lay claim to being the most popular and well-liked (important) rabbi in Israel’s history. This is a result of an extremely rare combination of traits. On the one hand, he knew how to talk to every person—of high and low status—and was truly beloved by everyone who came into contact with him through the decades. On the other hand, Rabbi Cohen was a “man of the world,” with a law degree and a very wide knowledge base—enabling him not only to understand and relate to the non-Orthodox but also to find ways within the Halacha to resolve problems that modernity has thrown at observant Jews, especially living in the Holy Land with “new” halachic dilemmas of a sovereign Jewish state after two millenia. Indeed, attesting to these two unusual traits is his being repeatedly reelected to serve as chief rabbi for 36 years in Israel’s most secular city (Haifa)—a tenure halted only when he declined to serve still another term in office due to advanced age.

This book should really be called a semi-autobiography as it is full of quotations and even lengthy sections from Rabbi Cohen’s own writings, especially his diary. Dozens of interviews with those who knew him well add to the intimacy of this portrait of a remarkable figure. Among them are his brother-in-law Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the founding military chaplain of the IDF and subsequently Israel’s chief rabbi. These vignettes lend a highly personal touch to an otherwise fact-filled history (although the book is not written in strictly chronological fashion, as many of its chapters deal with specific themes).

The book could use somewhat greater detail regarding his system of thought and influence as a posek (halachic decision-maker). Part of the “problem” for the authors might have been Rabbi Cohen’s very eclectic, religious background. His father—the “Nazir”—was probably the first Jew in 2000 years to act over most of his lifetime in accordance with the Torah’s Nazirite laws (no wine, no leather etc.), and he had a huge influence on his son, who the Nazir designated to continue in his mystical path (Rabbi Cohen decided as a teenager to adhere to only part of it). On the other hand, as a child, Rabbi Cohen sat at the knee of Rav Kook, imbibing his brilliant but idiosyncratic Jewish worldview. And on the third hand (as the joke goes), Rabbi Cohen was educated and trained in different Torah institutions (at one point moving from Merkaz Harav to the Lomzhe Yeshiva in Petach Tikva—what he called “my youthful rebellion”), and as noted above, also received a law degree to better mesh Israeli law with the Halacha as much as was feasible. Thus, in a sense he was the jurisprudential “unifier” par excellence—another rare skill in Israel’s religious scene. One other “unifying” project of his should be noted as well: He pushed for the study revival of the Jerusalem Talmud, with two tractates and commentaries published by the Fischel Institute, which he headed.

Perhaps because Rabbi Cohen was such an impressive and multi-faceted individual, the authors have chosen to focus more on his personal and professional life, and less on the sociopolitical environment in which he worked. An example: With his credentials, Rabbi Cohen should have been a shoo-in when running for the office of Israel’s Chief Rabbi. However, he lost that race. Why? The book offers no clue or explanation. I can suggest one (probably partial) answer: With the Chief Rabbinate increasingly coming under the sway of the ultra-Orthodox, Rabbi Cohen was simply “too worldly” and educated. Indeed, having an American-born wife with a PhD herself and a brilliant speaker in her own right (whom Rabbi Cohen adored, and very rarely argued with, even when she was a bit too “liberal” for his halachic taste), was probably in itself “too much” for the highly conservative, rabbinical electors.

In any event, this book makes clear that Rabbi Cohen’s accomplishments easily surpassed most of Israel’s chief rabbis. For the reader, though, what is most interesting about this book are the many chapters on the pre-1948 struggle and war (ergo, the sub-title of the book), as well as other significant events in Israel’s history, seen and told “from the inside.” Moreover, one learns here quite a lot about Diaspora Jewry through Rabbi Cohen’s annual fundraising trips and his close relationship with many of the Diaspora’s leading rabbis (especially Rabbi Soloveitchek). Adding spice throughout: Rabbi Cohen’s own prose, as seen in his diaries, is close to being truly poetic and certainly is very stirring in its many emotional moments.

In sum, this is not your “average” rabbinical biography, but rather a very comprehensive treatment of one of Israel’s greatest personalities—with a lot of interesting Israeli history thrown in for good measure. Highly recommended.

By Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig


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