Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: between war & peace

by Yechiel Frish & Yedidya HaCohen. Translated by Dr. Irene Lancaster

Urim Publications, 2017

Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen (1927-2016) was one of the most remarkable religious leaders of the past century. He was a man of action, principle, wisdom and grace, and as a Torah leader he combined depth, clarity, humanity and spirituality.

In his youth Rabbi Cohen was surrounded by great leaders. His father was Rabbi David Cohen ‘HaNazir’ (the Nazirite), and Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook was not only sandek at his brit milah but he was like an uncle to him.

As he grew older Rabbi Cohen balanced his intensive Torah studies with activism in support of the establishment of the State of Israel, and it is in recounting these years that some truly remarkable historical gems are described. For example, despite the joy felt by many in response to the UN’s partition plan, Rabbi Cohen recounts how he observed Rabbis Zvi Yehuda Kook & Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap weeping ‘Where is our Hebron? Where is our Shechem?  Where is our Jerusalem?’. Then, having been told about this, his father responded by quoting Tehillim 2:11 which states ‘one eye laughing, the other eye weeping. But we still wait expectantly for salvation.’

We read from Rabbi Cohen’s personal diary as he described the siege of Jerusalem, and how he was taken as a prisoner of war to Jordan where he displayed the leadership skills that led to his appointment as an IDF chaplain, and then later, as Chief Rabbi of Haifa.

As brother-in-law of Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Rabbi Cohen was one of the first civilians to enter the Old City of Jerusalem after its liberation in 1967, and as another fascinating tidbit of history, we read that the shofar that Rabbi Goren famously blew at the Kotel was, in fact, that of his father-in-law the Nazir, as his had been destroyed that day. A further gem is a record of the conversation between Rabbi Cohen and Rabbi Aryeh Levin as they participated in a Shavuot pilgrimage in 1967, where Rabbi Levin explained that this was a realisation of the words of ‘when the Lord accompanied the captivity of Zion on their return – we were like dreamers’ (Tehillim 126:1).

As Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Cohen made a huge impact on the city which itself was largely secular, and this was in part due to the lessons he learnt from his parents and teachers. As he explained, he was particularly inspired by a parable that he learnt from his father who himself had heard this idea from Rav Kook, ‘a rabbi is similar to a tree: his essence must be planted deep, his own roots planted in the house of the Lord. But he will only succeed in all his activities if he manages to ‘follow the spread of the branches’ (Mishna Ma’asrot 3:10) [by providing] shade for those poor souls who have spent a great deal of time wandering around in the barren wilderness and [who] are no longer in touch with their Jewish selves.’

Rabbi Cohen was a bold thinker. He brought halakhic clarity to technological innovations, energy while seeking to prevent and solve cases of igun, and tolerance when considering our relationship with Israeli Arabs, and later, when dealing with the Roman Catholic Church. Rabbi Cohen was deeply principled, but his gentle manner was disarming. He was a friend to many, and a leader to even more, and having had the privilege of meeting him on three occasions, I was deeply inspired by this gentle giant.

Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War & Peace made me realise how truly exceptional this leader was, and how blessed we were to have such a great man in our midst.

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