Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen – Between War and Peace, by Prof. Yechiel Frish and Rabbi Yedidya HaCohen. Jerusalem and New York: Urim, 334 pp.
Chief Rabbis come and go, but few – if any others – have been referred to in front of an audience of hundreds of people (NYC, May 14, 2008) by a world famous rabbi as “Chief rabbi of the world.” Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen served for about 35 years as the Chief Rabbi of Haifa and President of its religious courts. But his impact on the Jewish people throughout the world may have been unprecedented. Other rabbis logged more miles than he did (think Shlomo Carlebach and Meir Kahane) and impacted more lives than he did, but it was and is rare to find a Chief Rabbi – after Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook – who was as beloved by many of the most secular of Jews as well as by many of the most traditional of Jews.
Those who read this book will not be surprised by this unusual claim, since few non-family members of the great Chief Rabbi Kook literally sat on his knee, as a child, interacted with him on various levels, and was tested regularly by him in his Jewish studies. Not only did he pass these tests, but he won personal compliments for his observations and questions, and, perhaps almost as uniquely, he savored these tests, all by the age of 8!
Rabbi Cohen was raised in holiness by the original codifier of some of Rav Kook’s writings when Rav Kook was still alive. The Rav HaNazir of Jerusalem, one of the closest protégés of Rav Kook, uniquely lived the holy life of a Nazir, and also originally raised his son as a Nazir – not cutting his hair or drinking wine. Rav Shear Yashuv was the only known “Nazir from birth” (though not technically or literally) until he decided, at the age of 16, that he had had enough, although he remained a vegetarian for his whole life, and refrained from drinking wine for his whole life.
The Rav HaNazir lived a secluded life, with his wife, in their own apartment for decades, surrounded by books and plants, where students from the Yeshivat Merkaz Harav [Kook] would come for special lectures. There can be no greater irony than that the Nazir’s son was destined to become not just a bit more outgoing, with such a low bar to hurdle, but would come to personify the most ecumenical Israeli ever, reaching out to more religious leaders of more religions – including his own – than virtually any other rabbi – or chief rabbi – in Israel’s history. He was the first Jew to address the Synod of cardinals at the Vatican.
Can anyone even conceive of any other rabbi who interacted closely, as a child, with Chief Rabbi and religious Zionist icon Kook, then as a young man, with the Chazon Ish, and later with such luminaries as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the American religious Zionist icon and long-time top rabbi of Yeshiva University and modern Orthodoxy whose stature remains unmatched), to the iconoclastic rabbis of Riverdale, to the Lubavitcher Rebbe (who had hid from the Bolsheviks for seven months in the home of a grandfather of Rabbi Cohen), to the Pope (whom he met one-on-one more than once, as the lead representative of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate), to the Dalai Lama, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury?
Who else had a draft exemption but nevertheless volunteered to serve as a soldier in the dangerous battle for Jerusalem in Israel’s War for Independence, was a pioneer in the concept of hesder yeshivot (about 5 years before they were officially launched by Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht. with Yeshivat Keren b’Yavneh) combining Torah study with military service, served in the Haganah along with future Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, was also associated with members of the Irgun and Lechi, volunteered to join then-General Arik Sharon in the Yom Kippur War, in the counterattack into Egypt, and seemed to be friendly with virtually all of Israel’s founding fathers and successors all the way through to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose praises appear on the back cover of the book?
Who else not only served with heroism as a soldier until he was captured by the Arabs but was also in effect appointed by his Jordanian captors as the Chief Chaplain of the Israeli prisoners, well before he was eventually appointed Chief Chaplain of the Israeli Air Force? Who else had a brother-in-law – and interacted closely with – Israel’s Chief Rabbi and Tzahal’s first Chief Chaplain, Rabbi Shlomo Goren?
Who else went to law school not to become a lawyer but in order to acquire the legal sophistication necessary to help the government of Israel formulate laws compatible with Jewish values? Who else had an opportunity to put his knowledge of Israeli and Jewish law to bear as Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem at the time of the unification of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War?
Who else was sent by the Israeli government to speak as a war hero in raising funds for the United Jewish Appeal and Israel Bonds? Who else was inspired by his father-in-law, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, and others, to raise funds for and establish new Jewish educational institutions, such as Ariel, which was associated with the prestigious judge-training Machon Harry Fischel, of which he was the long-time president?
This book is actually a translation of a book originally published in Hebrew that sold out quickly and went into a second printing. What other book was translated by a person with a Ph.D. who is an accomplished historian in her own right? What other translation was then edited and fact-checked by another Ph.D., Rabbi Cohen’s rebbetzin, Dr. Naomi G. Cohen; as well as by a widely respected rabbi and journalist, Hillel Fendel; as well as by a rabbi, lawyer, and nephew (yours truly)? Actually, both versions of the book are essential for anyone interested in the life of Chief Rabbi Cohen. The Hebrew edition contains an index, detailed footnotes, and a comprehensive bibliography including almost all of Rabbi Cohen’s writings, but the English edition that Urim just published incorporates factual corrections identified by the four individuals just referred to, and includes a new chapter by this inside reviewer describing Rabbi Cohen’s activities in his missions to the diaspora, and includes further readings including a reference to the musical notes and an orchestral concert bringing to life, in sound, Rabbi Cohen’s Prayer for Jerusalem which became an official part of Jerusalem Day commemorations in Israel.
Note: This book is Volume 5 of Urim’s popular Modern Jewish Lives series. Volumes 1 – 4 are biographies of Chief Rabbi/Chaplain Shlomo Goren, Rabbi Haim David Halevy, Nehama Leibowitz, and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.