Rav Feivel Cohen, zt”l, could not have been clearer: he did not want any hespedim. At the levayos that were held for him in Lakewood and Brooklyn, his wishes were honored in full, without any of the workarounds or pretenses sometimes deployed in cases where hespedim are enjoined, either by halacha or the instructions of the niftar.
I hope that what follows will not be seen as violating Rav Feivel’s final dictum. It is an expansion of some memories I shared on Twitter the day of his petirah, which I know that the Rebbetzin, shlita, and his family did not find objectionable. I will not speak to Rav Feivel’s gadlus in Torah or psak (about which, in any event, I am not qualified to opine), or about his biography (the details of which I do not know). Instead, I will share personal reflections about having had the zechus, the life-shaping zechus, to daven in his shul as a young girl and a teenager, as part of a Tomchei Torah family.
My experience of growing up in Tomchei Torah, in Rav Feivel’s shul, is inextricably bound up in the experience of being my parents’ child. My father took Pirkei Avos’s instruction of “aseh lecha rav” very seriously, seeking out a rav whom we could look to as a serious posek and Torah figure. And so we hiked at least twenty minutes across Flatbush each Shabbos to get to shul (passing many other shuls along the way). Tefillah started at whatever time was necessary to make sof zman Krias Shema (none of this Modern Orthodox Shacharis at 9:00 a.m. nonsense), and my childhood Shabbos mornings could begin very early, with a long cold walk.
My father valued his daughters’ shul going and shul davening, bringing us to shul from a young age. (My mother was home with the babies; as was the case in the other yeshivish Flatbush homes, we did not rely on the Flatbush eruv.) We girls sat next to our father in the men’s section until he was satisfied that we knew how to daven well enough to go upstairs to the women’s section by ourselves. Rav Feivel accepted our sitting in the men’s section well past the age that girls were normally in the men’s section in yeshivish Brooklyn shuls. Another congregant once complained to the rav about that, and Rav Feivel made quick work of that complaint.
His taking of the girls and women in his shul seriously extended beyond accommodating our learning to daven. My sisters and I have memories of approaching him ourselves with our own halachic questions, and always – even as children – feeling taken seriously and engaged with thoughtfully. Once, notably, my older sister and I expressed our distress at how my parents were handling the steady stream of “meshulachim” from Israel ringing our doorbell to raise money. We went with my parents to Rav Feivel to express our concerns. He heard us out, and then rendered his halachic decision (on our parents’ side, as it happens, but that experience in his study has stayed with us). His shiurim to the women of the shul were serious and substantive, and when he spoke at the annual melaveh malka, he made sure to position himself so that the women could see him. They were reckoned part of the kehillah, and he was addressing them, as well.
I am now an outspoken Modern Orthodox feminist, and there are many ways in which I do things differently than they were done in the shuls and schools of my youth. (I wrote only a few weeks ago about a hachnosas sefer Torah in my school in which both the boys and the girls danced with the Torah.) But my profound at-homeness, indeed my preference, for an entirely traditionally-gendered Orthodox davening space is rooted in the deep ways I felt respected and valued, as my father’s daughter and Rav Feivel’s congregant, in shul growing up.
The first and last times I remember seeing Rav Feivel were, indeed, at hachnasos Sefer Torah. As a young child, I was at a hachnosas Sefer Torah in the shul when some boys attempted to melt the plastic silverware in the flame of a candle on our table. An imposing man with a long beard came over to snuff out the candle. Who was that? That was the rav. The last time I saw him was at the celebration of a sefer Torah that my aunt and uncle were dedicating in a shul in Woodmere. My uncle was Rav Feivel’s congregant, and close talmid, and neighbor, and soul-friend. Rav Feivel came in from Lakewood for the celebration, and once again seeing his face beaming with the joy of the Torah (it did, really) is a fitting final memory of him.
Rav Feivel – and I say this as the highest of praise – was not charismatic. He did not draw people to him with the force of his personal magnetism, a quality that may have its uses but all too often becomes a vehicle for inappropriate wielding of rabbinic power over people (or worse). He compelled people with the still, silent voice of total integrity and profound sincerity. Only now, as my siblings and I were sharing our losses and our memories after his petirah, did I hear this story from my youngest sister: After 9/11, as an understandably shaken 19-year-old young woman, she went to speak to the rav. She asked him what she should work on, what mitzvah or middah she should commit to improving. “I cannot tell you that,” he told her. “Only you know what your personal spiritual demons are, what you should wrestle with.” He was trying to be a spiritual guide, and a communal shepherd. He had no interest in being a guru.
He had no interest in publicity, either. Perhaps my single favorite Rav Feivel story happened when the Copepod Matter was roiling the frum community in New York, as halachists (and everyone else) discussed whether New York City water was kosher. The New York Times, writing a story about the brouhaha, sent a reporter to knock on Rav Feivel’s door, since he had spoken publicly about the need to filter New York City tapwater. As the newspaper subsequently printed, “Rabbi Cohen declared through a closed door yesterday that he was ‘not giving interviews.’” Unlike too many, he was not swayed or seduced by the prospect of seeing his name in print. He rarely, if ever, signed onto the sorts of public declarations signed by “all the leading rabbonim and roshei yeshiva.” He would do what he thought right in any situation, not what enabled him to be listed in important company or to be a player on the hot issue of the day.
He was thoughtful, and complex, and in a world that increasingly seems to be closing in on itself, he drew people looking for something more, something broader. His shul numbered among its members many former students of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik at YU (my father among them), who had moved to the right in communal affiliation. (Indeed, at some point the use of the term “the Rav” by my father and some of his shul peers was confusing to us, until we clarified that when he spoke to his children, “the Rav” meant Rav Feivel, but when he spoke to those men, “the Rav” meant Rav Yoshe Ber.)
My mother has cited numerous times over the years a shiur that the rav gave to the women of the shul in a series about the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith. In talking about the days of Mashiach, and distinguishing the peace that will prevail then from the peace in the days of Shlomo HaMelech, Rav Feivel said that the peace in the days of Shlomo was a peace for the Jewish people, but the promise of the days of Mashiach is of universal peace: “no mother anywhere will cry over her son dying in war.” That the rav was articulating that universal message – not to score political points, but because he thought it was the truth of Torah – meant a great deal to her.
He advocated for the cause of Soviet Jewry, when it was seen in some righter-wing quarters as a “modern” issue. My parents once attended a rally for Soviet Jewry that the rav had encouraged shul members to attend – and met him there. Not on the dais, not as a featured speaker (I’m fairly certain the organizers would have had no idea who he was), but as a member of Klal Yisrael whose concern extended to Jews everywhere, and who felt obligated to act on their behalf. He remained active on behalf of that cause, traveling both to the Soviet Union (which always carried some personal risk) as well as later to the FSU, working for the physical and spiritual needs of Jews in those countries.
He was, perhaps for all of these reasons, not exactly successful on the terms he would have liked. While his sefarim have become indispensable (and, because of their distinctive blue covers that the Rebbetzin remembered that she chose, instantly recognizable), he never had a flourishing yeshiva or blockbuster attendance at his shiurim. His lack of flashiness, the quiet power of his teaching, his refusal to cater to those seeking a warmer (read: chattier) tefillah experience or a shorter derasha, his personal integrity and insistence on it in others, meant that while many have learned and continue to learn his Torah, far fewer profited from his personal example. But for those of us who were blessed to, it has irrevocably shaped our lives.
I learned my last lesson from Rav Feivel after his petirah. As my siblings and I shared our stories, and memories, and the pain of our loss, I heard one more story from my brother. When he finished learning Mishnayos Seder Moed, my parents asked Rav Feivel to come address his class siyum. And so this noted talmid chacham, mechaber of essential halacha sefarim, came and spoke to the fifth grade. More than a decade later, after my brother was no longer davening regularly in Tomchei Torah, he returned to ask Rav Feivel a question in learning. Rav Feivel asked if my brother remembered what he had said at that siyum. My brother did not. Rav Feivel reminded him that it was about the importance of chazara – that it’s not enough to learn new material, new sefarim, but if one wants to retain what one has learned, one must review. I embarked last year on a serious, long-term halacha learning program for women, and have been frustrated with how little I feel that I retain, which I attributed to my middle-aged brain. Rav Feivel’s lesson reminded me of something else: the importance of setting aside regular time for review.
The haftarah we read in shul on Parshas Toldos, the week of Rav Feivel’s petirah, closes with the following pesukim:
Proper rulings were in his mouth,
And nothing perverse was on his lips;
He served Me with complete loyalty
And held the many back from iniquity.
For the lips of a kohen guard knowledge
And men seek rulings from his mouth;
For he is a messenger of the L-rd of Hosts.
Rav Feivel’s final instructions were that we offer him no encomia. But Malachi, it turns out, already described HaRav Shraga Feivel HaKohen Cohen, zatzal, better than we ever could.