Israel has lost a pillar of Torah and interfaith dialogue with the passing of Rabbi Eliyahu Yosef Sha’ar Yashuv Cohen, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Haifa, who left this world Monday (Sept. 5, 2016 / 2 Elul 5776) at the age of 89.
Born in Jerusalem to “Rabbi David the Nazirite,” he was the 18th generation descendant of Torah scholars and rabbis. But the younger man who grew up to become a chief rabbi in Haifa decided not to follow his father’s footsteps and instead, although he lived his life as a vegetarian, relinquished the Nazirite vow as a teen.
His mother, Sarah Etkin, was one of the founders of “Omen,” a religious women’s organization that was the predecessor to the Emunah Women international organization.
The rabbi’s family tradition hearkens back to a long history of social activism: The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory, hid in Rabbi Cohen’s grandfather’s house after the Bolshevik Revolution.
The young Torah scholar became one of the finest students of Israel’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi during the British Mandate, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook — the founder of the Religious Zionist movement.
His formal schooling took place at Talmud Torah Geulah, and he studied at the yeshivot “Torat Yerushalayim,” “Mercaz Harav,” and “Etz Hayyim.” But in his youth, he played the violin at the melave malka celebrations after the Sabbath in his family’s home, to the great enjoyment of Rabbi Kook, who attended the weekly events.
While a student at the Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav in 1948, Rabbi Cohen also participated in ‘the Hasmonean Covenant” underground that fought the British occupation. He was also an active member of the Hagana, and helped found religious Zionist fighting units.
He served during the War of Independence with the Etzel military group and fought in the defense of Gush Etzion and the Old City of Jerusalem, during which battle he was seriously wounded and taken prisoner by the Jordanian Legion. In captivity he underwent surgery on his foot — an incident that left him permanently disabled.
Upon his release from captivity, the rabbi returned to military service and remained in the IDF for the next seven years, rising in status to become the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Air Force and Rabbi of Military Command. He served as chaplain of the IDF Brigade that crossed the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur War as well.
But Rabbi Cohen also attended secular university, earning a Masters Degree in Law, with honors, at Hebrew University of Jerusalem School of Law. He was serving as the deputy mayor of Jerusalem during the liberation of the occupied portion of the capital from Jordanian hands in the 1967 Six Day War.
The rabbi was appointed in 1975 to the post of Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Haifa, serving in that role until 2011 and as head of the city’s Rabbinical Court system. He also founded the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem, a training program for rabbonim and rabbinic judges, and served as chairman of the board at the Harry Fischel Institute for Talmudic Research. The rabbi was also recently appointed head of the Committee for Dialogue between Judaism and Islam, and headed a similar committee that fielded dialogue between the Chief Rabbinate and the Vatican.
Unlike his father, Rabbi Cohen was not a Nazirite although as a child his hair was not cut and he wore canvas shoes. At age 16, a special rabbinic court of Jerusalem rabbis convened at his home to release him from the Nazirite vow. Nevertheless, even as an adult, he refrained from drinking wine and eating meat and fish his entire life.
Soft-spoken and gentle in manner, Rabbi Cohen fought vigorously for his beliefs — including his opposition to the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza, calling it an unforgiveable act for its cruelty to the Jews living there. He pointed to the dragging of Israelis from their synagogues and the destruction of Jewish holy places of worship, and said this came in addition to the prohibition against relinquishing sovereignty over any part of the Land of Israel.
The Rabbi is survived by his wife, Dr. Naomi Cohen, a scholar who taught Torah classes in her home. The couple had a daughter, Eliraz Kraus, six grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren.
Boruch Dayan HoEmes.