Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen, ‘scholar and warrior,’ dies at 88

Rabbi She’ar Yashuv  (Kobi Gideon/FLASH90)

By David Sedley


Eliyahu Yosef She’ar Yashuv Cohen, a former chief rabbi of Haifa known for his Torah scholarship, interfaith work and strict vegetarian lifestyle, died in his home Monday night at the age of 88.

Cohen, born in 1927, was the son of David Cohen, who was known as the Nazirite Rabbi due to his vow to follow the ascetic lifestyle of a Biblical nazirite. He fought in several of Israel’s wars, and as an IDF officer reached the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Cohen, like his sister Tzofiya, was raised a nazirite and vegetarian. As a teenager Cohen convened a special rabbinic court to annul his vow to follow the nazirite lifestyle, though he remained a strict vegetarian throughout his life and refrained from drinking wine.

Cohen was an 18th-generation scion to a dynasty of rabbis and Torah scholars. He began his Torah studies with his father, who was a Talmudist, philosopher and kabbalist and one of the closest students of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a chief rabbi of pre-state Israel. As a child he was close to the elder Kook, and later, as a student in Jerusalem’s Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, to his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. He was also a student of the State of Israel’s first chief rabbi, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog.

Cohen was a member of the Jewish underground in the years leading up to the 1948 War of Independence. During the war he was wounded while fighting in Jerusalem’s Old City, and with the fall of the Jewish Quarter he, along with other fighters, was taken by the Arab Legion to Amman as a prisoner of war. He became a leader in the POW camp and later credited that experience with preparing him for the role of city chief rabbi.

After his return from Jordan as part of a prisoner exchange, Cohen served in the IDF for a further seven years, climbing the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel. He also volunteered in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

He served on the Jerusalem council, representing the National Religious Party. During 1967’s Six Day War, Cohen was deputy mayor of the capital. He said at the time that he had come full circle, being one of the last to leave the Old City in 1948 and one of the first to return to it after it was recaptured.

From 1975 until 2011 Cohen served as the chief rabbi of Haifa and as head of the city’s rabbinic court. He was also the president of the Harry Fischel Institute for Talmudic Research and Torah Law, and founded the Midrasha HaGevoha LaTorah (Advanced Torah Institute) and the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem.

Cohen was also known for his interfaith work. In 2008 he became the first non-Christian to address a synod of bishops at the Vatican. In his speech he questioned whether Pope Pius XII did enough to try and save Jews during the Holocaust.

He was also praised for his efforts to help agunot, “chained women” unable to remarry due to their husbands’ refusal to grant them a divorce. In addition to his humanitarian work, he was an advocate against cruelty to animals and a patron of the Jewish Vegetarian Society.

In 2011 Cohen was investigated over his suspected involvement in awarding false rabbinic qualifications to security personnel. Although no charges were pressed against him, Cohen agreed to step down as chief rabbi at that time.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Cohen as “a great and wise man who always strove for the unity of the Jewish People, just as he worked to bring together various sectors of the population in Haifa, where he served the public as chief rabbi for almost 30 years. In his life he combined the book and the sword.”

In a statement, Netanyahu added: “Rabbi Sha’ar Yashuv Cohen was a pleasant man, sharp and very learned, who combined his Torah learning with acts of lovingkindness and sought to instill peace among us. He left behind him many religious court judges and students, residents and neighbors for whom he was a spiritual leader and authority in Jewish law, as well as many deep and fascinating stories that will continue to remind us of his legacy for generations to come. May his memory be blessed.”

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav described Cohen as an integral part of the city. “He knew how to turn religion into a bridge between different segments of the population, Jews and non-Jews as one,” he said. “Today I lost a friend… The rabbi was a great scholar of the depths of Torah and knew how to pass on to others the beauty of its ways. May his memory be a blessing.”

President Reuven Rivlin offered his condolences to the family, calling Cohen “a scholar and a warrior… one of the heroes of Jerusalem who was wounded fighting for Jerusalem… He was among the individual and unique communal leaders of our generation, a man of wisdom and speech, a Torah scholar, a leader.”

Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan said: “Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen was very sensitive to the honor of those who came to be judged in the rabbinic court… It is significant that the rabbi, who was one of the chief students of Rabbi Kook, passed away on the anniversary of his death.”

Cohen is survived by his wife, Dr. Naomi Cohen, known as one of the first religious feminists in Israel, and by his daughter, Eliraz Kraus.

Cohen’s funeral procession departed from Haifa Tuesday morning for Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, where he was to be laid to rest.

This article originally appeared on Times of Israel.

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