The close of the year 5773 has also brought the end of an era in Detroit Jewish education, with the passing of Rabbi Eliezer Cohen of Oak Park, Michigan. I met Rabbi Cohen through a good friend who invited me to attend his weekly shiur for women. To give a sample of his sense of humor, the topic of the class one year was on whether women should study the Talmud, teaching the class from Talmudic sources. “By the end of the class, you’ll know if I should be doing this or not!” he joked.
Our family frequently called Rabbi Cohen when we had a question regarding Jewish law. And through his answers, I learned more about the underlying values of Judaism than I did while studying for my conversion. So, as my way of honoring his memory, I want to share with you some of the most important things I have learned just from asking a shaila.
1. To give the right answer, you must first truly know the person asking the question:
When I was deciding how best to cover my hair, I asked Rabbi Cohen if I could wear hair extensions, and then cover up the roots of my hair with a scarf or bandana, so that only the added hair would show. He gave a lengthy answer regarding whether or not this was allowed halachicly, and came to the conclusion that it was. “But,” he continued, “for you, you shouldn’t do it.”
Now, if you knew Rabbi Cohen, you would understand that this was not about merely going along with the establishment. His rationale was that I belonged to a yeshivish crowd, and I like to fit in. I had moved to the community while covering my hair with a scarf, and to switch to a different method when no one had ever even seen my real hair would have caused people to ask me questions about what I was doing that would have made me uncomfortable. By knowing me, and giving me answer with my best interests at heart, I came to realize that there is rarely a situation where one solution works for everyone.
2. Sometimes the halacha is just the halacha:
When I was pregnant with my younger daughter, I took a blood test that came back with some worrying results. In those days, before Google and Imamother were my go-to poskim, my husband went to Rabbi Cohen to see if I should have amniocentesis. The Rabbi questioned my husband on why we felt it would be useful, and once he heard that we only wanted to be better prepared in case of a diagnosis, he advised us that there was nothing wrong with having the procedure when there was a clear medical reason to do so. Other Rabbis we spoke with later told us that, since an abortion would not have been permitted halachicly in most circumstances, then why have amnio? But Rabbi Cohen took the time to explain the actual rules, and the circumstances of when something is absolutely forbidden, and when it is permitted. I now only will consult a posek who is willing to explain things to me, and this allows me to trust in their decisions.
3. It’s OK to be different:
We called Rabbi Cohen right before Sukkot, the year before we made Aliyah. We had bought wood paneling, and we wanted to know if it would be acceptable to spray paint pictures of different famous Rabbis on the walls, since we had a friend who was a graffiti artist. We also needed to know whether our friend would be allowed to start decorating the walls before Sukkot, while continuing during Chol Hamoed, as he had broken his hand, which would slow him down considerably, and he would probably not be finished before the holiday began. Rabbi Cohen thought about it a minute, and said that both of those things would be fine, “But only if one of the pictures on your sukkah is of me!”
Rabbi Cohen was a fascinating man, whom I loved. He had a big plastic Santa Claus that he dressed up as a Chassidishe Rabbi, and which he put out on his driveway for Purim. He would go to yard sales and collect so much stuff that his house was like a maze, and when things would fall, his children would say that there had been an “abba-lanche”. He said things that were often controversial, and didn’t care what anybody thought about it. And, he was still one of the most beloved teachers in the Detroit Jewish community. He taught me that I could be myself, and that I could still be respected. Going through an Orthodox Jewish conversion or becoming a Baal Teshuvah is not easy. You’re constantly faced with places where you have to make changes, and it would be really easy to simply find someone to mirror, and just copy everything that they do. But just knowing the Rabbi Cohens of the world makes it easier to say, “I don’t need to change this. This is me.”
For anyone who wants a peek of Rabbi Cohen in action, I found a video of him singing Chad Gadya to some of his students. He kept almost four decades worth of Detroit area kids this engaged on a consistent basis. I hope that this Pesach, you will find it in your heart to sing Chad Gadya, and think of how much change one man can bring to the world.