Man of Moderation and Harmony

I knew Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen for most of my life, certainly for more than 50 years. He lived up the road; he was part of the humanscape of my childhood. As a young adult I began appreciating his open-mindedness. He was there in times of crisis, typically crises created by my own lack of discrimination in terms of what to say to whom, and when.

Here is an anecdote. When, in my early twenties, I did a course of military chaplains, I felt free to express my opinions regarding internal Jewish pluralism. the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox religious establishment that governed military chaplaincy was a matter of a closed club, and there was no room for any recognition of internal Jewish pluralism. To voice the opinion that Reform Judaism was not all bad, that we must collaborate with it and that there is room for it in the greater Jewish world, was unheard of, a kind of betrayal of fundamental views that would make one’s loyalties and legitimacy suspect. And so, I found myself not graduating the course, suspect as a heretic.

The person who came to the rescue was Rabbi Shear Yashuv. I doubt he supported the views I expressed, but he had the capacity to tolerate difference, radiate love, and bring about harmony, regardless of views and positions.

And so, with his help the perfect rabbinic resolution was found: I would get my military rank from my military commander, not from the Rabbinate, as if he were qualified to rule on the legitimacy of my opinions as an Orthodox chaplain. As much as this little anecdote is telling about religious establishment, it is even more telling about the humanizing and relational approach of Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, a priestly and princely man of peace, moderation, toleration and understanding.

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A Jewish Leader among Other Faith Leaders

I didn’t really come to appreciate the beauty of the man till we began working together, or maybe I should say — till he continued supporting me in my interfaith efforts. When I founded the Elijah Institute, 20 years ago, our students would go on trips to holy sites of the different religions. Haifa was a mainstay of our religious-educational touring and Rav Shear Yashuv a regular participant. Groups loved him. He was present. He cared. And his message was genuinely one of making room for all, regardless of religious difference.

He took pride in Elijah and in Haifa. Elijah was his first name, and this served for him as a link to our interreligious work. And Haifa was the ground in which a spirit of a tolerant Elijah was made manifest through his relationships with leaders of other faiths.

I believe there isn’t another chief rabbi, part of the Chief Rabbinate, who has taken as much care to cultivate relationships with clergy of other religions in his city. He participated in Iftars, fast-breaking on Ramadan. He maintained warm and jovial relations with Christian clergy. He famously quipped that he had a deal with Archbishop Elias Shakur of Haifa that when the messiah came, they would ask him if it was his first or second time around. The point is not the theological profundity of the exchange. It is the human warmth and depth of relationship that allowed him to cultivate relationships despite theological differences.

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But it was more than personal warmth. It was common sense in practical and relational contexts.

I recall a telling moment that showed how unique he was in the landscape of the Israeli Rabbinate. The year was 2000. We are several months ahead of Pope John Paul II’s landmark pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the first one to take place with full recognition of Judaism and the State of Israel. A group of rabbis came to the Papal Nuncio’s residence to discuss how Shabbat violation might be kept to a minimum (how did I ever get to be part of that group? I think Rabbi Shear Yashuv invited me). The Pope was coming for the feast of the Annunciation, that was celebrated on Shabbat, and Jews would have to violate Shabbat to maintain law and order. What could be done to change the schedule?

It was a dignified meeting. Rabbi Shear Yashuv was a major voice. But that is not the most interesting part of the story. Guests were served drinks. Most were given water. On the wall above the sofa was an engraving of the historical encounter of Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI, representing a high point of the ecumenical movement and rapprochement between different Christian factions. Water was served and Rabbi Shear Yashuv made the appropriate benediction out loud. No other rabbi drank. They signaled to each other, pointing to the decorative engraving. Rabbi Cohen looked in disbelief, unable to make out what all the fuss was about. The fuss was about fear, ignorance and the deep seated suspicion of images. These elements combined to create fear of something that had nothing of idolatry attached to it, as though it was a ritual object, leading to refusal to pronounce a benediction in that environment. Rabbi Shear Yashuv lacked that fear, distance and recoil. He had a natural demeanor that allowed him to be present, beyond differences. He also knew better and could distinguish ritual objects from works of art.

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Rabbi Cohen and the Vatican

More or less at the same time, in the first years of the millennium, Rabbi Cohen found himself involved in two high-profile interreligious bodies. The one was the Chief Rabbinate’s permanent committee for dialogue with the Vatican. That the Chief Rabbinate chose him to head up the group is an expression of how clearly they recognized that he was suitable for the position. He was the best of the Chief Rabbinate for the task, and to this day his equal has not come forth. Over a 12-year period he headed up the rabbinical delegation, meeting with Vatican officials and seeking mutual understanding on a host of common concerns. In all this, theology was kept to the side. It was about facing the world together and it was founded on personal relationships.

Perhaps the summit of this part of his career was the invitation to address the Synod of Catholic Bishops in 2008, on the subject of the Bible and the Word of God. Rabbi Cohen was the first rabbi ever to address a synod. He referred to his presence there as “a signal of hope,” and “a message of love.” Even though he took a firm stand of opposition to the beatification of Pope Pius XII, his true message was one of love, because that is who he was. His love shone above and beyond stated differences.

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A Partner in the Work of Elijah

At the same time, I issued Rabbi Cohen an invitation to join the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, a body that brings together top faith leaders of major faith traditions. He believed in the work. I suppose he trusted me. And he traveled far and wide in that capacity, recalling his membership in the Elijah Board whenever he spoke of his international activities. We were in Sevilla, Taiwan, Amritsar and other international destinations. He cared and he made the effort to be there not because the Rabbinate asked him to come, but because he believed in the work.

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The Ultimacy of Love

I watched Rabbi Cohen through dozens of hours of small group and public conversations. I also spoke with him personally at great length. I was struck time and again by how classical his views were, and at the same time how open-hearted he was, as if there was little relationship between the views one held and who one was. He was ferocious when it came to Jewish rights on the Temple Mount, but his approach was characterized by the quest for harmony — he urged a synagogue along the mosque as a viable halachic, political and interreligious vision. It was a lone voice, but it expressed above all a spirit of inclusiveness within difference.

I noted how firmly he believed in the uniqueness of the Jewish soul, a clear extension and affirmation of the teachings of the school of Rabbi Kook, that he absorbed from birth, through his father, one of the premier disciples of Rabbi Kook. It was interesting to see how affirmation of certain classical views of hierarchy in Jewish/gentile relations existed alongside full acceptance of the other, in his or her concrete reality. He never really resolved the ambivalence in halachic tradition toward Christianity. At various point the tension between halachic precedents played out in his own soul or in his own personal decision making. Yet, this had absolutely no impact on the depth of his presence and friendship with top Christian clergy.

The point is not just that he met with the Pope (and donned a white kippah to match that of the Pope). It is not that he was simply important, or a good conversation partner or reference point. It is, rather, that he approached all these relationships with a kind of presence and open-heart that cut across religious differences and even the opinions he himself held, or struggled with, that might have been obstacles to such friendship.

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As I think of it, his personal testimony is all the more remarkable, in view of how classical, or conservative, he was in his theological views. Where did the spirit of openness, the spirit of Elijah, if you will, come from, if it was not a consequence of views, opinions and halachic positions? I once posed that question to him, though not in the framework of such a paradox, but simply in amazement of the existential openness that characterized him. Where did you get it from? I asked. Well, he replied, look at where I grew up.

He intended to reference the open-minded home of his father, Rabbi David Hacohen, whose theological and philosophical works were a synthesis of Judaism and all aspects of broader philosophical knowledge. Or maybe he referenced the spirituality of his paternal home that would condition a heart such as his. And maybe there is a third dimension to his answer, one that comes to light in the amazing fact of him, the last person who knew Rav Kook in his lifetime, passing away on the yahrzeit of Rav Kook and being buried in proximity to him.

Perhaps he really grew up in the shadow of Rav Kook in ways that manifested through his relationships with other faiths. Rav Kook had a nearly unprecedented capacity for love, across all divides. Yet, at times he expressed positions that have led others to rejection and distance toward others. There is something, then, in the primacy of heart and being, that rises above opinions, views and positions. The last witness of Rav Kook seems to have imbibed that spirit of priestly love from the great master.

All photos of Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen at Elijah events are credited to The Elijah Interfaith Institute