A courageous rabbi talks to the Catholic synod

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Haifa Chief Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen recently became the first Jew to address a synod of bishops at the Vatican. He did so with dignity and diplomacy, and unlike many Jews engaged in interfaith activity, he courageously raised issues that would not have endeared him to his audience.

The achievement of constructive goals in our interfaith activities is frequently undermined by internal handicaps. Many Jewish lay representatives active in the field are ignorant of their own religious heritage and thus incapable of presenting an authentic Jewish position. On the other hand, some rabbis are insufficiently experienced with the world to be able to effectively participate in interfaith encounters.

Another problem is that many lay Jewish activists are tempted to regard access to Christian or Muslim groups as an end in itself. They fail to appreciate that sharing platforms and obtaining photo opportunities can be counterproductive if it imposes an obligation to remain silent on “sensitive” issues so as not to “destabilize the relationship.”

Cohen was not burdened by such handicaps when he addressed Pope Benedict XVI and a gathering of 253 cardinals, archbishops and bishops. He conveyed to them the meaning of Torah for Jews and also expressed the hope that after such a long and painful history of “blood and tears,” his presence at such a gathering was a “signal of hope and love for generations to come.” Yet instead of basking in his glory, he diplomatically but forcefully raised the most sensitive issue on the Catholic-Jewish agenda.

Over the past half century, the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust has been the subject of bitter controversy. Jewish and other critics have accused him of failing to speak out against the murder of the Jews. They maintain that his silence provided international legitimacy to the Nazis. His critics allege that he was motivated by fear of communism, cowardice and even outright anti-Semitism. Others who say that they have not yet made up their minds on the controversy nonetheless criticize the Vatican for denying independent scholars access to the archives which could shed additional light on the issue.

The prevailing Jewish view is reflected at Yad Vashem by a terse caption under the image of Pope Pius which states: “Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the pope did not protest either verbally or in writing. In December 1942, he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews. When the Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the pope did not intervene.”

The defenders of Pope Pius XII, including the current pope, bitterly refute the allegation that he was anti-Semitic, insisting that he “worked secretly and relentlessly trying to save as many Jews as possible.” At a solemn Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on October 8 to mark the 50th anniversary of Pius’s death, Pope Benedict promoted his beatification and rejected all allegations that he had ever acted improperly, insisting that Pius had done all possible to halt the murders.

Clearly the Vatican is determined to proceed with the beatification. Although most Jews remain convinced that Pius was guilty, at the very least of the sin of silence in the face of evil, some Jewish interfaith leaders have recently tended to soft-pedal this issue. They fear that continued public expression of the Jewish position could lead to a breakdown in the positive Jewish-Catholic relationship initiated during the term of Pope John XXIII and followed by his successors. Some also insist that we should not be involved in what is unquestionably an internal matter for the Church to resolve. The International Jewish Commission on Interdenominational Consultations had already agreed not to raise the subject when it meets the pope next month – although that may now change.

It is into this maelstrom that Cohen raised this sensitive issue. Many Jews being honored as he was by the Church would have taken the less hazardous path of avoiding controversy. But Cohen has a track record of courageously expressing his views and refusing to bury his head in the sand. Clearly, he has no interest in meddling in the internal affairs of the Church. But he does have a sense of history and feels that for the record, even if Catholics proceed on the path to beatification, Jews are obliged to make their voices heard on such a burning issue.

Cohen also maintains that if our reconciliation with the Catholic Church is truly meaningful, it should understand the depth of our feelings on such a matter and not take offense or permit such expressions to inhibit ongoing good relations.

It was at a press conference preceding his synod address that Cohen dropped the bombshell, informing journalists that he may not have accepted the invitation had he been aware that the meeting of the synod to which he had been invited coincided with ceremonies honoring Pope Pius XII on the 50th anniversary of his death. He said that Pope Pius “should not be seen as a model and should not be beatified because he did not raise his voice against the Holocaust. He did not speak, either because he was afraid or for other personal reasons.”

When he formally addressed the synod, Cohen never explicitly referred to Pope Pius XII by name, although it was obvious to whom he was relating. In the most diplomatic manner, he told the synod that most Jews, especially survivors, felt that the pope had failed to condemn the Holocaust. “He may have helped many of those suffering in secrecy, but the question is, could he have raised his voice and would it have helped or not? Only God can answer that. But I have to make it very clear that we, the rabbis, the leadership of the Jewish people, must take account of the feelings of the deceased and cannot simply say we forgive or we forget. It pains us but we cannot endorse that such a leader of the Church now be honored.”

He also urged the synod, as religious leaders, to actively condemn Iranian President’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s obscene call for Israel’s destruction. “The problem during World War II was that people did not believe what Hitler was saying. Unfortunately”, he said, “we had the Holocaust, and we are pained when we remember that not enough was done by the leadership of world religions and other powerful leaders to stop it then. We expect them to do so today. My being here makes me feel that we can expect your help, and I am sure your message will be listened to by influential people all over the world.”

Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen is a remarkable spiritual leader, a great scholar and an authentic voice of national religious Jews that is rarely heard. He is admired and respected by all religious groups, including the haredim. Would that we were blessed with more rabbis of such caliber and outlook.

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Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: A Rabbinical Role Model

Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen was born in 1927, the eighteenth descendant in a family of Rabbis. He studied at Mercaz Harav and became close to the famous Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. He served in the Haganah and fought with Etzel in Jerusalem in the War of Independence, where he was wounded and became a prisoner of war of the Jordanians.

Subsequently, he founded the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem for the ordination of local and overseas Rabbis. He became Chief Rabbi of Haifa in 1975 and has earned the affection and admiration of all sections of the community, including secular Jews and Arabs.

There is a gentleness and compassion about Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen which is rarely evident amongst his peers.�It manifests itself in the manner in which he strives to find Halachic solutions to difficult personal problems, in contrast to those who display their piety by applying the most stringent interpretations. It is also reflected in his approach to contemporary Jewish religious challenges such as conversion, Shmita, divorce and other halachic issues, where without compromising fundamentals, he always strives to harmonize Halacha with the requirements of a modern state.

Being a close personal friend of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he personally pleaded with him ,unsuccessfully, not to proceed with the unilateral disengagement. Later he bitterly condemned the act saying “I cannot consider an act crueler and more evil than what the government of Israel did in Gush Katif”

Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen represents the best of those religious Zionists who helped to mould a generation of youngsters committed to religious observance as well as being willing to take upon themselves the sacrifices required to defend their state. Rabbi Cohen has also always sought to achieve an accommodation with non observant and promotes the maintenance of a tolerant society. He has said on numerous occasions “I don’t divide Jews into secular and religious. To me they are all Jews”.

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