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Pursuing the Zionist dream

13 April 2017

William Whyte on the first Nazirite from birth since biblical times

Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between war and peace

Yechiel Frish and Yedidya HaCohen

Urim Publications £35 plus £5 p&p*


*Copies available from Dr Irene Lancaster; email irenecr123@gmail.com or phone 0161 792 2446


THE first rabbi to address a conclave of cardinals in the Vatican; a religious leader who was also a soldier; a prisoner of war; a legal scholar; a politician — Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen was a man of many parts. He was also — as this book shows through extended excerpts from his diary — a notably vividly writer, not least in describing his experiences as a street fighter in the Israeli war of independence.

Shear Yashuv Cohen came from a long rabbinical line. Born in 1927, by one count he was an 18th-generation rabbi, and his father — the Nazir of Jerusalem — was a famous scholar, mystic, and ascetic. Shear Yashuv was brought up to be the first Nazirite from birth since biblical times: consecrated to God, and pledged to abstain from alcohol and meat, and to refrain from ever cutting his hair.

Rabbi Cohen eventually renounced the vows that had been made on his behalf. But he never rejected the idealism of his father — nor his commitment to Israel. His work as a rabbi, and as a soldier and politician, was all dedicated to building and defending a Jewish state in the land of Israel.

This idealistic, missionary Zionism led Cohen to defend illegal settlements and to reject the Oslo peace talks. Although this somewhat hagiographic account does not mention it, his closeness to the Israeli establishment would prompt his resignation as chief rabbi of Haifa, as the organisation that he headed was charged with awarding false qualifications to security personnel.

But his Zionist dreams likewise led Cohen to embrace a notably generous attitude to his fellow Jews and a conspicuously rich and rewarding approach to Jewish thought. Married to a leading feminist theologian and as happy discussing ideas with Rowan Williams as with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he led an extraordinary life.


The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

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