Shas Party’s New Spiritual Leader: Deputy Religious Services Minister Is 'Crazy’

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Rabbi Shalom Cohen. He once said voters of a rival party would go to hell. Credit: Kobi Har Zvi, B'hadarei Haredim website

Rabbi Shalom Cohen, the new spiritual leader of Shas, has called the deputy religious services minister ‘crazy,” the latest barb in the war of words between ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist Jews.

For most of his speech at his induction ceremony Thursday, Cohen eschewed attacks on the religious-Zionist or any other community, but at one point he blurted out “that crazy one” in reference to Deputy Religious Services Minister Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan (Habayit Hayehudi).

In response, secular party colleagues of Ben Dahan have made remarks such as “in Shas, the more you curse, the farther you go.”

Cohen is known outside ultra-Orthodox circles for his controversial statements, such as when he referred last summer to wearers of knitted kippot as “Amalek,” the Jews’ bitter enemy. He said Habayit Hayehudi voters would go to hell.

Cohen devoted most of his remarks at Thursday’s ceremony in Bnei Brak to how unworthy he was to step into the shoes of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who died in October. A portrait of Yosef, the party’s founder, hung above the stage, and nearly every speaker who welcomed Cohen as the new head of Shas’ Council of Torah Sages mentioned it.

At 83, Cohen is the oldest member of the party’s spiritual steering committee, which he joined 30 years ago. For years he has been considered close to Shas chief Aryeh Deri, and he pressured Yosef to re-crown Deri leader after Deri returned to politics following his 1999 conviction on corruption charges and subsequent prison term.

Deri is thus further shoring up his position in Shas while weakening the position of Yosef family members who objected to making Cohen’s status official.

Cohen is the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, face of the Sephardi party, and he has strong ties to Ashkenazi as well as Sephardi Haredi rabbis. He will not wear the ceremonial robe of the Rishon Letzion (First in Zion), an item of clothing with great symbolic importance in Shas. At Thursday’s ceremony he wore a suit and hat, his usual garb as head of Jerusalem’s Porat Yosef Yeshiva.

Rabbi Shimon Ba’adani, a senior Council of Torah Sages figure, opened his address with “Thou art a mighty prince among us” (Genesis 23: 6), presumably to imply that the choice of Cohen had the consensus of senior Shas officials.

Cohen’s coronation as head of the council has been a gradual one, and has included the addition of the honorific maran, a Hebrew acronym for “teacher and rabbi,” to his yeshiva-principal title in the party’s Yom Leyom newspaper. He also has the blessing of the leading “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic) Ashkenazi Haredi rabbi, Aharon Leib Shteinman.

Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, did not attend Thursday’s ceremony, but on Friday he visited Cohen at his home.

Cohen, who grew up in Jerusalem’s elite Sephardic Torah community, has never held any state position or any rabbinical position outside the Haredi community. He is considered a master teacher among Sephardi yeshiva students.

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