Ultra-Orthodox Shas Party Gets a New Spiritual Leader

Rabbi Shalom Cohen, 83, appointed head of Council of Torah Sages.

Kobi Har Zvi, B'hadarei Haredim website

Rabbi Shalom Cohen, head of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem, is assuming the leadership of the Shas Council of Torah Sages in what is seen as an effort to strengthen the Haredi identity of the Sephardi political party. The move comes half a year after the death of the Shas party’s spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Cohen, 83, is the oldest member of the Shas rabbinical council, and has been a member since it was founded 30 years ago.

Shas is giving the appointment of the new “maran” a relatively low profile. The title maran will be appended to Cohen’s name for the first time in tomorrow’s edition of the party’s newspaper and Cohen has also given an extensive interview to the Haredi weekly Mishpacha. There will be a reception marking the development during the Passover holiday.

Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, who was behind the decision to officially name Cohen the head of the council, is said to believe that the party had to have a spiritual leader. Cohen, who since Yosef’s death has been the dominant force on the council, will apparently be known as its “head” and not its president, which was Yosef’s title.

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. He is known outside Haredi circles primarily for making controversial statements, such as when he referred last summer to those who wear knitted kippot as “Amalek,” the Jews’ bitter enemy, and said that those who vote for the Habayit Hayehudi party would go to hell.

Cohen has always been considered close to Deri, and during the years that MK Eli Yishai headed the party he would pressure Yosef to return Deri to the party. Deri is thus further shoring up his position in Shas, while weakening the position of those members of Yosef’s family who objected to making Cohen’s status official.

Reuters