My Father: A Spirit of Greatness
Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen zt”l
Rabbi David Cohen zt”l (1887-1972), known widely as “HaRav HaNazir,” the “Nazirite Rabbi,” was Rav Kook’s most prominent disciple. A brilliant scholar, philosopher, kabbalist and mystic, he edited and organized many of Rav Kook’s writings into Orot HaKodesh, Rav Kook’s magnum opus.
Born into a rabbinic family in the town of Maisiagala, Lithuania, in 1887, Rav David Cohen exhibited an extraordinary blend of profound expertise in Talmudic studies and an unquenchable thirst for intellectual exploration, even during his formative years in yeshiva. Even as a young man, he felt an irresistible attraction to texts that lay beyond the boundaries of the yeshiva’s prescribed curriculum.
In his extraordinary biography, he described his resolution, upon first visiting the Kotel, to rise above his inner turmoil and unify every aspect of his being for the sake of G-d: “And here, I sealed a covenant between myself and the G-d of Israel; there are no words to express that which dwells in the innermost reaches of my heart and soul. All the deep philosophical questions have passed over me, and now I feel so, so close to G-d… a new spirit has descended upon me here, traces of prophecy at the center of the heart of the Jewish people, all connected and intertwined in this place.”1
In this introduction to his father’s commentary on the Kuzari, Rabbi She’ar Yashuv Cohen zt”l describes his father’s unique wholeness of spirit and his ability to unify the many aspects of his life. We are proud to translate this essay in honor of HaRav HaNazir’s upcoming yahrzeit on the 28th of Av.
The wondrous Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi was a complex person, with many seemingly contradictory traits that in actuality complemented one another. He was a philosopher and faithful believer, a philosopher and a kabbalist, a poet and an author, a giant of Torah and halacha whose primary focus was on aggadah and Jewish thought. A holy poet whose entire life was dedicated to seeking out and serving G-d, he longed for G-d’s holy city, for whom he sang the song of his life, “צִיּוֹן, הֲלֹא תִשְׁאֲלִי לִשְׁלוֹם אֲסִירַיִךְ,” “Zion – behold, ask after the wellbeing of your imprisoned.” But he was also a man of action who made Aliyah to Yerushalayim, where, according to legend, he was trampled by an Arab horseman in front of the Kotel.
With appropriate awe, I believe much of the same greatness and complexity were expressed through the personality, writings and teachings of my revered father, the Rav HaNazir zt”l. On the one hand, he was a researcher, terribly punctual, and a philosopher with deep knowledge of the writings of the world’s great philosophers – philosophers of every language and generation, Jewish and gentile, whose writings he read in their original sources and languages. He was a man of pure logic, a man of truth without compromise, with a critical approach that he developed during his years of academic study in Germany, Switzerland, and the academic world. His approach, his way of investigating and thinking, was scientific. But on the other hand, he was a Nazir of G-d, an awesome kabbalist, a great tzaddik who was completely immersed in the upper spheres of the worlds of mystery and holiness, one who “dwelled in the shelter of the Most High” (Tehillim 91:1)…
He was a gadol who knew all aspects of nigleh, the revealed Torah. He mastered the Lithuanian style of Torah study, which he received from the students of the Vilna Gaon through the Volozhin Yeshiva and then from the great Lithuanian yeshivot that followed the learning style of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik and his students. His upbringing in the educational philosophy of the mussar yeshivot together with his attachment to the Lithuanian rationalist approach to learning combined seamlessly with his deep dive, as a kabbalist, into the mighty waters of nistar, the hidden Torah. He mastered the teachings and writings of chassidut, beginning with the Ba’al Shem Tov, and particularly the writings of the Ba’al HaTanya and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and their students which were beloved to him, as well as the teachings of the Sefat Emet. He was a rare, G-dly personality who was both revered by the Charedi Torah world and was the respected guide of the students of Rav Kook.
This combination of traits and interests did not lead to conflict, but rather an extraordinary harmony. He was calm, at peace, pleasant in his interactions, a man who possessed great patience and self-control – traits that concealed the inner storm of holy fire that raged within him, an intensity that reached its peak when he accepted upon himself the way of nezirut.
We, his family and his students and their families, remember his many silences – on public fast days, on Shabbatot, and particularly during the forty days from Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul until after Yom Kippur – silences that he accepted upon himself as steps towards receiving ruach haKodesh and towards the vision of renewing prophecy in our time, which were the longing of his soul and the yearning of his spirit.
These matters are clarified for those who know and understand by studying his great work, The Voice of Prophecy: The Hebrew Auditory Logic (קוֹל הַנְּבוּאָה – הַהִגָּיוֹן הַשִּׁמְעִי הָעִבְרִי), his life’s vision, which harmoniously integrates the revealed and the hidden, halacha and aggadah, kabbalah and philosophy, in the path of his great teacher, the light of Israel, Rav Kook, whose great sefer he organized and edited.
The beginning of Rav Kook’s Orot HaKodesh contains chapters entitled “The Characteristics of Holy Unity,” “The Unity of Torah and Prophecy,” “The Unity of the Prophetic Spirit and Halacha,” “The Unity of Halacha and Aggadah,” and more… This sefer, of course, was edited and organized by my father.
The spirit of achdut, of unity, is found in all of my father’s writings, and particularly in the classes he gave on the Kuzari to the students of Merkaz HaRav. The students who merited to participate in those classes remember the dozens of books that sat on the windowsill behind him when he was giving these extraordinary lectures – sefarim filled with bookmarks and source sheets. From time to time, whenever he would mention a source during the lecture that pertained to the Kuzari, he would pull the book from the windowsill and read aloud from it together with the students, so that the truth should not be lost.
When he reached the halachic topics covered in the Kuzari, such as ritual slaughter, he insisted on learning and teaching these halachot and how they are practiced in our own time. He would teach from the halachic works of poskim, so that the students should never feel that there was any contradiction between their halachic studies and the halachot that they learned from the pages of the Kuzari. He covered every topic in a deep and foundational way, whether it was the laws of the sanctification of a new month or the laws of marriage, kabbalistic topics covered in Sefer Yetzirah, or topics in Jewish thought and general philosophy. Every topic was studied assiduously, by studying the original sources with great clarity and care. And everything he taught was infused with the רוּחַ הַגְּדוּלָּה, the spirit of greatness, that dwelled in the beit midrash of Rav Kook – the spirit of yearning for redemption, of preparing for the renewal of our days as of old, of holy faith in the ingathering of our exiles, of the return of G-d’s shechinah to Zion, of the return of our prophets as of old, of the final and complete redemption and the coming of Mashiach to repair the world with the kingdom of G-d. “For the land shall be full of knowledge of the Hashem as water covers the sea bed” (Yishayahu 11:9).
● Translated by Rabbi Elie Mischel.
1 Translation by Rabbi Josh Rosenfeld.