|Rav Ovadia Yosef, ZTL and Rabbi Shalom Cohen in a 2000 photo (Forward)|
There is speculation that Aryeh Deri, who is the political head of Shas had a lot to do with this. He is close to Rabbi Cohen and sees him as an ally. This in contrast to former Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, with whom Deri had a severe falling out. I guess this is what happens when politics gets mixed into religion. Instead of choosing a leader for all the people, you choose a political ally. But I digress.
It’s not that Rabbi Cohen isn’t a Talmid Chacham. As the Rosh HaYeshiva of the prestigious Sephardi Yeshiva Porat Yosef - he must be. If I recall correctly he was a close confidant of Rav Yosef as well. But being close to a Gadol is not enough. Neither is the knowledge of vast amounts of Torah. There are plenty of people who can lay claim to having much Torah knowledge and have nonetheless made a Chilul HaShem.
I would posit that Rabbi Cohen has in the past made statements that can easily be considered such. Like when he referred to anyone wearing a Kipa Seruga (meaning Religious Zionists) as Amalek. Amalek is the (now extinct) nation mentioned in the Torah – an enemy of Israel - that God commanded us to destroy. Needless to say, these comments are condemnable.
To the best of my knowledge Rabbi Cohen has been cloistered in the four walls of his Yehsiva and has never held any public office. I doubt that he has much experience in dealing with public matters. But that doesn’t stop him from making outrageous and even harmful comments, not only from a public relations standpoint. But even in a practical sense. And his very first pronouncement - in writing - as the head of Shas proves that. He has banned female Charedim from attending college. Even Charedi colleges. He was quoted in the Jerusalem Post:
“Female [high-school] students should not even think about undertaking academic studies in any framework, because this is not the way of the Torah,”
And from the Forward:
“Our rabbis, the sages of Israel, unconditionally opposed academic study and even in the Haredi colleges, since a significant number of professors are university graduates and do not uphold the pure religious worldview on which the girls were raised,” Cohen wrote.
“In addition, the material in the colleges is based on research and scientific methods that contravene the Torah. Therefore, students should not even consider going to learn academic studies in any framework, since this is not the way of the Torah.”
This man has departed from the ways of his predecessor, who was indeed the Gadol that Rabbi Cohen is not. Rabbi Yosef’s daughter Adina Bar-Shalom founded a Haredi College of Jerusalem in 2001 – with the approval of her father.
Let us first examine his problem with research and the scientific method. Can anyone alive in the 21st century actually be opposed to research and the scientific method? How does he think the cures for so many diseases of the past were discovered? By looking at the Refuos of the Gemarah?
I can understand if his problem was with exposing his students to certain courses that he saw as Apikurus. Although I might disagree with him on what is or isn’t Apikurus (like the fact that the universe is about 15 billion years old), I can understand why he might have difficulty with that. But to reject scientific research all together because ‘it contravenes the Torah’ is a mind-blowingly ignorant thing to say, let alone believe.
And in a practical sense, how does he believe that the Kollel System that he so vigorously defends is going to survive if the wives of the Avreichim sitting and learning 24/7 do not have the means to support their families? Where are they going to find jobs that pay a decent wage if they do not learn the kinds of skills taught in these colleges?
Does he think that the pay a religious studies teacher makes will be enough to support a typical family of 13? And does he think that there are even enough teaching jobs for all Sephardi wives of Avreichim to go around? Or does he think a store clerk makes the kind of money that someone who learned technological skills in college makes?
One can understand the extent to which the Kollel life is promoted in Charedi circles even if they disagree with it as I do. I do not believe that all Charedim - Sephardi or otherwise - should automatically study in a Kollel. But even if I did, it is the height of irresponsibility to hurt the material welfare of the very people you so idealize by denying even their wives the education to better support their families.
This is not the thinking of a Gadol. It is the thinking of a clueless individual that has spent most of his life in the rarified air of Charedi yeshiva - isolated from reality.