March 29, 2009

Happy 90th birthday, Rabbi Jack J. Cohen

Dearest Jack,

I was not yet twelve years old when my beloved father, Dr. Israel S. Chipkin, died. Minutes before his funeral, I stood in your study with my mother and sister, and my father's siblings. Your kind face, gentle manner, and soft voice helped soothe my shock, turmoil, and pain.

And then, you recited the blessing:
"Baruch... dayan ha-emet" [Blessed is the judge of truth]. I had never heard anyone say these words or discuss the blessing. 

Frozen and bewildered, my inner voice demanded, How could this wonderful rabbi, my father's beloved friend and student utter words so stinging, so cruel? Minutes later, the funeral — a word soup of eulogy and "el maleh rachamim" [God full of compassion] prayer for the dead was a bad blur even while "Baruch... dayan ha-emet" stayed stuck in me
. A decade passed before I could begin to understand the blessing, and I have been wrestling with it continuously to this day. 

Thank you, Jack, for your enduring guidance, kindness, friendship, and example. Mazal tov and happy birthday!
Who is Rabbi Dr. Jack J. Cohen?
And why did I share with him this earliest memory?
Nearing his 91st year, Jack's family and friends celebrated last week, in Jerusalem, his rich life and long distinguished career as a spiritual leader, educator, author, public servant, and champion of religious pluralism and social justice in Israel and the USA. Jack's children invited guests to share personal memories for inclusion in an album they presented him during the celebration. (The photo at the top of this post captures Jack and me during the celebration.)

Today, Jack is the Emeritus Director of the Hillel Foundation of the Hebrew University. Before making aliya in 1960, he was Rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), in New York City, where he was a disciple of Rabbi Dr. Mordechai M. Kaplan. (Dr. Kaplan, who founded Reconstructionist Judaism and cofounded the SAJ, opened his eulogy of my father, a pioneering American Jewish educator — "He was dearer to me than a brother.")

NOTE | Writing this post, I found most helpful Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman's scholarly and creative discussion on "Baruch... dayan ha-emet"the "el maleh rachamim" prayer for the dead.

UPDATE April 17, 2012 |
.קהילת מבקשי דרך מרכינה ראש ומודיעה בצער רב על פטירתו של הרב דר' יעקב (ג'ק) יוסף כהן, יקיר הקהילה
ההלוויה תתקיים היום, יום שלישי, כה' ניסן תשע"ב, 17/04/12 בשעה 17:30 בבית העלמין "ארץ החיים" ליד בית שמש. הסעה תצא מהקהילה בשעה 16:00 בדיוק. השבעה תתקיים בבית של ירמי וגילה כהן, רח' בר כוכבא 45/10.

יעקב כהן היה רב ומורה מן הדגולים שבדורו ובן אדם שרוח הבריות תמיד היתה נוחה הימנו. לפני כשנה, כשגיל הגבורות היה עשור ויותר מאחוריו, פרסם עוד שני ספרים מקוריים וחדשניים. לזכותו תעמוד גם העובדה שעלה לארץ לפני 50 שנה -- חלוץ אמיתי בין שורות הרבנים המסורתיים בארץ ומחשובי הרבנים הרקונסטרוקציוניסטיים בעולם. יהי זכרו ברוך.

In deep and profound sorrow, Kehillat Mevakshei Derech mourns the passing of our dear friend Rabbi Dr. Jack J. Cohen. The funeral will be held today, April 17, at 5:30 p.m. at Eretz HaHayim Cemetery near Beit Shemesh. A bus will leave from the Kehillah promptly at 4 p.m. The Shiva will take place at the house of Yermi and Gila Cohen at 45/10 Bar Kochba St.
‫ ‬
Jacob Cohen was among the great rabbis and teachers of his generation; he was an easygoing man with whom everyone felt comfortable. About a year ago, when he was already past age 90, he published two more original and innovative books. To his credit, he made Aliya 50 years ago — a true pioneer among Masorti rabbis in Israel and leading Reconstructionist rabbis worldwide.

May his memory be for a blessing.


Johanna said...


What you wrote here for this clearly wonderful man's 90th is beautiful, poignant, SO extraordinarily from the heart, and NO ONE could fail to be moved by it -- and by you. For having the painful, loving capacity to be willing to rehearse/relive such a terrible time in your own life to honor this rabbi, and to raise a question probably no one truly dares ask, and surely no one can ever answer to their own satisfaction. So "wrestle" is right, is perfect. And the question you raise here actually deserves a long, rich answer -- not long, boring, but long perhaps in the sense of historical accretion, and rich for that reason, too, but above all, because for contemporary serious Jews (non-fundamentalists), even if a ritually-recognized statement can offer a kind of comfort (not when you were a child), it does still -- will always -- seem cruel.

Anonymous said...

Tamar, thank you for this - what a beautiful posting, with such poignant and personal memories. I know the post is about Rabbi Cohen (a superstar indeed) but inasmuch as it is also about your father, z"l -- he must have been a very special man. – Abby

Anonymous said...

Thank you Tamar for all your connections, everything you do, you only-connect. I have always understood Dayan Ha Emet to translate as "the true Judge". The transposition of words in your translation is interesting. No matter how fluent in the native language or the target language words mean different things to different people. Thank you for your words, and may we all merit your depth of insight and feeling and may we all live life as fully as you. Your friend, Craig

Tamar Orvell said...

Anonymous Craig — Look who is full... you who tend family, community, and organic gardens and guest blogged here on Joe Franco (1909-2008): Celebrating a long, loving life among your endless meaningful connecting.

Your flagging my translating "Dayan Ha-Emet" as "the Judge of truth" and not "the true Judge" sent me searching for an email exchange with a source we both turn to — Rabbi Michael J. Broyde (MJB). Here, from our electronic Q&A (2004):

ME: A friend's mother died and the announcement closed w "Blessed in the true judge." It looked funny, and I started wondering. Can you help me with four questions?

1) Is this how you would translate from the Hebrew?

2) What is origin of the response on hearing news of a death? Is it tradition? Or mandated in a specific book, and if so, which?

3) What does baruch dayan ha-emet REALLY mean?

4) Do people use the expression in other situations? e.g., the death of a couple, family, or community (from fire, earthquake, air crash, or bomb, as examples)

ME: Thanks from your flock member, always wondering about something...

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz said...


I just saw your blog post on the event honoring Jack Cohen. Jack has been a wonderful teacher and friend for me and many others here at RRC. I was pleased to hear a first-hand account of this event.


Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
1299 Church Road
Wyncote, PA 19095

tyrollean said...

Thank you for posting the Celebration for Rabbi Cohen. As a long time congregant with my family at the SAJ. I had my Bar Mitzvah on June 3, 1961 at SAJ with Rabbi Cohen and Cantor Mordechai Kaplan officiating. As a solo alto at Share Zedek, Cantor Nathanson could let his fantasy fly in training me for the Shabbat Service on that June day. Tears flowed freely from both Rabbi Cohen and the Cantor at the conclusion of my Haftorah. It filled my heart with joy to have that effect on these great men and the my family and Congregation.
I am so happy that Rabbi Cohen is with us and influenced my love of Judaism so profoundly.
Robert S. Nuba, MD