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JTS Chancellor Emeritus Gerson Cohen Dies at 66

Funeral services were held Sunday for Rabbi Gerson Cohen, chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who died early last Saturday morning of a disease of the nervous system. He was 66.

Cohen’s 13-year term as JTS chancellor began in 1972, when he succeeded Rabbi Louis Finkelstein as head of Conservative Judaism’s spiritual and academic center.

He resigned in June 1985 due to ill health, saying he was no longer able “to give the job the 125 percent effort it deserves.”

Although Cohen’s tenure may be best remembered for the seminary’s 1984 decision to ordain women, Cohen himself called the move overly controversial and divisive.

In fact, Cohen was vehemently opposed to the idea when it was first raised in 1978.

“Religion is committed to tradition,” he said in 1985, “and we’re committed to halacha (Jewish law) and to those usages that have been so accepted as to carry halachic weight.”

Ordaining women, he believed at the time, violated that principle.

Cohen established a commission to study the question and, he hoped, to reject it.

“The first real witness was a well-known rabbinic authority I had hoped would kill the issue once and for all,” he said.

“As a result of questioning him and his point of view, I was shaken. We began to discuss principles rather than correct politics. I was converted to the moral rectitude and halachic validity for this change.”

From then on, Cohen was an ardent supporter of the move.

WROTE SEVERAL SCHOLARLY BOOKS

Cohen oversaw the building of the new seminary library, which houses the most outstanding collection of Judaica outside Israel. The original library was ravaged by fire in 1966.

Born in New York in 1924, Cohen was elected a Phi Beta Kappa while at the City College of New York, from which he graduated with special honors. In 1948, he was ordained by the seminary.

Cohen, who also held bachelor’s and master’s of Hebrew literature degrees from the seminary, received a doctorate in Semitic languages from Columbia University.

Prior to his appointment as chancellor, Cohen served the seminary as its librarian and taught Talmud, Jewish literature and history.

Under his direction, the seminary created an Institute for the Study of European Jewry to examine the Holocaust’s impact on survivors as well as the contemporary Jewish world.

“It is not enough to mourn the dead,” he said at its establishment in October 1984. “Remembering involves digesting the experience.”

He also taught at Columbia University, where he served, too, as director of the Center of Israel and Jewish Studies.

Cohen was a member of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and a fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research.

He wrote several scholarly books, among them the “Story of the Four Captives” and “Reconstruction of Gaonic History.” Recently, his “Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures” was chosen to be the second volume in the Jewish Publication Society’s Scholar of Distinction Series.

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