Rabbi Eliezer Cohen z"l
“I can't afford to retire. Akiva doesn't have a pension. On the other hand, I have a really good severance package.”
Rabbi Eliezer Cohen tossed this quip in a speech at an Akiva dinner in his honor in 2011. To truly appreciate it, you’d have to know that over the preceding 37 years, he'd already been fired (and rehired) by Akiva Hebrew Day School. Twice.
This followed his forced departure from the yeshiva at which he'd been learning in Israel.
All this stemmed from his philosophy of Torah education: that the student should use his own intellect to arrive at his own conclusions even before consulting (though not discounting) the classical commentaries.
Rabbi Cohen’s techniques, while not unique to him, weren't mainstream—at least, not in the mainstream of orthodoxy nowadays. But they worked. Hundreds of his talmidim are Torah-true because of him.
As a posek, as well, he would not let the popular tide sway his opinion. He occasionally retold an anecdote in which he was asked if it is permissible to swim on Shabbos. He replied that, with certain restrictions, it is.
Once the questioner had left, a man who had overheard the conversation expressed astonishment at the decision. After Rabbi Cohen convinced him of his reasoning, the man replied, "But would you want your children to do that?"
And Rabbi Cohen answered, "If the Torah is really toras emes—a Torah of truth—I cannot give an answer I don't believe to be true." On this, he frequently cited Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's directive to render psak according to one's own understanding of the sources.
His interests ranged beyond the daled amot of Torah as well. He read widely, and in one memorable case, he employed his secular reading in the service of Torah education with his famous challenge: How can one fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah in a submerged submarine? He took his inspiration from a biography of Harry Houdini.
After musaf each Shabbat, Rabbi Cohen would devote a couple of minutes to reviewing halakhot in a particular area, usually taking several weeks to conclude a given topic. Ironically, the week before his passing, he had just completed the laws of mourning.
On his last erev Shabbat with us, he was in good spirits and also, ironically, seemingly in better health than he had enjoyed in several years. The following Shabbat morning, he was unexpectedly, and tragically, gone. He was laid to rest the following day, Sept. 1, 2013. A sefer Torah was interred with him.