Born in Philadelphia, PA in 1928, Rabbi Martin A. Cohen, Ph.D., attended the University of Pennsylvania, earning a B.A. degree in 1946 and an M.A. in Romance Languages in 1949. He taught Romance Languages (Spanish, French, and Italian) at the University of Pennsylvania from 1946 to 1950, and taught Spanish at Rutgers University from 1950 to 1951 before enlisting in the United States Air Force. Upon discharge in 1953, he entered Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, OH with advanced standing, was ordained as a rabbi, and received an M.A. degree in Hebrew Letters in 1957 and a Ph.D. in 1960. He began teaching part-time at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1955 and was appointed to the tenure track faculty in l960. In 1962 he transferred to the New York campus of the now Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he has served uninterruptedly since and is now its Adolph S. Ochs Professor of History. In addition Rabbi Cohen has served as a visiting professor of history and theology in various colleges, among them Antioch College, Temple University, and Hunter College of the City University of New York. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and is listed in the Dictionary of American Scholars.
A recognized authority on Judaism, Rabbi Cohen has written extensively on Jewish history, theology and education. His historical books include The Martyr, about the secret Jews under the Mexican Inquisition; Two Sister Faiths, about early Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, his edition of Sephardim in the Americas, and his two-volume edition entitled The Jewish Experience in Latin America. An opera titled The Conquistador, written by a professor at the Juilliard School of Music and based on The Martyr, premiered in San Diego in 1997. Dr. Cohen’s translation into English of the Renaissance Portuguese classic, Samuel Usque’s Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel, has received wide acclaim. His theological works include his co-editorship of the book Jewish Mission/Christian Mission and his monograph in French on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim eschatology published by Librairie Artheme Fayard. His work in education is exemplified by his co-editorship of the series Adventures in Living Judaism, published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. He has contributed to many learned journals, beginning with the Hispanic Review in 1949, and including, among others, the Journal of Biblical Literature, the Jewish Quarterly Review, the American Jewish Historical Quarterly, the American Jewish Archives, The American Sephardi, and Helmantica, the organ of the University of Salamanca. His entries are to be found in various encyclopedias, among them the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible and the Encyclopedia of Religion. Appointed by Dr. Cecil Roth, Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia Judaica, he served as editor of three of its departments (Portugal, Marranos, and Colonial Latin America) contributing twenty-two articles of his own. Dr. Cohen’s book The Canonization of a Myth, based on lengthy research in Lisbon’s Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, plumbs the seminal role of the Inquisition in the politics of seventeenth century Portugal. Dr. Cohen is presently working on three books: a book of essays on Rabbinic Judaism, a book on the influence of Greek culture on Rabbinic Judaism and a book tentatively titled Reform Judaism from Moses to Messiah: the Historical Unfolding of our Authentic Tradition.
Rabbi Cohen’s devotion to the Jewish community is evidenced by his service to congregations in Cleveland, Ohio; Muncie, Indiana; Louisville, Kentucky; Monroe, New York; Brooklyn, New York; and his home congregation, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue of New York, which, on the completion of a year of interim service, named him its Rabbi Laureate. For over forty years, Rabbi Cohen served as Chaplain of the Metropolitan [New York] Conference of the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods, which conferred upon him its first annual Solon Miles Chadabee Award for outstanding achievement, twice designated him Man of the Year, and in 1998 bestowed upon him its Tikkun Olam award for distinguished service to Brotherhood, the Jewish people and the community at large.
In the broader community Rabbi Cohen has served as President of the American Society of Sephardic Studies, the only Ashkenazic Jew ever to hold that office; Chairman of the Board of the Jewish Historical Society of New York; National Chaplain of the AMVETS, the first Korean War veteran to achieve national office in a major veterans’ organization; member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Conciliation Board of America; Scholar and Consultant on International Affairs of the Foreign Relations Commission of the New York Board of Rabbis; Chairman of the International Scholars Committee of the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai Brith; co-editor of Nuestro Encuentro, the Anti-Defamation League’s first publication in Spanish; and, for the last nine years of his long service to that organization, Chairman of its Commission on Jewish-Catholic Relations and co-Chairman of its National Interfaith Department. Since 2005 Dr. Cohen has also been the spiritual leader of the American Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece.
Worthy of special mention among Rabbi Cohen’s other notable activities are his service in 1947 as interpreter in the training of Argentine helicopter pilots in Camden, New Jersey (there were no casualties); his keynote address in 1998 at Santangel 98, an international conference on Sephardic and related scholarship sponsored by the Dominican University and focusing on the Iberian Inquisitions and the secret Jews; and his response in 2002 at the Law School of the Catholic University to the book, published originally in Italian, of the Pontifical Biblical Commission under Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the New Testament.
Dr. Cohen has been married for sixty-nine years to Dr. Shelby Ruth Cohen, now Professor Emerita of Applied Psychology at Kean University.