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Leopold Cohn

How a Hungarian Rabbi found his saviour. 

Leopold learned to trust in God from an early age, having lost both parents at the age of seven. Living in an orthodox community in Hungary, his life was mapped out for him and, at the age of eighteen, he had graduated with distinction from the Talmudic academy with a view to training to be a Rabbi for his people. He was ordained and married, living in her parent’s home in order to have time to devote to the sacred writings and contemplation of the burning issues of his people, such as the issue of the exile and long-delayed redemption through the coming of the Messiah. He prayed for this daily, often in a midnight vigil of prayer of mourning over the destruction of the temple and to implore God to hasten the coming of the Messiah of Israel.

His studies in the Talmud brought him to the conclusion that the Messiah was late, he should have already come. Yet here were the Jews, still in exile. He asked himself, "can it be possible that the time appointed by God for the coming of the Messiah has passed and the promise has not been fulfilled?" For further illumination he turned to the Prophets, in particular the Book of Daniel, where he read the prophecy of the 70 weeks in Chapter nine. It seemed to be predicting the coming of the Messiah at a time long since passed. Yet there was not a word on this in the Talmud and, from that time onwards, he began to question the reliability of that book. The prayer that rose to his lips at that time was, “open Thou mine eyes, O Lord, that I may behold wondrous things in Thy law."

These doubts soon got him into trouble, as he could not remain silent about them and his community reacted negatively towards him. A fellow Rabbi, senior in years, rebuked him, pouring scorn on the very idea that a Rabbi so tender in years could cast doubts on the teachings of the learned sages. Discredited, he traveled to America, in March 1892, to seek a new life and some answers and he was warmly welcomed by the Hungarian community in New York.

One day he chanced upon a Church that announced, in Hebrew, a meeting for Jews. He was intrigued, but was warned off the place by others who said, "there are apostate Jews in that church and they teach that the Messiah has already come." Rather than deterring him, these words attracted him and he secretly entered the building. A couple of days later he met up with the minister, a Jew who was a trained Talmudist with an impressive rabbinic pedigree. He was given a Hebrew New Testament to read. He opened it to the very first scripture, in Matthew. "This is the book of the generation of Yeshua the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham." The words spoke into his very soul.

Later on, locked away in his room, "I began reading at eleven o’clock in the morning and continued until one o’clock after midnight. I could not understand the entire contents of the book, but I could at least see that the Messiah’s name was Yeshua, that He was born in Bethlehem of Judah, that He had lived in Jerusalem and communicated with my people, and that He came just at the time predicted in the prophecy of Daniel. My joy was boundless."

His problems came when he tried to share his discovery. One rabbi snatched the New Testament from his grasp and trampled on it, saying, "a learned rabbi like you should not even handle, much less read this vile production of the apostates. It is the cause of all our sufferings." Rabbi Cohn was filled with doubts and guilt, scared that he may have slipped into idolatry, in contemplating this Jesus of the Gentiles! These thoughts stayed with him for days, but he was saved by his study of the Scriptures, in particular Isaiah 53, which spoke of the suffering Messiah. Yet he was still troubled. How shall I love the ‘hated one’? How shall I defile my lips with the name of Jesus, whose followers have tortured and killed my brethren through many generations? How can I join a community of people so hostile to those of my own flesh and blood?

His next step was to fast and pray until God provided some answers. An answer came, in the Book of Malachi, Chapter 3.  "Behold I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Angel of the Covenant whom ye delight in: behold He has already come, saith the Lord of Hosts."

He has already come? A sudden realization washed through his body and he fell on his face and he gave his very being to the Lord Jesus. As if in direct response, a flood of light filled his understanding and to his unspeakable happiness he no longer found it difficult to love his Lord, all barriers to the reality of Jesus were removed.

Such revelation couldn’t be kept to himself and he began to proclaim to all his friends and acquaintances that the rejected Jesus was the true Messiah of Israel, and that not until the Jews as a people accepted Him could they find peace with God. First they laughed at his “mental confusion”, then persecution began against this “traitor to his people”. They wrote to his wife and friends in Hungary, informing them of his apostasy and he met such hostility that he had to leave New York, aided by that minister who had given him his first New Testament. He moved to Edinburgh, in Scotland, where he was baptized. Leopold was no longer a rabbi of the law, but a messenger of the Messiah, and he carried in his heart the secret of Israel’s salvation.

The following year he returned to New York, a man with a mission. He immediately set about to establish contact with the Jewish community, opening a little mission building in Brownsville. He was met by the inevitable hostility and the early days were difficult indeed. Here is an incident, in his own words, that illustrates this:

"One afternoon," he said, "I went to deliver a New Testament at a house where it had been requested. But when I arrived there, a powerful man fell upon me, first battering me with his fists and then jumping upon me with his feet. Finally he took hold of my ears, and lifting my head, he began to knock it repeatedly against the hard floor, all the while intoning in Hebrew, ‘These ears which heard from Sinai that we must have no strange gods, and which now listen to the Christian idols, must be pulled out,’ and emphasising each mention of the words ‘pulled out’ with a terrible jerk." From this experience Cohn went home with blood on his face, but that was the blood of one who suffered for the truth’s sake and it became the seed of a great work.

GOING DEEPER

The Son of Man

Son of God

But he persevered and, despite opposition even from other Christians, built up a large congregation of Jews whom he had won to the faith of the Messiah. Dr. Leopold Cohn passed away on December 19, 1937. His funeral service, held at the Marcy Avenue Baptist Church in Brooklyn, drew a large attendance of friends and admirers, both Jews and Christians.

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