Avi Cohen family 311.
(photo credit: Aloni Mor)
Israeli soccer icon Avi Cohen was laid to rest Wednesday after failing to
recover from a severe head injury suffered in a motorcycle accident on December
20. As The Jerusalem Post’s sports reporter Allon Sinai pointed out, when Cohen
was handpicked by top English club Liverpool’s manager Bob Paisley in 1979,
Liverpool’s soccer was “on a different planet” to Israel’s.
Cohen’s meteoric rise to such elevated surroundings, he always remained modest,
down-to-earth and accessible. Testimony to his noble character, and to the
esteem in which he was held, was the large turnout of fans and friends to pay
their final respects to Cohen, whose coffin was presented at Ramat Gan’s
National Stadium before burial.
Sadly, the tragedy of Cohen’s death was
compounded by a group of meddling rabbis. A day before he passed away, Cohen was
pronounced brain dead by a medical team at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. Cohen
had signed an ADI organ donation card. Out of respect for and empathy with
Cohen’s wishes, his grieving family began authorizing the removal of organs to
save other lives.
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar personally called the
Cohen family to assure them that organ donation was a mitzva.
1986, the Chief Rabbinate had ruled that in certain cases, brain death
constituted clinical death according to Halacha. Irreversible cessation of
spontaneous respiration as a result of brain damage caused by a severe blow to
the head permitted heart donation, according to that ruling, which was endorsed
by leading halachic authorities. In the early 1990s, the Rabbinical Council of
America also developed a health care proxy that determined that brain-stem death
constituted halachic death.
But in the last two decades, Orthodoxy has
been increasingly hijacked by religious fundamentalism. A growing number of
rabbis seem bent on adhering to the strictest interpretations of ancient
talmudic dictates, even if doing so leads to an untenable moral position.
Protecting the “life” of a Jew with irreversible brain-stem damage has become
more important for these irresponsible figures than saving the life of another
human being, Jew or non- Jew. For these rabbis, removing organs before the heart
stops, even if the brain-stem is dead, is tantamount to murder. Refraining from
helping a terminally ill patient whose life can be saved by an organ donation is
This fanaticism has swept America as well. In November, a special
committee of the RCA backed away from its previous stance. While it did not
adopt a clear position on the issue, the 1986 chief rabbinate’s decision was
Particularly galling has been the sense that halachic
authorities, in America and in Israel, are permitting Jews to receive organs,
but not to donate them.
MEDDLING rabbis holding to these morally
despicable positions contacted the Cohen family last week and managed to
persuade them not to listen to Amar. Distraught over the tragedy, the Cohens
were undoubtedly easy prey for pushy rabbis armed with the overflowing
self-confidence of fundamentalists certain they know God’s will. It was murder
to remove organs from Cohen before his heart stopped beating, they argued,
perhaps even hinting that the family would suffer heavenly punishment. Clinging
to the hope that the former soccer star, whose physical vitality had been so
central to his very being, might yet return to life, Cohen’s family heeded the
calls of these rabbis, disregarding Cohen’s own wishes as expressed by his
signing a donor card.
We will never know what good his organs could have
done. We do know that the ease with which his firm desire to do that good was
disregarded is untenable. In the case of Avi Cohen, and all others who have made
a carefully considered decision to donate their organs should the circumstance
arise, this disregard risks the lives of others and thus becomes a threat to
We recommend that legislative steps be taken to ensure the ADI
card carries the weight of a will. In light of the split within Orthodox Jewry –
between spiritual leaders such as the chief Sephardi rabbi, who hold a morally
upright position on organ donation, and others who have lost touch with
Judaism’s guiding morality – we recommend that every potential organ donor
clearly indicate which of the two approaches suits his or her religious
The traits that made Cohen so admired in his lifetime led
him to want to donate his organs after death. Unfortunately, a group of meddling
rabbis blinded by fanaticism succeeded in preventing him from doing what he was
convinced was the right thing. This betrayal must not be allowed to happen