Rabbi Michael J. Broyde
Community Rabbi and Rosh Kollel, Atlanta

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This Shabbat returns many of us to the tragic events of 20 year ago (whose secular anniversary corresponds to this week’s parsha of וילך, September 11, 2001) when Al-Qaida hijacked four planes, attacked the Pentagon, and destroyed the World Trade Center. That morning set the course of many United States foreign and domestic policies that we still live with today, two decades later.

It was also a deeply personal tragedy for the families of the almost 3,000 killed, most of whom were unable to recover the bodies of their loved ones from under the charred ruble, and the over 6,000 wounded. 

Calamities are national and tragedies more personal.  Every national disaster has both.  

The impact of the foreign policy wrought on the United States in response to the attacks misses how global events impact individuals’ personal tragedies.  9-11 was such an event for New York, and in particular its Orthodox community.  The destruction of the Twin Towers, and the horrible and anonymous deaths that resulted, reoriented many people to focus on the disaster of the day. 

That was certainly true in the Beth Din of America. The Beth Din of America was a called upon to be involved in many of the sad situation that arose out of 9-11: identifying the remains of men who had disappeared when the Towers fell, collecting clear and distinct proof that they had died, and writing letters that authorized their wives to remarry as a matter of Jewish law.

Jewish law – deeply cognizant of cases where a husband was thought to be dead but was still alive – codified a set of simple rules to prevent cases in which a man would be designated as dead who was still alive.  In essence, these three rules allowed one to establish death in the following situations:  

  • First, where there is actual physical evidence of death.

  • Second, where there are witnesses to the death.

  • Third, where a person was placed, with certainty, in a situation in which no one could survive, such as a burning furnace.

Importantly, death could not be determined by statistical evidence that most people in any given situation died. The reason is obvious: claiming 99% of the people in this situation died is an acknowledgment that some survived.  To put it in practical terms, the cost of a false negative, was very high and the Talmudic rabbis decreed that each case of a husband’s presumed passing in which there was no body was to be investigated to insure that there actually was a death, before the wife would be allowed to remarry. 

In the cases after the Twin Towers fell, there were rarely direct witnesses, as they too perished.  There were some cases where people could be placed in a situation – like on a plane that crashed into the Towers – where escape was impossible. And then there was DNA evidence of death, which needed to be closely examined.

In the face of tragedy and evil, there are naturally two responses.  One is to help the victim of the wrong and the second is to punish the evil-doer and make sure the wrong does not happen again.  I have always viewed the work done after 9-11 by rabbinical courts, and in particular the Beth Din of America, as providing a form of comfort and closure to the deceased – helping the victim of the wrong, by allowing them to seek closure in the face of tragedy.  Families of victims – who were frequently left with no body to bury and no funeral to attend – were given a letter with a yahrzeit date and assurances that now is a proper time to start mourning. Widows were given permission to remarry.  This same process was followed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in the case of many missing soldiers after the Yom Kippur was, as many have recounted.

Of course, there were deep advances in Jewish law through this process – authorities of Jewish law became familiar with DNA technology in a way they never had before and details of a host of new technologies were examined from the lenses of classical halacha. Responsa (teshuvot) were written on a variety of technological advances as well as complex evidentiary problems that came up during these cases. For example, how definitive was the phone companies placement of the location of a call from a cell phone in 2001, and how accurate are dental records, really.  Countless technical matters of halacha were updated in light of the technology that advanced in the last half-century.

Still, the core of the work that was done was an act of compassion to the men, women and children who lost loved ones in a murderous act. They needed closure, a need that was met by the Beth Din of America in every case its opinion was sought.

comments: mbroyde@emory.edu