New York - Trapped in Mourning: What Happened To The Widows Whose Husbands Perished In 9/11 Attacks

Published on: September 11th, 2011 at 09:22 AM

New York - What happened to the dozens of Jewish widows whose husbands perished in the World Trade Center attack without living witnesses? Would they be forced into the devastating category of agunah? Or would the beis din be able to meet the necessary standard of evidence required by halachah to permit them to remarry?

Nowadays, the term “agunah” — a “chained woman” — is primarily associated with would-be divorcיes whose recalcitrant husbands refuse to provide a get. But a plethora of halachic sources, from the Gemara down to the most contemporary works of halachic literature, deal with a nother type of tragic situation — when a husband disappears and is presumed dead, but insufficient evidence exists to permit his wife to remarry. In the aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, a number of Jewish women were suddenly plunged into this devastating limbo, requiring the concerted efforts of halachic authorities to permit them to marry again.

“A number of halachic issues arose as a result of the terror attacks,” relates Rabbi Yona Reiss, who at that time served as director of the Beth Din of America, an affiliate of the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union. “There were questions regarding when to begin aveilus for a relative whose body was not found or identified. There was also the very difficult and delicate question of how we would meet the necessary standard of evidence for the halachah to permit a woman to remarry.”

After the destruction of the World Trade Center, numerous families turned to the Beth Din of America, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, for the resolution of many halachic issues. This may have owed to a preemptive measure Rabbi Reiss wisely took at an emergency meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council shortly after the tragedy, attended by representatives of various Jewish organizations across the religious spectrum. There, Rabbi Reiss announced that the services of the Beth Din of America were available and accessible to all Jews.

Altogether, the Beth Din dealt with ten cases of missing spouses, nine of whom were men, and kept track of several other cases that were brought before other batei din. (In the one case of a husband who lost his wife in the World Trade Center, the standard of proof was significantly lower, since the prohibition for a man to marry a second wife is only rabbinic in nature, and the mere probability of death was sufficient to allow him to remarry.)

Due to the severe halachic ramifications of a woman remarrying while her husband is still alive, the Gemara delineates exacting requirements in order to declare a husband dead. The mere probability of death is not sufficient; instead, there must be a degree of certainty. As a paradigm, the Gemara discusses the case of a man who falls into a body of water and presumably drowns. If the body of water has no clear boundary, so that he might have emerged beyond the scope of vision of an onlooker (mayim she’ein lahem sof, in the Gemara’s parlance), the mere knowledge that he has fallen into the water is not sufficient to declare his wife a widow. On the other hand, if the body of water meets the criteria of mayim she’yesh lahem sof — water with a clear boundary, from which the man could not have emerged without being seen — he is assumed to have died.

Is There Proof? Unfortunately, ample precedents exist throughout Jewish history for the application of these principles. In modern times, these include responsa from 1912 concerning a man who had been a passenger on the Titanic, precedents concerning individuals who vanished in concentration camps during the Holocaust, and victims of terrorist attacks in Israel whose remains were never found.

The halachic issues involved, Rabbi Reiss relates, pertained not only to the analysis of the facts at hand, but also to the methodology of collecting evidence. Despite the rigorous criteria for declaring a missing husband dead, halachah does allow for certain leniencies in obtaining evidence of his death. Although most legal matters require the testimony of two kosher eyewitnesses, a husband’s death can be established on the basis of a single witness, even one who is ordinarily disqualified from testifying, and even based on hearsay. In the case of the World Trade Center attacks, while it was not necessary for the victims’ deaths to have been witnessed by two witnesses, it was crucial to meet the halachic criteria of proof that they had died.

In situations in which a body — or, as was often the case, portions of remains — had been found and identified, the Beth Din’s authorities had to determine whether modern means of identification met the halachic threshold for identifying the body.

The Gemara requires a body to be identified by a siman muvhak — an unmistakable, ironclad indication of the deceased’s identity, with a margin of error of less than one in one thousand. Halachic literature contains discussions among the poskim regarding the admissibility of fingerprints and dental records for the purpose of identifying a body.

Now, the question of the halachic validity of DNA identification was brought to the fore. The members of the Beth Din of America and the Beis Din of Lakewood met with the staff of the New York City Medical Examiner’s office to learn about the science and investigative techniques involved. The rabbanim of the Beth Din then brought the issue before leading poskim, including the illustrious Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg of Jerusalem.

In other cases, the death of an individual had to be established by careful consideration of where he was last seen. If it could be established that a person was in a position in which he could not have survived, he could certainly be declared dead, based on a precedent in the Gemara in which a man had fallen into a blazing furnace and was presumed dead even though his actual death was not witnessed.

In this respect, there was a significant difference between the two towers of the World Trade Center. The North Tower was hit by the first plane at 8:46 a.m., and the entire section of the tower above the 92nd floor, where the plane hit, was completely cut off from the lower portion of the building by a fierce fire. Since there was no passable escape route, all the individuals who were trapped above the site of the impact perished in the tower’s collapse.

The South Tower, on the other hand, was hit by the second plane in a zigzag fashion, and there was a single smoky staircase that was passable for a limited time after the impact. Thus, from a halachic perspective, the mere fact that an individual was located above the point of impact in the South Tower was insufficient to declare the person dead, unless that information could be coupled with other forms of proof, such as DNA evidence. On the other hand, people who placed telephone calls or sent e-mails from their offices above the 92nd floor of the North Tower after the plane hit, such as several employees of the firm Cantor Fitzgerald, were definitively declared dead on the basis of that information.

Positive ID There was one victim of the attacks whose presence at the World Trade Center could not be definitively established at the time of the attacks. He had neither placed a telephone call nor sent an e-mail indicating that he was in his office, but he was known to regularly arrive at his office, above the site of the collision, at a time of day prior to the time of the attacks. Had he been in his office at the time, he surely would have perished. So the challenge was to place him in his office at the time of the attack.

To that end, the Beth Din turned to the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port Authority for assistance. From the MTA they obtained the code of the Metrocard that the man had purchased with his credit card, and then procured records of that Metrocard’s use during the months of August and September. The computerized records indicated that the man had taken the subway to his office at the usual time on the morning of September 11.

The Port Authority maintained records of the employee cards that had been swiped at the entrance to the World Trade Center, and while the records for the month of September had been destroyed in the buildings’ collapse, the Beth Din was able to obtain the records for August. Using a halachic precedent of merging together the two sets of records, the rabbanim were able to determine the amount of time it generally took for the man to make the trip to the World Trade Center. Adding the standard amount of elevator travel time, they were able to establish that, had he followed his standard daily pattern of behavior, the man would have been in his office at the time of the collision.

Releasing agunos from the prohibition to remarry was not the only issue that the beis din had to handle. Some of the newly widowed wives of men who were lost were either on the verge of giving birth or had infant children. The Beth Din had to address the rabbinic prohibition for the mother of an infant child to remarry within the first two years of the child’s life. In some cases, the men who perished had not yet had children. After a memorial service that took place in May 2002, the Beth Din arranged a chalitzah ceremony so that their widows would also be free to remarry.

Rabbi Reiss emphasizes that the entire process was handled with the utmost sensitivity, along with complete fealty to the rules of halachic determination. “We learned that our role was to help the families find a context, not to understand the tragedy, but to find a halachic path to deal with the issues that arose.” The entire process was conducted in consultation with leading poskim worldwide, including Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, and Rav Nota Greenblatt. Ultimately, all the wives of the men lost in the World Trade Center were free to remarry.

“For me personally,” Rabbi Reiss says, “dealing with such a monumental tragedy was a harrowing experience. But there was also something uplifting about the way the entire community rose to the occasion, coming together to cooperate and provide the necessary resources to handle the repercussions. From the various elements within the Jewish community to the governing bodies, whose assistance we needed to obtain the necessary information, we enjoyed full cooperation and support.”

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