Was there anything distinctly Jewish about the suffering that resulted from the vicious Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks? Indeed, it was an undiscriminating attack on all Americans. Nonetheless, there was a uniquely Jewish facet to this horrific event. The terrorist attacks left hundreds of individuals whose remains were not found or only small remnants of their bodies were discovered. Besides families waiting for a measure of clarity that their loved ones perished in order for them to begin the formal process of mourning, the plight of the women who wish to one day remarry loomed large in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks. These women remained agunot, unable to remarry until a bet din (rabbinic court) was able to amass sufficient evidence to issue a ruling verifying the death of the husband and thereby permitting the wife to remarry. As a result of this tragedy, 15 cases of agunot were presented to batei din (rabbinical courts) in the New York metropolitan area.
Rabbis throughout the generations devoted extraordinary efforts to resolve cases of agunot. In fact, the “Otzar Haposkim” encyclopedia (in its 1982 edition) devotes no fewer than eight volumes, spanning approximately 1,500 pages, to this topic alone. Fifteen hundred pages merely summarize the responsa literature on the subject of agunot!
This process continued in the 20th century, as rabbinic authorities responded to the enormous challenges that arose in that war-filled century. For example, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank dealt extensively with agunot from the Holocaust. Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog wrote at length about the rulings he issued regarding agunot from Israel’s War of Independence. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef devoted months to resolving the agunot of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Regrettably, rabbinic authorities once again were summoned to deal with the many agunot resulting from the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
Rabbinic judges devoted months of meticulous research, in coordination with many public and private agencies and firms, to compile the “raw material” from which the bet din could reach conclusions. Research included obtaining telephone, cellphone, subway, and elevator records, as well as the results of DNA testing and dental records. In fact, the leniencies of the Talmud and all subsequent authorities are predicated on the assumption that exhaustive research has been undertaken.
The first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., between floors 93 and 98. Rabbinic courts determined (after consultation with experts) that this immediately destroyed the elevators and all stairways from the 92nd floor and above. Thus, anyone who was located in this part of the building at the time of the plane’s impact could not escape. Indeed, there are no known survivors from the 92nd floor or above. Thus, anyone who was determined to have been above the 92nd floor or above at 8:46 a.m. was presumed dead by Jewish Law.
The second plane hit the South Tower at 9:02 a.m. between floors 84 and 87. Of those who were at floor 78 and above at the time of impact, only 10 are known to have survived. The 10 who survived were standing by stairwell “A.” The elevators and stairwell “B” were destroyed by the impact of the plane. It seems that stairwell “A” remained intact only for a very brief time after the impact, and that only people who were standing immediately next to it were able to survive. The 10 survivors sustained very serious injuries and would not have survived without immediate hospitalization. Thus, anyone determined to have been in the South Tower at 9:02 a.m. regarding whom there was no record of being hospitalized on Sept. 11 was presumed by Jewish Law to have perished.
The Mishnah (Yevamot 122a) presents a situation where people heard a man from afar proclaim, “I, so-and-so the son of so-and-so, have been bitten by a snake and am about to die.” The people later discovered an unrecognizable body. The Mishnah permits the wife to remarry even though the man’s body was not positively identified at a later time. The rabbinic court of the Belzer community released a woman from the status of agunot based on similar circumstances, even though the husband’s body was not yet found. The husband, who was trapped in the World Trade Center, called a friend on his cellular phone and said that he was about to die. He remained on the phone until the moment of death.
Every tragedy that befalls the Jewish people adds another layer to the voluminous literature regarding the status of agunot. In the case of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, rabbinic courts were ultimately able to permit all of the agunot to remarry, especially due to rulings from Israeli rabbis of eminent stature authorizing rabbinic courts to rely on DNA evidence. We hope and pray to God that the World Trade Center tragedy will be the last of these tragedies and that the days of the messiah will arrive, when the halachic literature regarding agunot will be of purely theoretical interest.
We should recognize in our commemoration of the World Trade Center attack the massive and successful efforts of rabbinic courts to alleviate the plight of the 15 World Trade Center agunot. We also should take the opportunity to recall the events of Sept. 12, 2001, when synagogues were filled with hundreds of people reciting the birkat ha-gomel (thanksgiving prayer) thanking God for sparing them from this tragedy, some in miraculous manners. Let us all use the memory of this terrible tragedy to propel us into finding some area in our lives where we can improve and become better people both in our relationships with God and in our relationships with people, especially as we begin the new Jewish year.