An interesting column appeared in the New Jersey Jewish Standard posing the question if there was there anything distinctly Jewish about the suffering that resulted from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack.
Orthodox Rabbi Howard Jachter wrote in his Torah Commentary column that there was a uniquely Jewish facet to this horrific event despite it being an undiscriminating attack on all Americans.
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.
Throughout history, rabbis have tried to resolve agunot cases. According to the rabbi, the Otzar Haposkim encyclopedia (1982 edition) devotes eight volumes and 1,500 pages to summarize responsa on this topic.
Throughout history, rabbinical authorites have wrestled with this problem during the Holocaust, Israel’s various wars and following terrorist attacks. The New York tragedy, writes Jachter, also saw the rabbis focus on months of research, to find evidence that could be used to reach decisions.
The material used – including records for telephones, cellphones, subways, elevators, dental and DNA testing – connects the city’s rabbinical court investigations with CSI.
This is a fascinating example of how the rabbinic courts tackled this problem:
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.
He goes further into the sources and presents specific examples such as a husband’s phone call to a friend. DNA evidence was accepted and US rabbinic courts were authorized by eminent Israel rabbis to use that evidence.
Read the complete column for more details at the link above.