I’ve always wondered what the widows and widowers of those killed in the 9/11 attacks have done about remarrying. I know that Jewish law requires one to obtain either confirmation of death or a Jewish certificate of divorce before remarrying.
What happened to the women and men who, in many cases, did not know whether or not their husband or wife was in the building at the time of the crash? As recently as August, 2011, 41% of the victims remain unidentified.
What is done in such cases?
You raise an important question. In fact, following the tragic attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, this was a very difficult issue for many rabbinical courts (known in Hebrew as a beth din). There are thirteen known cases where the widow or widower sought to find proof that their family member was actually deceased. It was a sensitive process, where mourning spouses needed to be treated respectfully while searching for proof that their spouses were not alive. Each situation needed to be treated with careful attention to both the feelings of the family and the requirements of Jewish law.
The rabbinical courts realized that they needed to act immediately, since “immediately following 9/11, there was an incredible sense of unity and cooperation,” Rabbi Yona Reiss, of the Beth Din of America, later recalled. “Many individuals and firms were quick to share accounts and records upon a moment’s notice, based on a collective sense that the residents of New York City—indeed, the United States as a whole—had become a closer-knit community as a result of the tragic circumstances.”
Probability vs. Certainty
Jewish law is clear that we do not rely on probabilities when issuing permission to remarry. It needs to be demonstrated that there is a near certainty that the person is no longer alive.
Take, for example, a man who filed for death benefits for his late wife, claiming she was killed on 9/11. It was later discovered that he had murdered her. Or another case, where a street vendor outside the World Trade Center was presumed dead, but was found many months later in a hospital, alive. These are just examples; many more similar scenarios did and could have happened.
The Talmud discusses a case where a person witnesses a man struggling in the water, but never actually sees him drown. Can the victim be considered dead? When tackling the question, the Talmud differentiates the possible outcomes depending on which type of body of water the person was in.
1) A contained body of water where one can see the other side, but does not see the man anywhere.
2) An endless body of water where one cannot be certain that the person did not emerge on the other side.
In the first case, the wife would be granted permission to remarry. In the second, permission would not be granted without additional evidence.
These serve as paradigms for other cases. Therefore, what the court of Jewish law would have to come up with is a scenario where we would be certain that the individual was in a place where he or she would have inevitably died.
Suppose someone walks into an oven. This would be considered in Jewish law similar to “water with an end,” since there is no possibility of escape. Thus, for example, someone whose office was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center (which was hit first), above the floor into which the plane crashed—if there was evidence that this person was at their desk, he or she would be considered certainly dead.
On the other hand, for someone whose office was in the South Tower under similar circumstances, where they might have evacuated after the North Tower was hit, the Jewish court would need to have more proof, or more probable circumstances, to conclude that he or she did not survive.
The investigation, then, would include analyzing the whereabouts of the individual on the day of the tragedy. The rabbinical court would speak with family members, coworkers, friends, and anyone else who might have had contact with the person. Examples could include checking MTA cards to see whether the person got on the train, interviewing people whom he would have typically met on the way to work, and checking logs of telephone conversations she may have had from her desk that morning. This was all made difficult by the fact that the buildings’ entire employee records for the month of September were lost with the collapse of the Twin Towers.
For the rabbinical court to be authorized to do all of this research, the spouse would sign a letter granting permission for them to contact government agencies, business associates and other necessary contacts, and to gain access to the relevant records.
Due to the seriousness of the issue of granting permission to remarry after a spouse’s presumed death, it is an age-old practice for there to be peer review of the evidence. Therefore, after the rabbinical court arrives at their conclusion, they would present the information to a well-respected, knowledgeable rabbi to sign off on the decision.
These examples are by no means comprehensive but give one a taste of the kind of research that was needed.
In the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, located in the North Tower into which the first plane crashed, there were no survivors. However, there were a few individuals who, for whatever reason, left the building before the attack. Conversations with them, and their testimony that a certain person was in a meeting, would be added to other evidence that said person did not leave before the crash, thus rendering their spouse eligible for remarriage.
Many in the South Tower immediately evacuated the building after the North Tower was hit. One eyewitness related to the rabbinical court, concerning an individual whom they were looking into, that he witnessed a well-intentioned officer in the lobby of the 78th floor telling him that there was no reason to leave the building and that he could go back to work on the 86th floor.
In another instance a person had booked a ticket to board American Airlines Flight 11. The rabbinical court spoke extensively with the airline personnel, who confirmed that he had a boarding pass, thus assuring the court that he had indeed boarded the plane.
The guidepost in Jewish law, when it comes to a spouse in this situation, is to be compassionate. Ultimately, that is what the rabbinical courts sought to do after 9/11, and for the most part they were greatly successful.
May we never need to use these laws, and may we never know further sorrow in our lifetime.
Please see our ten year memorial page for the 9/11 attacks.
This response is based on the new and fascinating book, Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspective on September 11th edited by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde (Beth Din of America Press, September 2011).
Watch: Widows and Widowers of 9-11: When Remains of Missing People Are Never Recovered.