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No Way of Escape

Dovid Sussman

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?

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Nowadays, the term “agunah” — a “chained woman” — is primarily associated with would-be divorcees 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 another 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.”
Afterthe 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.


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