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No Escape

The American Jewish response to Sept. 11 interprets—but doesn’t explain—the anti-Semitism, trauma, and mourning that still linger after the attacks

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Ground zero, New York, 2010. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Paul Rubin is forced to sympathize with the unsympathetic architect, and so he can’t take a clear position on Khan and his design. Gov. Bitman, on the other hand, has no such scruples. Waldman never says that Bitman is supposed to be Jewish, but the name implies as much, and within the novel Bitman functions as Rubin’s opposite. They are friends, and both members of New York’s power elite; but where Rubin is dependent on cultural validation, Bitman needs votes, and the majority of votes are anti-Khan and anti-Islam. (In reality I’m not sure this is a platform that would win many elections, especially in New York.) In particular, Bitman needs people like Sean Gallagher, the no-account brother of a “first responder” killed in the attacks, who has become the thuggish leader of a victims’ group.

It is obvious that Waldman writes about Sean Gallagher with much less sympathy than Mohammad Khan. Khan is a highly educated secular professional, the kind of person with whom a Times correspondent might be classmates or friends. Gallagher, on the other hand, is built from stereotypes: working-class, Irish, chip on his shoulder. Unmistakably, he is the kind of person who, in 1940s Newark, would have been an anti-Semite, beating up the Jewish kids at school. If he now turns his aggression on Muslims instead, is that progress for Jews? Bitman says yes, and she is happy to make common cause with this lumpen-American; Rubin unable to deny his cultural and personal affinity with Khan. In this way, The Submission can be read as another exercise, or exorcism, of post-Sept. 11 anxiety about the Jews’ place in America—its reliability and its price.

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After so many books exploring that familiar anxiety, a book called Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th (Beth Din of America Press and K’hal Publishing) might seem superfluous. But in fact, there is something radically and usefully unfamiliar about the “perspectives” this anthology has to offer. That is because its contributors are not novelists or intellectuals, but rabbis—and not rabbis on the pulpit, offering moral and theological reflections, but halakhic authorities attending to fine points of legal argument.

In particular, the book documents the work of the Beth Din of America, the leading legal forum for Orthodox Jews, in resolving a halakhic problem raised by Sept. 11. (It is edited by Rabbi Michael Broyde, a member of the Beth Din and a professor of law at Emory.) This is the agunah, or abandoned woman problem, which is more familiar when it takes the form of Orthodox women whose husbands refuse to grant them a legal divorce, thus preventing them from remarrying. For 10 women whose husbands died in the World Trade Center, the problem was differently agonizing. Because the husbands’ bodies were not recovered from the collapsing towers, these wives had to petition the Beth Din to ascertain that they were legally dead before they could assume the legal status of widows. Contending with Catastrophe shows, through responsa and original documents, how the Beth Din dealt with these requests.

At first sight, a secular reader might feel impatient or righteously angry at this whole premise. Having lost their husbands, why should these women have to go through a legal rigmarole to prove what was obvious, that the men were killed? Such anger, stoked by all the old stories about women left in legal limbo as agunot, would not necessarily be allayed by reading a passage like this one:

The Talmud distinguishes between two types of cases of missing husbands: the case of a husband who is seen sinking into mayim she’ein lahem sof (a boundless area of water), where there is a slight possibility that the man may have emerged from the water elsewhere and the wife is therefore not permitted to remarry … and the case of a man who is seen sinking into mayim she’yesh lahem sof (water with clearly visible boundaries), when it is assumed that the man has drowned if the observed does not see him emerge within a reasonable time frame.

No one who is not already committed to obeying rabbinical authority would feel it necessary to abide by such distinctions. But as one reads the papers by authorities like Broyde, Gedalia Dov Schwartz, and Ovadiah Yosef, it becomes very clear that their goal is not to inflict evidentiary burdens on grieving widows. In each case—including the case of “G.H.,” who despite the pseudonym is clearly identifiable as Daniel Lewin—the rabbis made the process as easy as possible and quickly granted the widows legal status.

The real purpose of the legal process seems to be deeper and more abstract: to inscribe the Sept. 11 attacks into the context of Jewish law and history going back to the Talmud and before. When the rabbis consider whether the falling towers should be considered a “fiery furnace,” from which no escape is possible, or a collapsing building, from which escape is possible, they are translating contemporary events into a legal language that, like all law, is both historical and timeless.

This process does not offer any simple consolation, any answers about why these 10 innocent men—among thousands of other innocents—died a horrible death. Rather, in the words of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik—quoted by David Shatz in a remarkable essay—the halakhic response to suffering believes that “Response, not explanation, is focal.” To respond to Sept. 11 in the language of Talmudic jurisprudence is to place American experience in a Jewish context—in contrast to the way secular writers strive to place Jewish experience in an American context. These approaches are not fully reconcilable, but they can be complementary. Both are expressions of the permanent human need to redeem trauma with interpretation, with language—a need that Sept. 11 continues to evoke in all of us.

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Yet it is liberal-Jewish-Americans who will not confront the antisemitism of Islamists and the far-left, while they hold onto the old-worn adage of fear of the religious- Christian-Zionist (exemplified by The Tea Party). They parrot every left-wing mantra without introspection or look to reality. They run and hide for fear of being called racists and islamaphobes.

They have no clue and will not accept that the rules of the game have changed dramatically and not for the better for them. They fail to grasp how dangerous modern political correctness is to their own survival both as Jews and most assuredly as liberals. They have an insentient need to prove that they are not beholden to anything but liberal politics. When you need to apologize for your own existence your battle to survive is already lost.

Christopher Orev says:

An enjoyable musing about a difficult subject; thanks for it!

The Islamic hijackers made very clear that they were acting in accordance with the Shari’ah imperative to slaughter the Jews.

The American Muslim community which reacted, on September 11, 2001, with delirious celebrations and joy –> did so out of their bloodthirsty antisemitism.

Rev. Wright, Van Jones, Calipso Louie Farrakhan and the other black liberals like Obama, who cheered on the hijackers (“God Damn America”) are primarily motivated by hatred of white people and hatred of Jews.

The subhuman “Palestinians” celebrated on the afternoon of 9/11 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrM0dAFsZ8k because they saw the attacks as a

One cannot fully understand 9/11 without understanding the wickedness of Islam and the anti-semitism of the Shari’ah.

Is Islam different—not a minority religion but a majority one, not a people fleeing persecution but a people seeking power?

That part made me laugh out loud.

American Muslims – whether they are violently rioting at the Rye Playland, whether they are ceremoniously slaughtering their wives and daughters to preserve their Islamic honor, whether they are trying to burn down Northern European embassies b/c of cartoons – make very clear that they are a majority religion.

“We are 1.5 billion suicide bombers!” they constantly boast. They engage in nonstop al-Taqqiyya and say: “We are the fastest growing religion, so you kufr better submit sooner rather than later”. That is not the language of a “minority” religion, but of beast-like colonizers.

Ahh 9/11 retrospective – what’s not to like?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BFxLLsqV6k

It’s Jews on the right who will not criticize and confront the pirate policies of PM Binyamin Netanyahu. Might makes right…right?

This is most distasteful and as a matter of incident disgraceful.

http://972mag.com/israel-approves-plan-to-uproot-30000-bedouins/

Might does not make right.

Lynne T says:

“On the one hand, this anti-Semitic rumor is meant to deny Jews a part in the national mourning over Sept. 11, to suggest that they had not suffered their share.”

No, the purpose of the anti-Semetic rumor that no Jews died because they had advanced knowledge of the attack was to give substance to the claim that the Mossad was behind the attacks.

Lynne T says:

Jules:

What of Jordan’s plans for its Paletinian population (about 80% of Jordanians are Palestinian)?

http://www.hudson-ny.org/2429/jordan-plan-b

Most of historic Palestine is under Jordanian “occupation”.

I guess to you, only Jews are aliens to the middle east under a special onus whereas the Palestinians are “indigenous” and have no agency in the continued disputes over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Norman Birnbaum says:

Re. Mr. Kirsch’s praise for Paul Berman, could he tell us how much time Mr. Berman has spent in Muslim societies, whether he knows Arabic, and how deep and broad his mastery of Islamic studies might be. As for Mearsheimer and Walt, I note that Thomas Friedman’s recent criticism of the Israel lobby seems to align him with these scholars Perhaps our extremely cultivated fellow Jews, Messrs. Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson, will buy the Times and promptly fire Friedman

“the purpose of the anti-Semetic rumor that no Jews died because they had advanced knowledge of the attack was to give substance to the claim that the Mossad was behind the attacks.”

The purpose varied based on who was disseminating it at the time.

When the rumor was originally reported it was by a “news” service affiliated with Hezbollah in Lebanon. While one purpose was to blame Mossad, and by extension, Israel, and by further extension, all Jews, the other purpose was for the Shi’ite fundamentalist Hezbollah to steal the thunder from the Sunni fundamentalist Al Qaeda.

When the rumor is repeated by un-reformed communists, white-supremacists, and neo-Nazis, the purpose shifts ever so slightly– though antisemitism is always part of that agenda.

“the purpose of the anti-Semetic rumor that no Jews died because they had advanced knowledge of the attack was to give substance to the claim that the Mossad was behind the attacks.”

The purpose varied based on who was disseminating it at the time.

When the rumor was originally reported it was by a “news” service affiliated with Hezbollah in Lebanon. While one purpose was to blame Mossad, and by extension, Israel, and by further extension, all Jews, the other purpose was for the Shi’ite fundamentalist Hezbollah to steal the thunder from the Sunni fundamentalist Al Qaeda.

When the rumor is repeated by unreformed communists, Islamic fundamentalists not affiliated with al Qaeda, white-supremacists, and neo-Nazis, the purpose shifts ever so slightly– though antisemitism is always part of that agenda.

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No Escape

The American Jewish response to Sept. 11 interprets—but doesn’t explain—the anti-Semitism, trauma, and mourning that still linger after the attacks

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