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