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Disaster Preparedness

A new anthology, Contending with Catastrophe, asks preeminent Orthodox rabbis to make sense of Sept. 11

Sara Ivry
September 08, 2011
The "Tribute in Light" memorial, New York, 2007.(Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
The "Tribute in Light" memorial, New York, 2007.(Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

The devastation of Sept. 11 left some people questioning their faith, while others looked to faith for answers. In the insightful Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th, 10 preeminent Orthodox rabbis from the United States and Israel strive to supply a framework for understanding, be it halakhic or philosophical. They zero in on the issue of agunot, women who are “chained” to their marriages either because their husbands refuse to divorce or because their husbands’ deaths are uncertain. After Sept. 11 a handful of agunot contacted the Beth Din of America—the Orthodox rabbinical high court—to help them determine whether, in the absence of a corpse, these women would be unable to remarry.

The collection of essays also grapples with more theological questions that ensue from great tragedy. What is to be done in the face of great evil? Is there a particular Jewish response to such calamity?

Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, the book’s editor and also a contributor, is a professor of law at Emory University in Atlanta and a member of the Beth Din of America. He spoke to Tablet last week about missing bodies, the powerful impact of the Vietnam Memorial, and Hurricane Irene.

After Sept. 11, so few bodies were recovered, and ascertaining death proved difficult. You write in your introductory essay that the central question posed by a calamity like this is how to divide up misery in a responsible way. What does that mean?

Every time a person disappears, there’s misery. There’s misery borne by the spouse. There’s misery borne by the rest of the family. And, in the background, there is the possibility that the person is still alive and misery is being borne by him.

I give the example of Tom Gordy, from World War II. He was captured in Guam, and they reported him dead to his wife. When World War II ended, he came out of Japanese prison and found his wife happily remarried to another. That created more misery. So, in situations where death is not certain, we need to be exceptionally careful to make sure that the person really is dead, because a fast, inaccurate declaration of death creates incredible misery.

In the case of Sept. 11, how many women got in touch with the Beth Din of America to help them verify whether their husbands were dead?

There were 10 or 11 such cases. At the World Trade Center, some people disappeared virtually without remains, or it was only months later that their remains were identified. In those situations, we go through a carefully labyrinthed process to verify that a person is dead.

What is the process to verify someone’s death?

In Jewish law, to verify death, you need one of three things. You need either testimonial evidence by witnesses that they saw the person die, or physical evidence of death, or the placement of a person in a place where death had to have occurred.

There was a prominent Israeli on the flight from Boston putatively to Los Angeles that crashed into the World Trade Center. No physical remains were found of this man—nobody on the plane had physical remains—and there were no witnesses to his death, but you could place him on the plane, and everybody on the plane died. That’s called, in the Talmudic literature, “being thrown into the furnace.” So, even though nobody saw the person die, and there are no physical remains, if two witnesses say he was thrown into the furnace, then he’s dead.

Why is it important to have this kind of certainty about someone’s death in terms of Jewish ritual and life?

Three reasons: The first is legal. People disappear who aren’t dead, and you shouldn’t allow people to be presumed dead based merely on their disappearance; it produces chaos when they come back.

The second reason is pastoral. Closure takes place through legal processes that declare death. And Jewish law has its own legal process.

The third reason is documentary. We as a society want to document these events. It’s part of preserving the legacy of people who sacrificed or were murdered in the course of tragedy. The powerful impact of the Vietnam Memorial is the 50,000 names carved on the wall. Tragedies are both individual and national. 9/11 was 3,000 individual tragedies and a national tragedy made up of 3,000 individual tragedies. We as a society have an interest in keeping track of those.

Ten years out, how do we make sense of Sept. 11 as Jews?

Tragedies are never-ending. Sept. 11 is not the worst tragedy that will hit us, and it hasn’t been the worst tragedy in the last 50 or 70 years. We continually remind ourselves of the need to be forward-looking ethical people evaluating reality around us to make sure we are responding correctly to bad things taking place.

So, we need to check in with ourselves on some moral level?

That’s right, and to remind ourselves that there’s another tragedy coming in the future. If we think this is the tragedy to end all tragedies, we are mistaken. I wish it were so.

I was reading yesterday’s New York Times and one of the people interviewed about Hurricane Irene said, “This is the worst hurricane ever; it’s never going to be like this again.” And I said, “No, no, no.” It’s not the hurricane to end all hurricanes. It’s a reflection of the fact that we were poorly prepared because we hadn’t looked correctly at the crystal ball of the future after the last hurricane hit. Hurricanes come; they just do. The question is how prepared we are for them. When a hurricane hits us and we’re terribly unprepared, we should not sit on the ground and cry. The correct answer is we need to write down on a piece of paper the 12 things we need to do to be prepared for the next hurricane, because the next hurricane is coming, I promise.

But Sept. 11 is not something you can predict, like a hurricane.

Just because you can’t predict the exact details doesn’t mean you can’t predict that it’s coming.

That seems awfully fatalistic.

On the contrary, it’s completely not fatalistic. It says if we prepare, the tragedy is diminished. When you prepare for hurricanes, you know what happens? They’re not very traumatic because the levees hold and the shelters work and the roads don’t flood. The fatalism is by pretending there’s nothing we can do. Preparation happens when you acknowledge that this is going to happen again.

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.

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