Contending with Catastrophe

A sensitive religious response to 9/11

By Rabbi Dr Michael Harris, December 1, 2011

Edited by Michael J. Broyde,
K'hal Publishing, $24.95

This is a fascinating, moving and highly instructive volume. Marking the passing of a decade since the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, it presents Jewish responses at both the halachic and theological levels.

The longest section of the book focuses on Jewish law and the painful problem of agunot that arose in the wake of the attacks. It tells the story of ten cases of missing spouses (mostly husbands), and how the Beth Din of America succeeded in permitting all their partners to remarry in accordance with the highest halachic standards.

At first glance, Jewish law might appear callous in even hesitating to issue such authorisation. Yet rigorous research and analysis were absolutely necessary given the human suffering that would result from a spouse remarrying and her former partner turning out to be alive. In several instances, a person reputed to have been killed indeed turned out to have survived the attack, such as the case of a street vendor outside the World Trade Centre presumed dead by his family who was discovered alive many months later in a New York area hospital. The book recounts in an accessible way how classical halachic considerations, DNA analysis and close co-operation with secular agencies were synthesised by the Beth Din in enabling the bereaved spouses to rebuild their lives.

The second part offers Jewish theological and philosophical perspectives on the tragedy, including a particularly worthwhile essay by David Shatz on religious fanaticism and the problem of evil.

Shatz notes that the 9/11 attacks were "propelled by religious beliefs". This volume responds by displaying the Jewish religion at its sensitive, intelligent and compassionate best.

Dr Harris is rabbi of Hampstead Synagogue

Last updated: 4:24pm, January 4 2012