Jewish Responses to 9/11

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I. Responding to Tragedy

The traditional Jewish response to tragedy contains multiple elements — action, prayer and questions. Each of these types of Jewish reactions followed the terrible events of 9/11 and are ably documented in the recent book edited by R. Michael J. Broyde, Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th.

These three varieties of responses mirror midrashic interpretations of a seemingly simple blessing as referring to spiritual completeness. The Torah (Deut. 7:14) describes as one of the rewards of universal obedience to God that “You will blessed above the other nations; there will not be male or female barren among you, or among your cattle.” The rabbis of the midrash (Devarim Rabbah 3:6) offer three interpretations of this promise. The first understands it simply. Others take it less literally, suggesting that the verse means that our prayers will not be unanswered (i.e. childless) or barren of repentance.

These three interpretations can be better understood when compared to the Rosh Hashanah cry, during the U-Nesaneh Tokef passage, of “But repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil of the decree.” R. Jonathan Sacks, in the commentary to his recently published Rosh Hashanah Machzor, explains that these three elements refer to three types of commandments — between man and God (prayer), man and his fellow (charity), and man and himself (repentance). Excelling in all three displays a religious wholeness that breaks through divinely ordained misfortunes. Similarly, the promises of answered prayers (between man and God), universal repentance (man and himself) and childbearing (man and his fellow) constitute a reward of spiritual completion.

Responding to tragedy with action, prayer and questions reflects the same totality of being. The actions show our concern for our fellow in protecting them and advocating on their behalf. And our prayers and questions generate growth in our divine relations and personal spirituality.

II. Action

The most obvious action in response to 9/11 was of a military nature. This was conducted by the United States and its allies and was not uniquely Jewish, although Jews certainly participated. The other action which traditionally follows death is mourning, followed by the continuation of everyday life. In the case of 9/11, both the mourning and moving on required prior rabbinic activity in declaring victims dead. Jewish marital law demands a rabbinic determination of death before allowing a spouse to remarry. In the case of the 9/11 victims, rabbis needed to determine that the spouses — generally husbands — were indeed in the towers or airplanes and perished in the tragedy.

R. Michael Broyde explains in his essay why this is so important. Jewish marriage is a private agreement between two people that a rabbi cannot simply annul. The marriage must be ended through either a private divorce contract or death. The rabbis can only certify that either has occurred and lack the authority to grant a divorce. To illustrate the danger of prematurely declaring a spouse dead, R. Broyde cites the example of American sailor Tom Gordy who was captured in World War II by the Japanese. After being informed by the International Red Cross that Tom was dead, his wife Dorothy eventually married a friend of the family. When Gordy returned after the war, Dorothy annulled her second marriage but Tom refused to take her back after what he considered her betrayal. The accidental adultery due to the premature declaration of death wreaked havoc on husband and wife, not to mention the second husband.

R. Yona Reiss, who at the time of 9/11 was the Director of the Beth Din of America (BDA), the rabbinic court sponsored by the Rabbinical Council of America and Orthodox Union, describes the process and timeline of resolving the ten cases that were presented to the court. From the initial meetings at which the BDA was unofficially given jurisdiction over cases coming from its own community as well as those of the Reform and Conservative movements — the Reform and Conservative representatives recognized the universal acceptance of its decisions — through the meetings with co-workers, medical examiners and newspaper reporters, until the declarations of death and performance of chalitzah ceremonies where necessary, R. Reiss takes readers through the morbid but fascinating and challenging events.

R. Chaim Jachter complements this with a detailed discussion of the complex halakhic issues that arose in the various cases. Sometimes partial or no remains of the deceased were found or only personal items. In some cases, there was no direct proof the spouse was in his office building when it collapsed. R. Jachter shows how the BDA resolved these and other questions, placing everything in halakhic context and showing precedents and dissenting views. After R. Jachter’s comprehensive article, readers are offered entry into the complex world of responsa. Specific correspondence on these cases is translated from Rabbinic Hebrew into English: a lengthy exchange between R. Mordechai Willig and R. Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, and the responsa of R. Gedalia Schwartz and R. Ovadiah Yosef.

After the rabbinic declarations of death, the BDA sent spouses letters permitting them to mourn and eventually remarry. These letters, also on museum display, are reproduced in this volume with other primary correspondence and items of evidence.

III. Questions

The second section of the book enables readers to grow religiously by addressing ethical and philosophical questions emerging from the tragedy. R. J. David Bleich asks a difficult question about preventing similar future tragedies. May the military shoot down a plane containing both terrorists and civilians, thereby saving thousands of lives by killing dozens of innocent passengers? R. Bleich submits the complex ethical quandary to careful halakhic scrutiny and concludes that the obligation to save life “does not constitute license to commit an overt act of homicide.”

R. Norman Lamm, speaking at the first anniversary of 9/11, asks how to properly remember this tragedy. Distinguishing between the complementary themes of zekher le-churban (remembering the Destruction) and zekher le-mikdash (remembering the Temple) that manifest repeatedly in Jewish law, R. Lamm exhorts us to remember the pain of 9/11 and rebuild for the future. R. Aharon Lichtenstein examines the moral and religious ramifications of 9/11. While he has much insight to offer, I found the following particularly important: “Our confrontation with this worldview should lead us to examine ourselves and take care that our own fervor not overpower our conscience and our faith.”

Prof. David Shatz examines the problem of religious fanaticism and morality. If we accept, as we must, an objective morality that opposes evil, how can we engage in theodicy which serves to explain evil? My brief and simplistic formulation loses most of the impact the weighty, nuanced challenge. He answers based on the teachings of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik that “[w]e must act as if there were no answers in any specific case we encounter — as if suffering is not integral to a higher good. Were we to do otherwise, we could not explain the ethical responsibility of eliminating evil.”

IV. Prayer

At least weekly but sometimes more often, communities recite prayers on behalf of a host of necessary communal bodies. Most of these were written centuries ago but a few, such as that for the US government, are of more recent vintage. After 9/11, the leadership of the many synagogues where these prayers were previously skipped to save time instituted prayers for the US government. Dr. Avi Shmidman and R. Ben Tzion Spitz composed specific prayers, based on the traditional version but modified to refer to those killed in 9/11, first responders and emergency workers, and the US armed forces. These along with the authors’ commentaries close the book on a note looking heavenward, where our faith in ultimate peace and justice lies.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. The most obvious lesson for Jews to be derived from 911. Jews,the West is on a collision course with Islam which leaves us at far greater risk than in the past. The process of the Ingathering of the Exiles will continue to bring Jews back from all the nations and those who don’t realize this deny Jewish Destiny. Now, more than ever is the time to make aliyah and fulfill the commandment of yishuv eretz yisrael. We should heed the warnings of HaRav Meir Kahane ztz”l.

  2. Because Jews in America are much more likely to be impacted from a ‘collision course with Islam’ than Jews in Israel…

  3. Israel Fathers Rights Advocacy Council

    R Broyde seems flawed in his basic tenet, albeit central to his worldview. The historic reality is a complete disconnect between traditional Jewish response to Jewish national/communal tragedy and secular tragedy that involved some Jews. Rabbinic and communal responses to plagues, falls of kings & empires with significant loss of Jewish soldiers (as distinct from pillage of the community) have been dealt with quite differently than R Broyde proposes. Inconvenient Truth as that might be for a MO organization preaching an ability to interpret and address all of secular life’s peaks and troughs through a halachic prism. The concept is not simply flawed, but of times the response of the community & Rabbinic leadership is best left silent I’m the dustbin of history.

  4. “When Gordy returned after the war, Dorothy annulled her second marriage but Tom refused to take her back after what he considered her betrayal. The accidental adultery due to the premature declaration of death wreaked havoc on husband and wife, not to mention the second husband.”

    1. IIRC, Dorothy just offered to “annul” the second marriage, Tom refused this.

    2. In most cases legal presumption of death by court constitutes dissolution of marriage. Tom and Dorothy were not legally married from the time of such declaration and her second marriage was legally 100% valid.

    3. As Tom was neither Jewish nor Catholic, how do you justify the “accidental adultery” phrase?

  5. Israel Fathers Rights Advocacy Council


    Excellent analysis

    Kol HaKavod

  6. “The accidental adultery due to the premature declaration of death wreaked havoc on husband and wife, not to mention the second husband.”

    While I commend the BDA for the work it did in connection with 9/11, I am underwhelmed by its use of the Tom Gordy incident (btw, he was President Carter’s uncle) as justification for its work. Simple question: how many Tom Gordy’s were there, and how many women were there who were married to men who were missing in actionand never came home? If such women never remarried because of the uncertainty of death, did that not wreak havoc on usually young women doomed to a life of loneliness; did it not wreak havoc upon the orphaned children doomed to a fatherless life. Halacha demands what halacha demands, and those commited to it must bow to those demands. But to use the Tom Gordy story as proof that halacha’s way is necessarily the best way is unconvincing, and I am sorry that a thinker as knowledgable, astute and sensitive as R. Broyd is used the story in this way.

  7. Shimon S: Thank you for bringing to my attention more details of the Gordy case.

    Joseph Kaplan: The Tom Gordy case illustrates not just the possibility of someone mistakenly declared dead returning, but the reality that it has happened.

  8. Shimon S: I checked and President Carter uses the term adultery in reference to his uncle’s perception of his aunt’s actions.

  9. Ye’yasher kochakha to our Rosh Yeshiva R. Student.
    Actually, without wishing to comment on any actual case, I note that there is presumably no phenomenon of agunah in the Noahide Code since Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 9:8) rules that a Noahide lady can unilaterally dissolve her marriage by walking out of her husband’s home. If so, the agunah phenomenon is a uniquely Jewish privilege. [To what can these opposite halakhot be compared? Jews are commanded to keep Shabbat, whereas Noahides are commanded not to keep Shabbat, as per the gemara in Sanhedrin 58b. Jews and Noahides have separate missions, divinely assigned.]

  10. Gil: I understand it happened. But why is that result necessarily worse (other than halachic mandates) than the many more numerous cases of wives not remarrying because they didn’t know definitely if their husband was dead? Both are tragic and both wreak havoc. Halacha has told Jews who follow it how to resolve that dilemma, but why is that result necessarily better for others? My objection was primarily to the sentence “The accidental adultery due to the premature declaration of death wreaked havoc on husband and wife, not to mention the second husband.” But now that I reread your post, I’m not sure if that’s R. Broyde’s comment or your addition. If it’s you, then I apologize for my earlier comment where I criticized him, and direct my criticism appropriately.

  11. See the discussion of Gordy here:

    R. Broyde writes in the book: “The decision by the United States government to determine that Tom Gordy was dead and Dorothy can remarry, even absent physical evidence proving that fact, seemed at the time to be a compassionate decision to Dorothy — but shortly thereafter turned out to be a decision that was a source of enormous suffering to both of them.”

  12. R’ Gil,

    Yes, but according to Carters description Tom (and most of his family) perceived Dorothy’s actions not a a mere accident but as a true betrayal.

    My point is that it might be dangerous to mix halacha and secular law (or outlook):

    1. There are tens of thousands of cases of death in absentia in the USA, and there is indeed a great legal need for such an institute.

    2. I believe that most people would agree that Dorothy Grady did not commit anything immoral (or illegal).

    3. As for halacha, the outcome of the Grady case is irrelevant. What difference would it make if he would give his wholehearted blessing to the second marriage and they would stay BFFs?

  13. Now that I see what R. Broyde wrote in his book, I most respectfully direct my objection back to him and disagree with his point. Indeed, I think he missed the more important point which is that in the vast majority of such cases a contrary decision will be a source of enormous suffering to the wife and children — i.e., a wife shackled to a dead husband, doomed to a life of loneliness and despair with no chance for remarriage and happiness and without the ability to find a father for her young children.

    Again, so I shouldn’t be misunderstood: the halacha is the halacha and we are bound by it. I therefore feel pride in the difficult work that the BDA performed with compassion and expertise and in the great service they provided to families who lost loved ones on that terrible day. But IMO the Tom Gordy case provides no support for such a decision in the case of people who are not bound by halacha. Which is the more compassionate way to go? Thank God the answer to that question is far above my pay grade. But AISI the Tom Gordy case doesn’t provide us with an answer.

  14. I’d like to echo rv. I see no mention here of a reaction such as the United States had after Pearl Harbor- a determination to fight, to recognize we are at war, to see the enemy for what he is.

    In all fairness, there is little of that in large swathes of society, particularly the swaths among which Jews (and especially their intellectuals) live.

  15. Israel Fathers Rights Advocacy Council

    Reserve your comment for American Jewry alone. It is not accurate in Israel. Shevach l’El.
    But again, the halachic response to Pearl Harbor, the carnage of Napoleon or the Crimean War or WW One on loss of Jewish infantrymen (as distinct from kehillot) put lie to the books very premise.

  16. Less so in Israel, yes, although there are no lack of appeasers here as well. As you say, Shevach l’El.

    Let’s be clear that those who don’t get it are a small minority in the US too. But they’re overrepresented where it matters.

    If the main story on my web portal yesterday can be Muslim complaints that they’re mistreated at Rye Playland…

  17. J,

    Of course there are dangers in Israel…but we are supposed to be there….

  18. I think that Nachum underestimates the numbers of “who don’t get it”. Look at the liberal media and academic worlds-they operate in their own dream world vis a vis accomodating radical Islam, the Patriot Act, and the need to seek regime change in Iraq and to fight the sources of terror in Afghanistan . These circles view the military as the prime source of a bloated government, as opposed to unchecked spending on entitlement programs, and dream of more ways for government to dictate as many aspects of our lives as possible without realizing that what was once a great American economy can fairly only be called a rust belt.

  19. Well, for those of us who don’t get it, thank God we have Nachum and Steve to set us right. I’m relieved.

  20. A Jewish documentary on 9/11

  21. Maria's brother

    The book seemed to focus very much on legalistic responses to the tragedy. Is this part of the Jewish community only interested in that response, or do they think like feeling, caring people, who think about emotional and spiritual matters too? Do only the opinions of dayanim and law professors who are also talmidei chachomim form the relevant response. Where are the broader array of articles which could suitably be titled “Jewish Response to the Tragedy.” This book should have been called Halachic Issues of 9/11.

  22. Maria’s brother: Perhaps you might be interested in the second and third sections of the book which you seem to be overlooking.

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