NEW YORK, Sept. 23 (JTA) — Rabbi Avi Weiss has three families in his congregation waiting for New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to decide whether their relatives are dead or alive.
“We’re in a period of mourning between death and burial, which is in limbo,” said Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, N.Y.
The three linked to Weiss’ congregation are among the thousands missing after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
With more than 6,000 feared dead as a result of the attacks on the World Trade Center — an unknown number are Jewish — rabbis like Weiss are consulting experts in halachah, or Jewish law, to find out how to mourn without a body.
And just as halachah mandates what should be done from the moment of death to burial, it is explicit in what should be done in those cases when no body is found.
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of talmudic law and medical ethics at Yeshiva University in New York, agrees that the question of when mourning can begin lies in Giuliani’s hands.
“The moment he stops talking about the search-and-rescue mission, it means they’re not looking anymore,” said Tendler. “And as long as they’re calling it a rescue mission, there’s still hope in someone’s heart.”
Although the search was continuing early this week— albeit with little hope that any victims might be found — Rabbi Jonathan Reiss, director of the Beth Din of America, said several families of the World Trade Center victims had already sought the Jewish court’s help.
What makes this an especially difficult case, Reiss said, is that there is no way to determine with certainty that a particular victim was actually in the building at the time the planes hit.
“On the Titanic, you had a list of passengers,” he said. “But in the case of the World Trade Center, it’s harder to ascertain. Every single case has to be dealt with on an individual basis, with tremendous sensitivity and careful consideration.”
Usually, Jews bury their dead within 24 hours.
In this case, Tendler said, Jewish law dictates that once the search is called off, shiva — or mourning — must commence as it would with any death, but without a funeral service.
“The service is a burial service and, in this case, there’s nothing to bury,” he said.
Tendler advised instead that a memorial service take place at the shloshim, the 30th day after death becomes official.
“Eulogies are for the living,” he said, “and they should be done at a point where the family is already over the crying period and can control their emotions a little better.”
Tendler said that in those instances when a body is recovered after the shiva period is completed, it is buried accompanied by a single day of mourning called yom likut atzamos, the day that the bones are buried.
There is nothing in Jewish law prohibiting having a tombstone for individuals who perished in the Sept. 11 attack, said Tendler.
But when asked, he advises a living memorial such as a playground with a memorial plaque as a more suitable way to remember the dead.
Rabbi Mark Washofsky said he had heard of cases where Jewish families held memorial services for those lost in the World Trade Center attack, despite the fact that the search hadn’t been called off yet.
Washofsky said that these families, Reform Jews, decided for themselves that they had no hopes of finding their loved ones alive.
“The families wanted to do something ritually marking the beginning of the mourning process, and shiva would have been cut short by Rosh Hashanah, so they felt the need to do something quickly,” said Warshofsky, associate professor of rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.
Issues of Jewish law regarding divorce may also arise if men’s bodies are not found.
More than one piece of evidence is needed to prove that he is dead, or else his widow is considered an agunah, or “chained woman,” because he never issued her a get, a Jewish divorce document. Without such a document, a Jewish woman is not permitted to remarry, according to Jewish law.
Tendler said that in the case of the World Trade Center, every effort will be made to ensure that the man had died in the explosion.
If it could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he was in the building, and that the marriage between he and his wife was a happy one, Tendler said that “a ruling would be given that surely he is dead, and she would be free to start picking up the pieces of her life.”
Halachic issues aside, the lack of a body can make what is already an extremely difficult grieving process even more so, experts say.
Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociology professor whose latest book is “When a Jew Dies: The Ethnography of a Bereaved Son,” made the point that the purifying washing ritual performed after death is as much for the soul as it is for the body.
“The purification and burial can’t be done when there is an absence of a body,” said Heilman, noting that those rituals serve as a kind of “seeing-off” of the body.
Without a physical place for the family to visit the body, he added, “There’s no feeling of closure. It’s as if the soul that resided in that body has not reached its destination and is in tortured limbo because the body hasn’t been purified and laid to rest.”
Rabbi Earl Grollman agrees.
The author of the forthcoming “Living With Loss, Healing With Hope: A Jewish Perspective” said the lack of body allows the survivors to “hope against hope” that the missing will be found. “Denial is part of the grieving process, but it’s much greater” when there is no body, he said.