I have thought long and hard about what I would say on this 10th anniversary of 9/11. So much has been said. So many speeches, so many articles, opeds and essays. But at a certain level, nothing needs to be said. Every person in this room remembers exactly where they were and exactly what they felt when they first heard or saw the planes crashing in to the towers. We remember vividly the emotions, the fear, the concern, the confusion, the sense of loss. So nothing needs to be said.
Yet, I find myself up here talking so I will go to the place where I always go whenever I confront tragedy. Whenever, I struggle with a difficutl situation, I turn to Halakha and more specifically, to the “Responsa Literature” to see the religious struggles that Jews have had when going through difficult times.
So I am going to begin with a Halakhic question that was sent by the Beth Din of America to Rabbi Ovadya Yosef (former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel). I am going to quote the testimony of Delphine Saada. Delphine’s husband, Thierry Saada (The Saada’s are French Jews of Tunisian Descent who arrived in the US in the 90’s), worked as a Trader for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor on the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
“My husband called me at 8:02 am to wake me up. At 8:50 (4 minutes after the North Tower was hit which occured at 8:46), I called him on his cell phone but he did not answer. I left a message. At 8:52, he called on his cell phone and told me they were evacuating the building. That was the last time I heard his voice.”
The question in this case was do we have enough evidence under Jewish law to declare Thierry dead. If not, then in addition to all of the suffering that Delphine, as a 9/11 widow encountered, she would now be an agunah (a chained woman not free to remarry).
No remains of Thierry Saada were found. No teeth that could be verified with dental records. No DNA evidence. Nothing. All they had was a call from the office at 8:02 and cell phone call at 8:52. The problem with the cell phone call is that it could have been made anywhere withing the range of the cell phone tower. It is possible that some time after 8:02 and before the plane hit, Thierry left the building and then after the towers were hit, he took the opportunity to disappear.
Some of you might be thinking that this is crazy. Hasnt this woman suffered enough? Why can’t we just assume that Thierry is dead and allow her to get on with her life?
I would therefore like to demonstrate to you how important it is to prove with as much certainty as possible that a husband is dead, before we allow a woman to remarry. I will do this with another responsum, this one date the 12th day of Tishrei 1942 (just 2 days after Yom Kippur) in the Kovno Ghetto. The Germans discovered that there were way more women in the ghetto than men. They were unhappy with this so said that any woman who is not married by such and such a date will be killed. All the single women in the ghetto went out and married any man they could find. One particular woman’s husband had been taken by the Nazis a few years earlier and she had heard a number of reports that he was dead. She was confident that he died because if not, he certainly would have tried to contact her.
This woman goes and married a second man and they have a child. They all survive the war move to America, send this boy to yeshiva. He eventually gets married and becomes a rabbi.
One day, 30 years after the holocaust, guess who shows up?
The first husband. He doesnt really have a good explanation as to where he was for the last 30 years, but he is here. This means that this boy is a Mamzer (the product of adultery) for his mother was still married to her first husband when she had him). The result was that this young man who was now a rabbi was actually forced to give up his position as rabbi and he was forced to divorce his wife because he was not allowed to be married to her.
Verifying that a husband is dead is certainly very important and that is what the bet din in our case set out to do.
The question was specifically sent to Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef because the Saada’s were a Sephardic family.
So how does Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef rule?
Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef and others who dealt with these questions (there were about 15 9/11 agunot) takes a two prong approach.
First, he establishes that Thierry was in fact on the 104th floor when the plane hit.
He argues that we may use the phone records and the testimony of the wife and he employs a concept called chazakah which says that if Thierry was there at 8:02, we can assume that he was there until we know for sure that he was not there.
The second prong is as follows. Now that we can place Thierry in his office on the 104th floor at the moment of impact, we can apply the Talmudic concept of “One who falls into a burning furnace.” If we have witnesses who see someone fall into a furnace, even if no body is recovered, we can declare the person dead. Since we know of no living survivors from the North Tower who were above the 92nd floor at the moment of impact, we can declare Thierry dead.
Thierry’s wife, Delphine was given permission to remarry as well as all of the 9-11 agunot. Some of the cases were more difficult but the rabbis found leniencies in every case.
As I was learning these responsa related to the 9/11 agunot, I found myself comparing them to the many agunot responsa throughout Jewish History, where Jewish men have been killed or disappeared without sufficient evidence and rabbinic authorities deal with whether or not the wives are agunot. These case occured during the crusades, during the Spanish Inquisition (men disappeared into the Inquisition Jails never to be heard from again), and of course the Holocaust. The major difference between all the other cases and the 9/11 agunot is as follows.
In all the other cases, the husbands were targeted for one reason and one reason only, they were Jews. However, in this case, while it is true that Jews died on 9/11, they were not targeted becasue they were Jews. They were targeted because they were Americans, or living and working in America. They were targeted because of everything that America stands for; Freedom, Democracy and all the values that we cherish.
This is true about every ethnicity and group that lost members during 9/11. While it is true that African Americans were killed during 9/11, they were not targeted because they were Black but because they were American. Everyone was killed; Jews, Christians, Buddhists, even Muslims. Rich, Poor, Black, White. All of us Americans. All of the classifications that usually divide us did not matter to the Terrorists.
I think this understanding that 9/11 transcended any of those divisions was deeply felt right after 9/11. This is why everyone wanted to help their fellow American. There was a sense of Unity. A sense of helping out my neighbor regardless of where he or she comes from.
I remember the first time Sarah and I visited Ground Zero in the summer of 2002. All we could think of were the majestic towers that once were there and what was in their place? A deep dark pit of death. I had one thought. This is a mass grave. As Jews were are unfortunately too familiar with Mass Graves. You can go and visit them all over Europe. But this is different. This is a mass grave of all peoples. All religious, all ethnicities. There is no Jewish or Christian section of Ground Zero, everyone is one.
I remember asking myself, can any light come out of this deep dark pit of destruction? I think the only light might be if we remember how much they hate us and we ask ourselves, “do we love each other as much as they hate us.” They spent months and maybe years scheming and planning to destroy. Do we spend time trying to build. They worked so hard on hurting and killing, do we spend equal amount of time on healing and sustaining? Maybe, the one light that can come out of 9/11 would be if we try to love each other as much as they hate us.
I would just like to conclude with Thierry Saada and his wife Delphine. The following triibute was written about him in the New York Times a few months after 9/11 and I am going to read parts of it.
When Thierry Saada came to New York in 1999 from Paris, he sublet Delphine Zana's apartment through mutual friends in the Sephardic Jewish community. Both their families were originally from Tunisia, but moved to France after Tunisian independence. Mr. Saada was tall, handsome, and "sportif," she said, and they fell in love.
Last November, they married, and Mrs. Saada became pregnant. Mr. Saada was so excited he played Tunisian music and sacred Sephardic melodies for his unborn child, and he would "talk to my bellybutton," she said. Mrs. Saada was scared about the delivery, but "he said we would be together, that he would push with me."
On Sept. 11, Mr. Saada, 26, a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, was on the 104th floor of 1 World Trade Center. The baby was due on Sept. 16, but Mrs. Saada did not go into labor. "I was hoping he would come back," she said. In the end, the labor was induced, and on Sept. 27, their son, Lior ‹ "my light" in Hebrew ‹ was born, with Mrs. Saada's mother, Dolly, and sister-in-law, Carole, at her side.
After everything that Delphine went through she had her Little Light, her Lior to remember her husband.
I think we all have a little light, our own lior, to take out of 9/11. It is that is to try to revive that sense of unity and mutual caring that occurred right after 9/11. And if we do our part, May HaKadosh Baruch Hu, May G-d do his part and grant this amazing country peace, safety and security and spare it further sorrow for many years to come.