Preventing an Agunah Crisis in the Wake of the World Trade Center Disaster by Establishing Death through Various Forms of Evidence

  • Leora Nathan


According to Jewish law, specific evidence confirming the death of a man is needed before his widow is able to remarry. In situations such as the attacks on the World Trade Center, where many victims could not be identified on the basis of their remains alone, evidence traditionally tendered to establish death was largely unavailable. This meant that a relaxation of some of the more stringent requirements for proof of death was required, and that some additional, novel categories of evidence had to be considered in establishing death. DNA fingerprinting and dental records are among the evidence that rabbis now consider to have some probative value in establishing death. In addition, telephone calls made and e-mails sent by the victims just prior to the attacks could be used as proof of presence within the towers. When considered in conjunction with assessments of the probability of escape from a given location within the towers, this evidence is given greater weight. The combination of traditional identification signs, processes and principles of proving death and the more recently acceptable methods has the effect of decreasing the waiting period before which a Jewish woman can conclude that her husband has perished, and can thus effectively bring some closure to a tragic circumstance.