Observant Jews struggle with WTC victims ID issue

By Rachel Zoll, AP Religion Writer

4 Tishri 5762 17:35 Friday September 21, 2001

The effort to identify the thousands of people buried under the rubble of the World Trade Center has raised difficult questions for the guardians of ancient Jewish traditions.

Rescuers fear many bodies will not be found or identified at all, potentially leaving strictly observant Jews without the direct evidence religious law requires to confirm the death of a relative.

The identification is critical for families to complete the mourning process, already disrupted since they can’t meet the requirement to bury their dead within 24 hours.

Proof is also needed to invalidate a Jewish marriage so the surviving spouse can find another husband or wife.

Even in cases where DNA identification can be made, problems remain — some rabbis question the tests’ accuracy and do not accept the results alone as evidence of death.

“The number of individuals who are going to have to be identified by means other than direct identification — that’s unprecedented,” said Rabbi Moshe Krupka of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

An Israeli police forensics expert has come to New York at the request of Jewish leaders to help oversee the process, Krupka said.

Rabbi Gedaliah Schwartz, chief of the Rabbinical Council of America, will be among those providing guidance on religious law, said his spokesman, Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski.

Schwartz served as an adviser in the recovery effort for SwissAir Flight 111 in 1998 and for other tragedies.

There will be as many opinions as there are rabbis, scholars say.

“We don’t have popes. Any man who is schooled in the law has the chance to look with a different viewpoint,” said Rabbi Saul Aranov of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Canada, where the SwissAir flight crashed.

More than 6,000 people have been reported missing and are feared dead beneath the crumbled Trade Center.

Most Jews will begin the mourning period once New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani begins calling the salvage effort a recovery instead of a rescue mission, indicating all hope is lost.

But that will not solve the need for evidence of death.

Giuliani has acknowledged that the 2,000-degree Fahrenheit (1,100-degree Celsius) fire caused by the explosions of the two planes and the implosion of the 110-story twin towers make it likely some victims will never be recovered.

“In this case, we don’t know what exists under that rubble,” Krupka said. “We don’t know what has been buried, what has been crushed, what has been incinerated.”

Identification is simpler for Roman Catholics, Protestants and Muslims, who generally accept whatever method the medical examiner deems appropriate. More liberal Jews will also accept the government’s ruling.

Orthodox Jews, however, will look to the Talmud. This collection of religious and civil law requires more than one piece of evidence to identify a person who has been disfigured in death, said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of Jewish medical ethics at Yeshiva University.

Rabbis accept dental records and fingerprinting, and many accept DNA testing, but some require other proof as well.

In the SwissAir crash, where minute bits of the bodies of the 229 victims were recovered, some rabbis approved the passenger list as evidence of death, if airline officials marked that the victim had boarded the plane, said Aranov, who helped oversee the process.

Others accepted a personal object, such as a ring or watch, along with the DNA tests, he said.

It is not known how many Jews were killed in the suicide strikes at the Trade Center.

More questions will likely be raised later about what to do with body parts that cannot be identified, since each faith tradition has different rules about burying or cremating human remains.

“We are undertaking the largest effort outside of a war zone for identifying the remains of people through technology and science,” Krupka said. “It’s a terrible time.”

JPost Radio: How do we begin to mourn in the face of a pillar of fire and a cloud of smoke rising heavenward?

Rabbi Daniel Landes, director of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, spoke with JPost Radio’s Dave Bender about the Halachic implications of the grisly task.