Background: The rabbis' role in determining death

In Jewish law a woman is not permitted to embark on a new nuptial arrangement until her previous one is resolved by divorce or death.

goldwasser ehud 88 (photo credit: )
goldwasser ehud 88
(photo credit: )
The Jewish people have a long history of tragedies. Starting with the expulsion from the Land of Israel by the Romans, through the Crusades, the Chmielnicki massacre of the 17th century, the Russian pogroms and the Holocaust, Jews have traveled a vale of tears and persecution. With the establishment of the State of Israel the nature of the tragedies has changed. No longer are Jews powerless wanderers, dependent on the kindness of others. Nevertheless, the Jewish people continues to deal with constant warfare and turmoil. Throughout this long history of suffering the Jewish people's spiritual leaders - the rabbis - have had to cope with one of the most emotionally and religiously difficult situations possible: permitting the remarriage of a Jewish woman whose husband has disappeared. In Jewish law a woman is not permitted to embark on a new nuptial arrangement until her previous one is resolved by divorce or death. Rabbis have written hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions involving women whose husbands disappeared during a war, a pogrom or some other tragedy. These decisions, known as "responsa" because they answered specific questions, help contemporary rabbis tackle present day cases. For instance, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839), known as the Hatam Sofer, ruled that notices of death issued by states to the families of soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars were valid and could be relied upon to permit women to remarry. Determining the death of a man who has disappeared is critical. Until the death of the husband is verified the woman remains in limbo. Technically, she is still wed to her husband, which means she cannot remarry. But her "marriage" is to an absentee husband, a nonentity who is nothing more than a memory. This is precisely the situation of Karnit Goldwasser, wife of Ehud, who has been living in uncertainty since her husband was kidnapped by Hizbullah almost two years ago. OC Chaplaincy Corps Rabbi Avichai Ronsky is responsible for deciding whether or not Goldwasser should be declared "a deceased soldier whose place of burial is unknown." Rabbi Yisrael Weiss, former OC Chaplaincy Corps, who in 2001 declared deceased three soldiers a year after they were kidnapped from an IDF base on the Golan Heights, said that various types of evidence were acceptable according to Jewish law. For instance, statements regarding Goldwasser's fate made by political leaders such as Hizbullah head Hassan Nasrallah either publicly or in private conversations that were picked up by Israeli intelligence agencies could be used to shed light on whether or not he was still alive. Off-the-cuff comments by individuals who might have inside information on what happened to Goldwaser are also acceptable. But this is only on condition that the person making the comments does not know that what he said had the power to remove the restrictions preventing Karnit Goldwasser from remarrying. Another source of evidence is forensic and ballistic information from the scene of the kidnapping that sheds light on the probability that Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were either killed or mortally wounded by the missile that hit their armored car. Nevertheless, every rabbi asked to declare the death of a husband so that his wife can remarry is wary of the consequences of a mistake. According to Jewish law, a woman who remarries on the mistaken premise that her husband is dead is severely penalized. If the first husband reappears after the woman bears children to her new husband, all the children from the second marriage are considered mamzerim. Mamzerim, roughly translated as "bastards," are forbidden to marry. If they do marry, their children are also mamzerim. In addition, the law dictates that the woman must divorce both husbands. Despite the dangers, rabbis throughout the ages have taken upon themselves the responsibility for determining the death of husbands to allow women to move on with their lives. A rabbi who lived through the Holocaust and reportedly helped free some 50,000 women by declaring their husbands dead was once asked if he was concerned that he made a mistake in at least one of the cases. "If I made a mistake it would make me happy," said the rabbi, "because it would mean that there is one more Jew alive in the world."