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For the first six months of 1974, a secret court of three rabbis met almost daily for a few hours in an apartment in Tel Aviv. Nine hundred cases were brought before the beit din (rabbinical court), in brown cardboard files couriered by a small military car. Most of the time, only the three rabbis and one secretary were present in the room; occasionally, witnesses were called. But the men and women whose fates were being decided were not even aware of the proceedings.

They were 900 men, out of a total of 2,656 Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, who were married at the time of their death and whose identification before burial was, due to the fog of battle, in question. The other parties to the proceedings were an identical number of women, widows who were classified as agunot (chained or anchored) and would therefore not be allowed to remarry by Jewish law until their husbands had been finally acknowledged as dead.

Some of the cases were straightforward and took only 10 minutes of discussion. The bodies had been clearly identified and documented before burial and the rabbis had no problem in authorizing the death certificate. But in cases where bodies had been badly damaged, with parts missing or mixed up, or where the circumstances of death were unclear - or, worst of all, where there was no body at all - long days of harrowing investigation took place until a verdict was reached. The rabbis studied the medical records, battle logs and forensic evidence and questioned witnesses. The final result: All 900 women were released from their status of aguna, free to begin new lives.

The three rabbis had achieved something unparalleled in halakhic history: Never had such a large number of cases been resolved by one beit din. The three rabbis - then chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the two chiefs of the IDF Chaplaincy Corps, Rabbis Mordechai Piron and the late Gad Navon - also set another precedent. Until then, a beit din had never sat on such a case without the woman first asking for a ruling. Yosef decided that to save them from any future problems or indignity, the special beit din would free all the Yom Kippur War agunot. No rabbinical court has ever shown such audacious proactiveness since.

There are two kinds of agunot. The one we hear most about nowadays, thanks mainly to the efforts of religious feminist groups, is the civil kind - women who are left in limbo when a husband absconds with no clear address, leaving his wife in an impossible state where she will never be able to remarry until he grants her a get, or bill of divorce. (Women whose husbands' whereabouts are known, but who refuse to divorce them, are often erroneously termed agunot as well, but under Jewish law, such a woman is classified differently: as a mesurevet get, or someone whose husband refuses to divorce her.) The other kind is when a husband is presumed dead in a military action, terror attack or fatal accident, but his body cannot be found.

The last such large-scale case was following the 9/11 attacks. Teams of rabbis and investigators in the United States and Israel worked for over a year, collating every piece of evidence that proved that the Jewish men who were working in the Twin Towers on the morning of the attack, but whose bodies were never found, could not have been anywhere else besides the higher floors of the towers, whence nobody came out alive.

The most famous case of a military aguna is Tami Arad, wife of Ron, the air force navigator who was captured 22 years ago when his Phantom jet crashed in Lebanon. There is a near consensus in the intelligence community that Arad is no longer alive, but a high-level government commission decided in 2002 that he will be classified as missing in action until clear evidence to the contrary comes to light. One of the reasons for the government's insistence on this is the opposition of Arad's family to any change in his status. But if Tami Arad were to ask to remarry, it is quite possible that a beit din would find the intelligence assessments sufficient to confirm her as a widow.

That brings us to the most recent case. Ten days ago, Karnit Goldwasser was still an aguna, eagerly awaiting the return of her beloved Udi, snatched from his patrol vehicle by Hezbollah two years before. There is no question today that not only were Udi and his comrade, Eldad Regev, killed on the spot, but that shortly after the Second Lebanon War, there was already sufficient forensic and intelligence information to officially recognize them as fallen soldiers. Yet due to a bizarre mixture of political, diplomatic and public opinion considerations, the government kept alive the myth that the fate of Goldwasser and Regev was unknown.

In one of the last twists to the negotiations with Hezbollah, the evidence was handed over to the IDF chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avi Ronsky, for a ruling. But two days later, there was a breakthrough in the talks and he was asked to desist. It is almost certain that had he been allowed to continue, he would have ruled that the two were dead. From what we have seen of these two noble families, there is no doubt that the Regevs and Goldwassers would have accepted the rabbi's ruling and sat shiva for their loved ones, even without bodies. Other families have done so in the past.

In hindsight, it is clear today that had Israel announced that its two soldiers were no longer alive, the deal that would eventually have been struck with Hezbollah could never have been as humiliating as last week's scenes.

There are a great many arguments in favor of minimizing the part religious authorities play in our lives. And certainly, despite progress over the last few years, the rabbis still have much to do to solve the remaining cases of civil agunot. But if calmer heads had prevailed in the case of Goldwasser and Regev and allowed the military rabbis to take charge at an early stage, as they did in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, we would have witnessed a rare occasion in which Jewish law can extract salvation out of tragedy - not only for individuals, but for an entire nation.

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