By Yair Hoffman
Rav Henoch Leibowitz, zt’l, used to say that one should always try to look at events past and present through a Torah lens, even current events in the news that may be horrifying. This article contains two thoughts pertaining to a tragic incident that has recently come up in the news once again.
In 2021, the fate of Gabby Petito gripped the nation. Her body was found and was eventually positively identified. But what about her alleged murderer, Brian Laundrie? Where did he go? Eventually, his partial remains were found in Florida’s Carleton Reserve, but not positively identified.
At the time Laundrie’s remains were found, authorities had also found his suicide note. The authorities kept the note hidden and only released it two weeks ago.
Why the delay? The note contained the preposterous and delusional claim that Laundrie had killed her as a “mercy killing,” because she was in such dire pain after a fall and would not have made it anyway. He killed her out of his love for her. We can assume that the authorities felt that the nation’s pain was so raw at the time that it was not an appropriate time to release this suicide note.
If that’s the case, why release it at all? Or why did they release it without an accompanying caveat that did not let Laundrie get in the last word? We can assume that they were perhaps concerned about legal issues.
Promotion Of Falsehood
Midvar sheker tirchak, stay away from a false matter, not only forbids lying, but the Torah tells us an additional warning—to distance ourselves from lies and falsehood.
We can be inspired through an incident involving Rav Avrohom Pam, zt’l. He once entered a taxicab along with a talmid, and gave the address to the driver. The driver then proceeded to begin the drive. Rav Pam, however, noticed that the driver had not yet turned on the meter. Rav Pam gently reminded him to turn on the meter.
“Don’t worry, Rabbi,” responded the driver. “I will take care of you.”
Rav Pam did not understand the response. The driver elaborated, “The money will come to me. But do not worry, I will charge you significantly less than the meter rate would have charged.”
Rav Pam was very concerned that he might be involved in an act of deception. Realizing that the driver was planning on stealing from either the Taxi and Limousine Commission or the owner of the taxi medallion that rented by the job and not by the day, Rav Pam took an assertive yet gentle tone with the driver. He told the driver that the meter must be turned on, but that the driver will receive a significant tip that was beyond the fare that he had quoted him.
Rav Pam was a tzaddik who was careful regarding every word and every action. He so much wished to avoid this act of deception that he was willing to pay double the price just to avoid this. True, he could have availed himself of other options but he instead stood up for the cause of emes.
[For those interested, this author writes a weekly parashah sheet promoting the middah of emes. For a free subscription, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The second thought involves unidentified remains. We constantly see headlines such as “Body Found Near____. Is It______?” In this case, we even saw two such headlines. This happens to be the domain of a highly specialized field called “forensic anthropology” that the legal courts and insurance companies employ all the time. There were bloggers who suggested the remains were actually that of Laundrie’s alleged “twin brother,” who was heretofore unmentioned. The headlines and the case bring back memories of being in yeshiva and studying the sefer Shev Shmaitsah into the wee hours of a Thursday-night mishmar. In short, it would seem that the topic is actually a debate between the Mabit and the Shev Shmaitsah.
The Mabit’s View: Rav Moshe ben Yosef de Trani (1500–1580), better known as the Mabit, in his responsa (Siman 138) has an innovative thought pertaining to permitting an agunah to remarry. He writes that if someone was traveling through an area, and everyone had lost track of him and did not hear from him, and, subsequently, human remains were found in that area, we may assume that the remains are that of the missing person.
The responsa Shev Yaakov (Volume II siman 11) cites a proof to the Mabit’s innovative thought from Pesachim 10a regarding the case of a field that had within it a grave, but the grave was lost. If a grave was found later on, we may assume that it is the initial lost grave.
The Shev Shmaitsah’s View: The Shev Shmaitsah (VII 17, 18) disagrees with the proof and states that the two cases are inherently different. In the case of the lost-and-found grave, we are dealing with a case where that which was lost and that which was found are both the same item. But here we are dealing with something different. What was lost was a living human being, what was found were human remains—two entirely different subjects!
We thus have no source for the concept that we can assume that the human remains that were found were those of the missing live human being!
The Shev Shmaitsah even cites a proof to his view from that very same Gemara in Pesachim 10b. There it states that if a loaf of chametz was lost and afterward a loaf was found we can assume that it is the very same one. If, however, only crumbs were found subsequently, then we may not assume it is the remains of the original leftover loaf, unless the loaf was originally in the mouth of a child—where we can halachically assume that it was considered already crumbled.
The Shev Shmaitsah finds additional proof from a responsum of the Noda B’Yehudah (E.H. #46), regarding someone who was seen bound on a gallows. Even though we do not take testimony after three days since his death (Yevamos 120a) [out of concern that his face and features changed], nonetheless, we consider the two the same—the person who was bound on the gallows and the dead person before us. The source for this is from the Gemara about a grave that was lost in a field and subsequently a grave was found. Even though the person bound to the gallows was last seen alive and this body is dead, since the majority of those bound to the gallows die, it is comparable to a lost grave.
The Nodah B’Yehudah has an additional rationale to connect the deceased remains to the one bound by the gallows—the principle of kan nimtza kan haya—here he is found, here he was. This works through the idea of chazakah d’hashta—a prima facie assumption that if this is the way it is found, this is the way we must assume it was.
So who do the courts follow? Do they follow the Mabit or the Shev Shmaitsah? It seems clear that the courts follow the stricter view of the Shev Shmaitsah. What about poskim who rule on agunahs? There have been varied views.
These are the two ways that we can view contemporary news from a Torah point of view.
The author can be reached at email@example.com.