If you have ever walked around the national cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, you may have noticed the memorial by David Brotzkos in commemoration of the 69 sailors whose lives ended on January 25th 1968. It was on this date when the Israeli Dakar submarine, under the command of Ya’akov Ra’anan went missing.
Dakar was one of three T-class submarines that the Israelis had purchased from the British in 1965, and after extensive renovations it left Portsmouth, England on the 10th of November 1967 to make its way home. But it never did.
In fact, despite huge efforts to locate the lost submarine including no less than 25 search operations, it took 31 years for the remains of the Dakar to be found, between the islands of Cyprus and Crete.
However, the loss of the Dakar submarine was doubly painful because, amongst the 69 sailors on board, 16 were married, meaning that their disappearance left their wives ‘agunot’ – literally ‘chained women’ –unable to marry in the absence of positive proof of death.
While all cases of agunot are not easy to solve, the case of the Dakar submarine seemed impossible, primarily because the classic case of an unsolvable agunah case involves ‘water with no visible end’, today’s daf (Yevamot 121a) states: ‘if a man fell into water that has no visible end, his wife is forbidden to marry again.’
At the time of the disappearance of the Dakar, the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces was Rabbi Shlomo Goren who, just six months previously had famously blown the shofar and offered a prayer of thanksgiving from the Kotel immediately after the victory of the six-day war.
Rabbi Goren was a brilliant, bold and determined scholar who led from the front. However, he was also a maverick scholar often holding positions different to his peers.
Following the disappearance of the Dakar, Rav Goren worked tirelessly to solve this case, and in June 1969 he published his lengthy ruling, which – based on a variety of factors including the finding of a marker buoy on a Gaza strip beach earlier that year, as well as a complex analyses of numerous halakhic sources – concluded that the 16 wives of those on board the Dakar were no longer agunot and were now free to remarry.
Despite the many questions that he had addressed, Rav Goren remarked at the time that the case of the Agunot Dakar was the hardest he had ever faced in his life.
However, there is another side to this story which I think provides a further dimension to the efforts of Rav Goren to permit the agunot Dakar, and this story involves what is known as the ‘War Get’.
When men would go out to war and not return, their wives would become agunot unless, as we have recently learnt in Massechet Yevamot, there was clear evidence that their husband had died. However, war is a messy thing, and not every death on the battlefield is witnessed and reported back. This led to the practice of the ‘war get’ – the instruction for a divorce bill to be given to a wife if her soldier husband did not return from battle. In fact, the Gemara (Ketubot 9b) states that ‘anyone who went to the war for the House of David would write a get for his wife’.
Over the years the war get was used intermittently, but it was in 1948 when the State of Israel proclaimed independence, and when it immediately had to fight for its survival during the war of independence, that attempts were made to re-establish the use of the war get.
At the time, Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog was the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, while Rabbi Shlomo Goren was the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces. For Rabbi Herzog, the war get was an important tool, and he therefore issued a command that every married soldier who went to war would appoint a messenger to give his wife a get if he went missing and thereby avoid the problem of igun. However, Rabbi Goren disagreed for three different reasons.
Firstly he said that there were logistical problems of rounding up the soldiers to arrange these signatures. Secondly, he argued that the command for the soldiers to sign the war get would render this document invalid as a get issued under coercion is invalid. However, most significantly, Rav Goren asserted that the soldiers refused to sign this document. And why? Because the last thing a soldier wants to think about as he goes out to battle is the possibility that he will not return. For Rav Goren, this concern for the morale of the soldiers was of great importance, and any attempt to make the soldiers sign the war get would do tremendous harm to the fighters morale.
Despite Rabbi Herzog adopting a contrary position on all three of these points, he was unable to establish the war get. However, other solutions were needed all too soon.
Just one day before the establishment of the state of Israel, a combined force of the Arab Legion and local Arab men massacred 129 Haganah fighters and kibbutzniks, of whom 35 were buried in a temporary grave without clear identification. This left some of their wives agunot given the absence of positive proof of death.
As he was later to do with the agunot of the Dakar submarine, Rav Goren worked incredibly hard to collect facts in order to help alleviate this problem. However, in his remarks at the time, Rav Herzog expressed a veiled criticism towards Rav Goren, writing that ‘we, the Chief Rabbinate of the Land of Israel, sought to advance and establish permission for a get to be written and signed in any case of a man going to war, but due to the lack of a military order this was not implemented in most cases.’
Though Rav Goren challenged these remarks and claimed that the soldiers did not have a war get was not due to the lack of a military order but rather due to logistical, halakhic and social reasons, it seems clear that Rav Goren felt an even greater sense of duty to be ‘matir agunot’ – solve cases of agunot – in situations where a war get would have avoided them. And I suspect this is why Rav Goren worked for three months without interruption , and why he published a responsum that was so long that it amounted to a book – to help the wives of those 16 sailors of the Dakar submarine.