Barry Freundel: A Rabbi’s Perspective

Although I live in the world of words and communication is generally considered to be my strong suit, I, like so many others, am at a loss to adequately express my dismay, disgust, and profound sadness over the recent revelations of voyeurism at the mikvah in Washington, D.C. My dismay is only compounded by the fact that Rabbi Freundel, the popular and accomplished rabbi of the prominent Orthodox synagogue Kesher Israel who allegedly perpetrated this crime, was a college classmate of mine at Yeshiva University. We lived only a few doors down from each other in the dorm all those years ago. I knew him well then. It seems that no one really knew him all that well now.

Under any circumstances, voyeurism perpetrated against unknowing women is criminal, and also a profound violation. But a number of factors make this alleged case a particularly egregious offense.

In Jewish tradition, the mikvah, or ritual bath, is the preeminent symbol of purity and spiritual cleanliness. Although men also may use a mikvah to elevate themselves to a higher level of spirituality, as many do before Shabbat, for women it most often represents a symbolic cleansing before marriage, after the spiritual impurity of a menstrual period, or after a lost pregnancy. It is a sacred exercise, a time for being restored to spiritual wholeness. To think of that exercise being sullied by an unknown invader of sacred space is simply awful.

When a woman is immersing in the mikvah to complete a process of conversion to Judaism, our tradition tells us that this represents nothing less than a re-birth, and the creation of an entirely new person, with a new identity: a b’ri-ah chadasha. To debase that moment with a hidden camera is to both subvert and pervert the very idea of the holiness of a Jewish soul, and reduce it to a tawdry peep show.

Understandably, there have been long-overdue calls for women to play a more prominent role in the operation and administration of mikva’ot, the Hebrew plural of mikvah, and also for greater communal attention to be paid to the nurturing of Jews by Choice, both during their process and thereafter. I certainly agree with these initiatives.

And then there is – not surprisingly – a pushback against what one person has called the “unchecked power” of rabbis. This suggests that there are rabbis who are operating without adequate supervision by the lay leadership that hired them, and that absent that supervision, they might arrogate unto themselves power and privileges to which they are not entitled, and which might harm those they serve.

I have no doubt that there are rabbis whose supervision by lay leadership might be found to be inadequate. I similarly have no doubt that there are rabbis who would lament the degree to which their lay leadership is too involved in their work, making them feel micro-managed. Both are realities in the field, and neither is ultimately good for the communities they serve. But the issue runs far deeper than just “keeping an eye on the rabbi.” It is also about the complicated relationship between rabbi and congregant (potential convert included), and the all-important challenge of maintaining healthy and clearly defined boundaries between the clergy and those whom they serve.

For a variety of reasons, some congregants want to see their rabbi as a paradigm of perfection, and they are all too ready to attribute to him/her qualities of personality and character that he/she may not possess, or deserve. For an equally eclectic variety of reasons, some rabbis may be all too willing to accept that kind of adulation, and allow those congregants to feed a deep-seated need for gratification. The model of “rabbi as guru” is indeed a dangerous one, but it requires both the rabbis and the congregants to be needy, each in his or her own way.

Even in a healthy relationship between rabbi and congregant, there is the element of “transference” that most frequently is associated with the therapeutic relationship between client and therapist. There is no denying that rabbis do wield enormous power, and they skirt the lines of the inappropriate at great personal and professional risk.

Rabbis do need supervision, like all professionals. They stand to benefit from supportive and consistent feedback from lay leadership. But having recently served a two-year term as President of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional association of Conservative rabbis that numbers some 1700-members world-wide, I can say without any reservation that the hugely overwhelming majority of my colleagues are exemplary in their practice of the rabbinate, and I would suggest that the same is true of my colleagues in the other religious denominations as well. All of which leads me to what I think needs to be said here …

If indeed Rabbi Freundel committed the awful violation of trust that he is accused of, then he is a deeply troubled man with a clinical diagnosis of voyeurism. As sickening as the act was, and as egregious a violation of everything that a mikvah stands for as it was, that diagnosis designates him as sick, in addition to having committed a crime. It should not be treated as a global statement about the unchecked power of the rabbinate. Sadly, the rabbinate was the arena in which his sickness manifested itself. There’s a serious distinction to be made here, with attendant implications about the rabbinate as a whole.

So yes, it’s well past the time when control of religious institutions like a mikvah should be handed to the women who are their main clientele. And yes, rabbis need to be understood as fallible, and capable of mistakes … even the good ones. They need to be supervised, but they just as badly need quality, ongoing professional education to help them maintain their professional equilibrium in a very demanding profession.

Rabbi Freundel’s alleged misdeeds have served to cast all rabbis in a negative light. He has made our work that much harder, and the trust that we need to be successful that much more difficult to achieve. We need to earn the trust of those we serve, every day, now more than ever. But let’s be careful not to let our dismay over his alleged actions cloud our ability to appreciate the complexity and difficulty of rabbinic work, and the great care exercised by the overwhelming majority of its practitioners. Rabbis need and deserve that appreciation as well.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.