Changing the script

The scandal that began with the arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel for “voyeurism” is following a predictable path. The rabbi’s lawyer is asking for lenient treatment. Some of Freundel’s supporters are seeking to put the alleged offenses in context. We can expect a public, scripted act of contrition. The exploiter may hint that he was exploited in his youth. There could be a book and a radio show. The institutions that sustained Freundel will make their regrets but no fundamental changes. The actual victims, the women who were illicitly filmed and the converts who were exploited, will be forgotten.

It does not have to be this way. If Modern Orthodox Jews genuinely believe that they have a distinct and valuable approach to Judaism, then they should protect the victims and give them a role in reforming the conversion process. They should change how their rabbis do business, promote women’s involvement in halacha (Jewish law), and ensure respect for the differences within the fragmented Modern Orthodox world. The main institutions of Modern Orthodoxy, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the Orthodox Union (OU), should take the lead in deciding and implementing these reforms.

First, the RCA, the main organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis, should expand its statement endorsing all of Freundel’s conversions before his arrest. Freundel has been practicing for over a quarter of a century. In addition to conversions, he has put his name to dozens of marriages and divorces. Hundreds of people are affected and need reassurance. The RCA will have to support every ketubah (marriage contract) that Freundel signed and every get (bill of divorce) that he witnessed.

Second, the RCA has to make strong promises that it will keep. In particular, the RCA must resist any indication in the future that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate will investigate Freundel’s conversions. Although the Israel rabbinate how now retreated from its initial threat to look into these conversions, its record is not encouraging.

In particular, the RCA needs to reconsider its own statement about the conversions. The RCA’s position is deficient because it leaves open the possibility that Freundel’s conversions could still be open to doubt. According to the RCA, its ruling “follows a review of the charges contained in the court documents that have been released to date (including the criminal complaint, search and arrest warrants, and accompanying affidavits) and applicable Jewish law with respect to the status of prior conversions.” The difficulty is that the criminal investigation is at an early stage. There could be revelations that will require further review, creating chaos for converts and their families. The RCA therefore needs to say that new information will not change its mind.

Even slightly equivocal RCA statements are worrying because it has not been true to its word. In 2008, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, expressing an official RCA opinion, denied that the organization would invalidate previous Orthodox conversions. Yet within the last year the RCA refused to support an Orthodox conversion of a woman conducted in 1978—a position taken in response to a query from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. The RCA’s logic was that two of the three rabbis on the woman’s beit din (rabbinic court) had worked in synagogues with mixed seating, a non-Orthodox arrangement. Freundel publicly defended the RCA’s decision.

Third, the OU (to which most Modern Orthodox synagogues belong) and the RCA should allow women to control those areas of religious life that affect them. This should not be an executive decision by the leadership of either the RCA or the OU. Rather it should come from discussions with member synagogues and rabbis.

Handing power to women will involve excluding men. Freundel allegedly used his access to the National Capital Mikveh to install a camera with which he filmed women undressing. Yet there is no reason for any man to have unsupervised access to a mikveh (ritual bath). Only women have a halachic obligation to go to the mikveh. The only men who must attend are converts. Already some mikveh societies have announced that men can only assist with the functioning of the ritual bath if a woman is present.

There is already a trend toward greater women’s involvement in OU synagogues and mikvaot. The presidents of the National Capital Mikveh and Kesher Israel,* where Freundel has been the rabbi since 1989, are both women. The two main factions of RCA rabbis, the centrist and the Open Orthodox, are promoting women’s role in halacha. These two rabbinic tendencies bicker over titles and whether the women certified to provide halachic guidance are “clergy.” The centrists use the label “Yoetzet Halacha.” The Open Orthodox have the title of “Maharat.” Either way, they have a similar effect. They give women control over their own halachic issues.

Fourth, if the RCA is to regain communal trust it has to make itself and its rabbis more accountable. Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, has said “we don’t have a lot of hands-on oversight.”

One mechanism for accountability is to make the RCA’s conversions review commission genuinely independent. The RCA announced on October 20, 2014 that a group of “rabbis, lay leaders and mental health professionals (including men and women)” will look into how conversions are done, with a report due by January 31, 2015. The commission is superficially reassuring. However, just five days before Rabbi Dratch had indicated that he did not believe that the Freundel scandal would affect conversion procedures: “Hopefully it doesn’t mean anything, because the process and the protocols are larger than any one individual.”

The commission also needs appropriate membership, not friends of the RCA. Anybody familiar with the vocabulary of American Jewish life knows that “lay leaders” can mean the wealthy and the connected. Instead, the commission should include converts, in particular women who underwent Freundel conversions, and others who are not from the usual roster of communal talking heads.

One lesson of the Freundel scandal is that we cannot rely on the great and the good to investigate each other. Allen I. Fagin, the executive vice president and chief professional officer of the OU, and Eric S. Goldstein, the CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, both well-known lawyers, examined an allegation against Freundel in 2013 and failed to uncover impropriety.

Fifth, the RCA can reduce the opportunities for the misuse of power by rejecting bureaucratization and centralization. Freundel encouraged these trends with the RCA’s attempt to impose “uniform standards” for conversion. The conversion rules, made in agreement with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, were controversial. Some RCA rabbis rejected them and used different approaches to conversion. Freundel ignored his own rules. The notion that these “standards” would vitiate Israeli concerns about Orthodox conversions in the Diaspora was naïve. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate continued to raise spurious questions about such conversions notwithstanding its agreement with the RCA.

Odd though it may sound, uniformity is also out of character for the Orthodox organizations such as the OU and the RCA. Although there are important shared beliefs and practices binding these rabbis and synagogues to each other, the various communities are remarkably distinct. Some are almost hermetically sealed. Others, in particular many Sephardic and Open Orthodox synagogues, take all comers. The differences among superficially similar communities can also be considerable. Within the Sephardim, for example, Syrian rabbis avoid doing conversions. Rabbis from the Balkan communities accept conversions as a necessary part of communal life. The rabbinate is also a diverse crowd. There is no central institution training Orthodox rabbis. By contrast, the two main non-Orthodox movements (Conservative and Reform) have just three institutions that ordain rabbis in the U.S.

The differences within Modern Orthodoxy are part of its resilience. The willingness to reconsider, but not abandon, the Jewish tradition is the source of its dynamism. The inclusion of women is allowing it to keep pace with society. Overweening rabbis, however, could be its downfall unless their power is diffused and scrutinized.

* Correction: Kesher Israel was a OU member synagogue but left following the Lanner scandal. Kesher recently voted not to re-join the OU.

About the Author
Andrew Apostolou is a historian based in Washington D.C. He has a D.Phil. in history from Oxford University and has worked on human rights campaigns in the Middle East.