It is hard to find a silver lining in anything as scandalous as the “Mikvagate” accusations against Rabbi Barry Freundel. There isn’t a decent minded person in the world that does not feel the pain and violation of his victims and rage at the defilement of so sacred and private a ritual. Garnering quite a lot of the attention in this horrible story are the converts; so vulnerable, naïve and unprotected from predators in this intimidating and arduous process. Perhaps, just perhaps this could be a “teaching moment” and in some way create something good out of something bad.
Yet I am a bit skeptical and from what I have been reading in cyber chatter I am not alone. As is the habit in so many cases of abuse, those in authority tend to blame the “sickness” of the predator. Much lip service is given to sympathy for the victims, the accused’s family and of course his congregation. A committee will be appointed to investigate the circumstances and recommend changes. Yet, the problem in the eyes of the governing bodies and their committees will be the inability to prevent lone wolves bent on committing their evil deeds. Let us not forget that it is likely that anyone or any organization who should have been making sure this sort of atrocity doesn’t occur has probably lawyered up now in anticipation of lawsuits sure to come. Any findings will be in cryptic, litigation proof language. Such is the history of these scandals, see: Yeshiva University, NCSY, Torah Temima and others.
What we need to see from this scandal is a complete overhaul of the conversion process and the Orthodox attitude towards women’s issues but what we have gotten so far from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) is just further intransigence and a blatant submission to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, an institution only the RCA seems to hold in any regard. This from Uri Heilmann of JTA quoting Rabbi Tzvi Romm, the RCA’s Administrator of Conversions saying:
“Romm outlined the basic requirements (for conversion): Shabbat and kosher observance; daily prayer; fluency with the blessings; wearing a head covering and tzitzit ritual fringes for men; and commitment to family purity observances – abstaining from sex during menstruation and immersing in the mikvah afterward. Hebrew reading skills also are usually required, and the person must be part of an Orthodox community.”
Translation – failure to follow those requirements disqualify one from becoming a Jew. Left unsaid but lingering in the air like the smell of sweaty socks is that if you are born to a Jewish mother and follow all of those rules but – say place a hidden camera in a mikveh, or you wrestle high school boys in your office until you orgasm, or you molest troubled teenaged girls in your care, or you psychologically abuse teenaged boys 6,000 miles from home, you are still a Jew and of course still Orthodox. Those are the rules and they cannot ever be changed. The same goes for granting women more representation in religious practice or for easing the plight of women chained by outdated, misogynistic laws. Oh, the cries of how far Orthodoxy has come is already ringing in my ears as I already anticipate being pointed to the creation of the “Yoetzet Halacha,” the women’s tefilla groups and various women’s Yeshivot.
I would applaud such “advances” if they were not accompanied but by hypocritical fundamentalism. The RCA will not grant a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), membership in the organization. Their sin? Ordaining women. Let’s be clear, neither YCT nor its founder Rabbi Avi Weiss ever stated that ordained women could perform specific rituals designated solely for men. Yet mere ordination of women was a step too far. Imagine a world in which we accepted the YCT formula, it is fair to say we could have prevented the Freundel’s from exercising so much power over vulnerable women.
Some years back, the great Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former President of the very Orthodox Bar Ilan University and legendary pulpit rabbi came up with a unique Halachic solution to the Agunah (chained wife) problem. So powerful were the forces of rabbinic hegemony that this great man was sidelined and ridiculed by the very institutions that he helped build and the rabbis whose path he paved.
The problem is not that Orthodoxy lacks solutions; the problem is that Orthodoxy lacks guts. Except for a few outspoken liberals, Orthodoxy has jumped the right wing shark. Those liberals I speak of by the way, are either never given any position of power or influence in organized Orthodoxy or they never cross certain lines so as to not be “Avi Weissed.”
In Israel the situation is no better. A bill that will grant local rabbis more authority in the conversion process that has enough votes to pass in the Knesset will be hindered by Netanyahu’s promise to the chief rabbinate to stall it in the administrative process. In a case of sheer irony, Arab parties are lining up with Haredi parties against the bill ostensibly to prevent more “Jews” in Israel. To the chief rabbinate a Ukrainian immigrant with a Jewish father is good enough to fight for the IDF and die for his adopted country but not Jewish enough to get married there. A good friend of mine reminded me recently that if the today’s rabbis were running things when Ruth followed Naomi back to Israel from Moab, we would never have had King David.
The time has come to drop the labels. One person’s Orthodoxy is another ones heresy. It’s also time to open up the floodgates. Judaism is complicated enough for those born into it, if someone wants to be a part of it, the time has come to let them in. We need more Jews not fewer. And when I say Jew I don’t care how often you pray or whether or not you eat at McDonald’s. And we need to free our women. We don’t have the right to criticize Islamic Fundamentalists and their treatment of women when our own women cannot get a divorce if her husband refuses to grant it to her. If we don’t fundamentally change (yes I know Orthodoxy is about staying put) then we are doomed.
Despite membership in an Orthodox synagogue, being a graduate of Yeshivot and having sent my kids to Yeshiva Day Schools I proudly say that I am no longer Orthodox, I am just a Jew. If that prevents you from eating in my kosher home, I’m ok with that.