Terra incognita: The misguided cult of forgiveness of the ‘peeping rabbi’

By Seth J. Frantzman
Jerusalem Post
May 17, 2015

Rabbi Barry Freundel.

In October of last year a well-known and very well-connected rabbi was taken from his synagogue-owned house in handcuffs.

In October of last year a well-known and very well-connected rabbi was taken from his synagogue-owned house in handcuffs.

In a story whose salacious details emerged over time, he was found to have put hidden cameras in a mikveh, or traditional religious bath, and to have taped women nude, many of them undergoing conversions that he was overseeing. He had meticulously cataloged the tapes, according to reports. Investigators identified 152 separate female victims, of which 88 fell within the statue of limitations for voyeurism. In February of 2015 Rabbi Barry Freundel plead guilty to 52 counts of taping these women without their consent.

On May 15 he was sentenced to six years in prison.

Open and shut case, right? And perhaps not a surprising one; other religious communities, such as the Catholic Church, have had sex scandals.But throughout the Freundel story there was always a sense that something fishy was going on beneath the surface. Dr. Elana Sztokman, an author and feminist activist, connected the abuses to the “multiple layers of power, authority and gender hierarchy involved...a system of intricate rules about [women’s] bodies that have been determined by men.” She correctly noted that the way in which the rabbi encouraged women to use the mikveh (often in the form of “practice dunks”) was “nothing more than a smokescreen to allow him to watch them undress.”

She wondered why there “always seem to be some rabbis who inexplicably rush to the side of the perpetrator.”

Freundel was, to those who knew him, a kind of god.

“We revered him, he was my world,” people told me. Matthue Roth wrote a blog called “my rabbi is a sexual offender” in October 2014, about struggling with the revelations.

“Rabbi Freundel made me who I am...I think he’s done awful, awful things (but we have all done awful things), and I don’t think that invalidates the good things he’s done.”

The “good things he’s done” narrative was quick to set in after the October arrest.

Initially some congregants and supporters greeted the news with denial, claiming it was the rabbi’s “enemies” who had set him up.

Among the many young people who adored this rabbi a narrative developed that he was a victim of the “media vultures” who were “gravitating toward the salacious details.”

One has to recall how deep the rabbi’s tentacles were embedded in a web of connections that spanned the modern Orthodox Jewish world. Not only was his synagogue attended by influential people, he was influential in many circles: he was an assistant professor at Baltimore Hebrew University, associate professor at Towson University and lecturer at Georgetown. His influence extended to the Rabbinical Council of America, heading a conversion committee and a regional rabbinical court that approved conversions in the Washington region.

Victims came from all walks of life. One Jewish student who has sued the congregation and Freundel noted that she had come to the mikveh doing research on the subject for a class taught by Freundel as a third-year law student at Georgetown. It seems to have been good times for the rabbi, who used his power to harness a coterie of young women.

The Forward noted “these [conversion] candidates, practically all of them women, would organize his files, open his mail, pay his bills, take dictation and respond to emails on his behalf.” One conversion candidate told the newspaper that the rabbi “made her ride with him to Towson university near Baltimore.”

She claimed that he made comments about her attractiveness and her clothing.

There seems to have been no depths to which the rabbi would not sink in his actions relating to these women. One woman told the judge before sentencing that “Freundel encouraged her to use the mikveh when her grandmother died and then recorded her.”

Another woman who had converted was lured back to the mikveh because there was a “problem, one he [Freundel] couldn’t share and she shouldn’t tell anyone about.”

Just days before the sentencing the JTA revealed even worse abuses: “Freundel surreptitiously videotaped a domestic violence abuse victim in the bathroom and bedroom of a safe house that he had established for her so she could escape her husband’s violence.”

The story also revealed that he engaged in “sexual encounters” with women who were not his wife and that “many of the women may not have consented to being taped.”

Yet, despite the massive amount of disturbing details, the sheer lengths he went to – establishing the mikveh, inveigling converts, using one to three cameras installed in different devices, recording and cataloging, using women who were converting and thus vulnerable – despite it all, there is a Freundel lobby out there that advocates forgiveness and makes excuses for his crimes.

The first line of excuse is that he had a “weakness,” a “disease.” In this narrative Freundel is almost presented as the real victim.

He did so much good, but he had this one little flaw, and really what he needs is help, not prison. “We must not punish him, but help him,” goes the story.

Those who believe he had a “weakness” and that his were “victimless crimes” always compare him to a rapist. “He didn’t rape anyone, it was for his own private viewing.” Even when Freundel did apologize at his sentencing, he played to this “weakness” narrative by claiming he was seeing a psychiatrist to find the “source” of his problem.

Another narrative presents the synagogue as the real victim. According to this view, those female victims who sued the congregation are harming the institution which was oblivious to Freundel’s actions.

Oblivious? Why did the rabbi seem to only work with female converts? Why were they doing clerical work? Doesn’t someone have to oversee a rabbi and his demanding “practice dunks” of so many women? He invented this concept of “practice dunking” and one lawsuit alleges he ran the mikveh like a “carwash...every Sunday, six students at a time.”

Didn’t someone wonder why this one rabbi needed to be so focused on young women using a mikveh? Freundel’s behavior was excused as “quirky,” as if it was just odd how he needed women coming and going all the time. Sure, it’s quirky – like a Catholic priest surrounding himself with altar boys is quirky.

One writer claims that the “biggest victims” are in fact Freundel’s family and that a lawsuit against Freundel actually harms the family. The author of this narrative notes that if the family remains together with Freundel, they need to “rebuild their lives.” Why this great interest in Freundel rebuilding his life? It is connected to the theory that he had many “good deeds” and only this one “bad deed,” which actually misses the totality of bad deeds, hundreds of them. The Freundel lobby argues that the rabbi should do “tshuvah,” or repent, and return to community life. Without having even apologized to the 152 or more victims his defense team told the judge before sentencing the rabbi was already “taking his first steps to return to society in a positive way.” According to the court document, he was conducting “small classes” and teaching by telephone on Sunday and also in a conference call on Tuesdays. On Shabbat he conducts study with three or four people.

For some reason in parts of the Jewish community a rabbi who secretly videotaped naked women in a holy place, who taped an abuse victim, who abused the trust of converts, is still respected and returning him to the community is the first order of business.

Within the Freundel lobby are the voices that argue that the real problem is the “secular” American authorities. One conservative rabbi pondered whether this case fits into the question of whether to “turn Jews over to gentile or civil authorities.” Another rabbi, from a progressive congregation, claims that “the nature of the American legal system makes it difficult to do teshuvah...given the system’s limits on speech and the action of the accused during legal proceedings, as well as its focus on punishment.”

So the problem is the “gentiles” and “American legal system.” If only a Jewish legal system were in place, like in the time of the kings of Judah, surely a rabbi who spied on 152 women nude in a mikveh would be given the proper avenue to “return” and repent? Where did this Judaism, that seems a lot like the Catholic concept of “forgive the sinner” and “repent” come from? Let’s be honest, someone caught peeping on 152 women in the time of King Solomon would have been executed. When modern Jewish rabbis seem to think that he should “return” rather than face prison, then this is precisely why we need a secular legal system to replace the failed modern Jewish concept of justice that has grown up in some quarters.

As if to prove how odd the excuse industry is, one commentator claims that “the offender’s return is complete only when the opportunity to commit the sin offers itself again and the person refrains from it.” So only when the person might decide to install secret cameras in a shower to record young women and he chooses not to is he a good person? Seriously? That’s some major step in a human’s life, not installing cameras in a bathroom? Or is it that he just shouldn’t tape 152 women nude, maybe 151 would be ok? Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Pacific Jewish Center writes that “one of the greatest gifts of Judaism is teshuvah...failure is inevitable. We are humans and humans are flawed.”

This isn’t true. Most humans do not set up cameras to tape women in bathrooms, or mikvahs. It isn’t “failure” or “weakness” that caused this, it is not a “human” trait, as if we are all one step away from doing this. Many men may be one step away from committing adultery with another consenting adult.

That is a weakness, and they can ask forgiveness of their spouse. Setting up secret cameras for years on end is not just a “mistake,” it is a gross violation, made even worse by being done in a uniquely Jewish religious setting.

Rabbi Yaakov Waintroob Roberts wrote at the Washington Jewish Week that Freundel shouldn’t receive much punishment. He compared the rabbi to a “first offender peeping tom, spying on strangers in a public venue.” But he spied on 152 people in a private religious venue. He mentions Freundel’s “misdeameanor conduct” and notes “this was his first lifetime criminal conviction.”

Since the “thrust of Jewish justice is rehabilitation,” the rabbi concludes “I don’t see much rehabilitation being offered at prison.”

The rabbi claims that since Freundel is an “outstanding author...why not permit him to author books or other materials that would help synagogues...avoid and handle abusers.”

You’d almost think from reading or listening to the massive outpouring of stories about Freundel’s “return” that basically there is not a problem in the Jewish community with someone who taped 152 women in a mikveh without their consent. How did some people in the Jewish community get to this point? “It’s only a misdemeanor,” people say. “He shouldn’t have been handed over to the gentiles,” say others. Or “the American legal system focuses on vengeance and punishment, not rehabilitation.”

What if every rabbi behaved this way? Maybe every rabbi could be making videos at home of people in toilets and bathrooms and showers. And then every rabbi could do tshuvah and go back to teaching? In such a society, where a simple act of saying “oh, I’m sorry,” cleanses one of their deed, then the deed basically becomes permissible. I just wonder, if someone videotaped 152 rabbis nude, say someone had installed cameras in Freundel’s shower, would these same defenders be so quick to forgive? The fact is that the secular American authorities have done what parts of the Jewish community has proven incapable of: actually punishing someone for heinous misdeeds and deep harm caused to more than 100 people.

If left to some in the Jewish community, he might well be halfway to “return,” soon on the lecture circuit and back running a mikveh, since after all, the real test of the sinner is to put him back in charge of the place of sin and see if he does it again. If what is being taught today in Jewish settings is that the main message of Judaism is “forgiveness,” “repentance” and letting people who tape others nude continue being religious leaders and members of the community, then there is something wrong with many Jewish institutions of learning.

The main message of Jewish justice is punishment for one’s crimes. Rabbis who peep on women should be removed from the community, while their victims should be embraced and supported.


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