MODIIN, Israel (JTA) — With the news that Rabbi Barry Freundel, a prominent Orthodox rabbi, has been arrested for peeping at the naked bodies of his female congregants through a secret camera in the mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, many disturbing questions are being raised about the implications of his suspected transgressions: Does it matter that Freundel is an Orthodox rabbi? Is he just a regular (alleged) creepy pervert? Or did his position of power — and the culture surrounding it — contribute to the acts of which he stands accused?
On the one hand, there are some really lovely and good-hearted Orthodox rabbis who have nothing to do with Freundel and abhor the entire story; they do not deserve to be demonized by association. One bad apple — or rabbi, as it may be – shouldn’t spoil the whole basket. Furthermore, there are sex offenders in pretty much every culture, religion, ethnic group and social class. Violence against women is ubiquitous, unfortunately, so perhaps the particulars of the offender’s social context are not relevant.
On the other hand, one cannot help but notice the multiple layers of power, authority and gender hierarchy involved in this story. After all, the scene of the alleged crimes was a mikvah, where women are naked, exposed and reliant on a system of intricate rules about their bodies that have been determined by men. Jewish women traditionally use the mikvah to immerse — fully nude — following menstruation or during conversion, and in some cases to mark significant life events. The practice of ritual immersion is usually overseen by female attendants, except in the case of Orthodox conversion, when three male rabbis also must be present to give approval.
If the allegations against Freundel are true, they confirm the worst suspicions about the status of women in Orthodoxy: that the all-male rabbinical clubs support their own members in their efforts to control women’s bodies all the time. Freundel, after all, is suspected of using his authority to grab what he wanted from unsuspecting women.
Moreover, Freundel may have targeted female converts — the subset of mikvah-goers who are most at risk of abuse. These very women often do not have enough security in their social position or Jewish knowledge to question the strange demands made by rabbis in the shower room. Thus the scandal raises disturbing questions about the social structures that give men like Freundel unfettered power over Orthodox conversion. (Freudel himself has been extremely active on the conversion issue in recent years, maintaining control of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Conversion Committee and speaking widely as an expert on conversion.)
The award-winning film “A Tale of a Woman and a Robe,” by the Israeli filmmaker Nurit Jacobs Yinon, painfully demonstrates how the experiences of female converts in the mikvah violate their most basic dignity. Three male rabbis watch every woman dunk in the water, as she is naked except for a robe or sheet separating her skin from the rabbis’ eyes. Some rabbis interviewed in the film — including the Israeli modern Orthodox rabbis David Stav and Beni Lau — admit that this practice is humiliating for women, but describe their own helplessness in changing the practice.
Meanwhile, there are reports that Freundel took advantage of these women in other ways as well. The rabbi reportedly created his own “rules” for converting women that now seem to be nothing more than a smokescreen to allow him to watch them undress. The women complied because that is how the entire conversion system operates. Women who wish to be Jewish must oblige the rabbis overseeing their conversion. Some female converts who spoke with JTA said they were also asked to perform clerical work for the rabbi without pay.
There are reasons for women to be afraid of the rabbis who sponsor their conversions. Look at how Orthodox rabbis deal with the sex offenders in their midst. Even when men are convicted of crimes, there always seem to be some rabbis who inexplicably rush to the side of the perpetrator.
Rabbi Motti Elon, who was convicted by the Israeli courts of molesting boys in his yeshiva, has been embraced with open arms by many Orthodox communities inviting him to teach. Think about his poor family, cry some rabbis, ignoring the pain of the actual victims.
Similarly, Baruch Lebovits, a cantor who was convicted of some deeply disturbing sexual offenses, was supported continuously by some Orthodox leaders. We have yet to see how American Orthodox rabbis will respond to Freundel’s arrest, but I would bet that the rabbi will yet find some loyal friends among his peers.
So did Orthodoxy make Freundel a sex offender? Not directly. But it enabled him. Orthodoxy creates an awfully comfortable place for men with sexist and misogynistic predilections and is built around a tight posse of men willing to support each other no matter what the crime.
The cultural norms of Orthodoxy systematically empower men and disempower women — and encourage everyone to accept that imbalance as normal. If the Orthodox community wants to truly be a sacred, Torah community, one in which awful sex crimes do not fester, these gender norms and hierarchies must be radically changed.
(Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author of, most recently, “The War on Women in Israel: A story of religious radicalism and the women fighting for freedom,” as well as an educator, researcher and feminist activist. She blogs at JewFem.com.)