And the earth was corrupt before God. Genesis 6:11
My spiritual world was recently shattered. Of course, as a rabbi, I should be cognizant of behaviors among my peers that are often less than desirable. I am aware of rabbis who are guilty of corruption, financial impropriety, and mental and physical abuse. I am aware that there are pedophiles garbed in rabbinic cloak; I lived through the Baruch Lanner saga and realize the ease of communal denial and excuses. I’ve seen victims be persecuted while the perpetrators are praised and honored. However, these horrors have a way of fading into my brain’s cloud so as to protect me from daily distress.
The allegations against (Rabbi) Barry Freundel that recently came to light seem so reckless and heinous that they defy common sense. The allegations gnaw at my soul and cause me sleepless nights and recurring nightmares. How could someone lack the empathy required to understand how violated a woman would feel if she learned that what she believed to be a most private and safe place was actually the opposite? Why would someone who was at the apex of an illustrious career behave in a manner that would destroy his reputation? How could he act in a manner that will undoubtedly have severe repercussions on his wife’s and children’s standing in any community in which they choose to settle? Was he so arrogant and callous that he disregarded the ramifications of his actions? Did he ever consider the anguish of the women that sought solace and spirituality in the pure waters of the Mikva? How will this experience affect their future relationship with this spiritual ritual? I empathize with converts who often suffer abuse at the hands of conversion boards in Israel and the diaspora. I imagine that those individuals who underwent conversion to Judaism by this rabbi-turned-pariah will likely feel a deep level of insecurity and hurt.
Can any good come out of this evil? In the same week a conservative rabbi in the same D.C. neighborhood came out of the closet and announced that he was divorcing his wife of twenty years. His congregation and the larger conservative community were very supportive of his decision to be open and honest about his sexuality. It may be time for orthodox organizations to open up the closet door and realize the damage they are causing to groups of Jews who are often marginalized and denigrated. Among these groups are converts and agunot – women whose husbands refuse to grant a get, as well as those who may have an alternative lifestyle. While we are entitled to our own personal philosophies and religious teachings, the Torah teaches that we are an Am Echad, a single diverse unit that must be blended into a cohesive unit.
The bureaucracy in the Israeli rabbinate, especially those charged with deciding who is a Jew, must be addressed first. These rabbis should be given sensitivity training and realize that their perspective isn’t the only true ideology. They should be led to understand the amazing dedication and sacrifice of those who decide to become Jews by choice. They should embrace them with friendship and love instead of confronting them with fear, ambiguity, and often Mafiosi tactics that include threats of deportation. They certainly shouldn’t jeopardize the validity of their genuine conversions due to the alleged behavior of one rabbi.
These rigid attitudes seem pervasive in the organization and often demoralize agunot. Instead of advocating for the chained women, these women are often subjugated to greater abuse and discomfort. It’s time to remove the power from the abusers and reign in the corruption. It’s time to address the passages in the Torah that obligate everyone to protect the convert and the women in distress; it’s time that these verses are practiced instead of theorized. It’s time to read parshat Noach as it relates to today. It’s time to realize that the only issue for which God would seek to destroy the world is corruption.
Our national rabbinic organizations must not be let off the hook so easily. Often the potential convert is subjected to the whim of a supervising rabbi who places a standard that I certainly could not or would not live up to. Who gave these rabbis the ultimate authority to mandate what level of halachic standards is proper for conversion? Why should they be entitled to dictate that the potential convert wear conservative clothing and live in a particular community, or that a woman dress in Taliban-like attire? Why do children of potential converts have to attend only the Jewish day school sanctioned by the rabbinical courts? Will their control eventually influence choice of shul, restaurant, friends etc? Who gave them the authority to mentally coerce, often for financial gain, the convert and aguna? Why do the scared and innocent have to accept their archaic philosophies and barbaric policies?
Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. However, the time may be ripe to turn the tables in their favor and the events in Washington may have tipped the scale. It may finally give the convert and the aguna the strength to stand up to those in positions of power that have for years abused their positions. It may highlight to these rabbis that perhaps they have to get their house in order first. Perhaps their expectation of modesty and religion should be a demand placed upon themselves. Perhaps when they realize their own limitations will they be more open and accepting of the limitations of others.
Can something good come out of this awful situation? Absolutely. Will it? Sadly, I probably know the answer. Yes, the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) has already announced some band-aid solutions that will mask the issue for a day or two until hopefully all is forgotten. What is needed, though, is a fundamental change of attitudes instead of trying to implement new legislation. What is needed is the promotion and advocacy of all who seek to embrace Judaism. What is needed is a realization that proselytizing is not against our religious belief and on the contrary myriads of potential converts should be encouraged. What is needed is that our own Jewish women be proud of their religious status and not be coerced into submission. What is needed is that the women who immerse themselves in the pure waters of the Mikva exit with the strength to demand what is right and to never accept anything less than they deserve. What is needed is that we as a community cease our mentality of timid acceptance and demand that our rabbinic leaders live up to the ideals they posit as being mandatory for everyone else.
As I have been writing this article I realized that the opening sentence is fraught with difficulties. The issue is not about me and my feelings. In reality it also has little to do with Barry Freundel, because in the next ten years his name and memory will be forgotten. It is about the thousands of nameless people whose lives and dreams have been shattered; it is about those who have few advocates except for us.
Rabbi Jack Engel