Rabbi Barry Freundel / PJC Media
(Haaretz) — Kesher Israel, a prominent Modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington D.C., is reeling from a terrible scandal. Their rabbi, Barry Freundel, was arrested on charges of voyeurism and it is alleged that he installed a camera in the equivalent of a women’s locker room where he filmed potential converts in varying degrees of undress before their ritual bath. The shockwaves in the aftermath of this scandal reverberate well beyond the District and are being felt across the entire Jewish world.
Generally, rabbinic “scandals” come in one of two varieties. Some scandals merely involve flawed human behavior that is only considered scandalous because of the stature of the rabbinic figure. If a non-rabbi would commit the same acts, there would be no story. In my opinion, these are not scandals. Human beings behaving in a manner consistent with other human beings are not news. After all, rabbis are people too.
Rabbis are often subject to an artificially constructed angelic standard. This is the flip side of the coin that deifies and attributes clairvoyance or miracles to rabbis. Rabbis are viewed as being capable of the supernatural because they live supernatural lives and therefore are not like the rest of us. They are a more perfect kind of person. Under this standard, the public feigns surprise when rabbis share their struggles or flaws with their followers and critics. After all, rabbis are supposed to be above the petty concerns of the masses.
Such a standard is not fair or realistic and we are setting ourselves up for inevitable disappointment. Rabbis should be held to an achievable human standard.
The other kind of scandal — as appears to be the case in Washington — is when a rabbi commits an act that would be destructive or unethical regardless of one’s clergy status. Or alternatively, when a rabbi exploits his position of authority to manipulate or harm others. These scandals are worthy of our outrage.
Illustration by Kurt Hoffman
Yesterday, prominent Modern Orthodox Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested on charges of voyeurism. The police report obtained by the media indicates that he had used cameras to record women showering as they prepared to use the mikveh.
Freundel should, and will, have his say in court. These charges are serious, though, and there are implications to the fact that this allegedly took place in the mikveh, of all places.
The mikveh is sacred space. All of it, including the rooms in which women prepare to immerse. The act of preparation is, in fact, part of the ritual. And the profound, complex, and deeply personal feelings that can be part of mikveh immersion can manifest in the preparation room as well as in the water itself.
Picture a woman returning to the mikveh for the first time after a miscarriage. She’s swimming in grief, still, maybe. Judaism doesn’t traditionally have a formal ritual to mark the loss of a pregnancy — except the mikveh. Her first immersion after first a time of hope, and then one of what’s all too often an unnamed bereavement is her ritual to mark what’s happened inside her body and her heart, everything she’s feeling and everything that’s different now.
Washington’s Synagogue Mural / Jewish Historical Society
Stephanie Slewka was peeling layers of paint and plaster from her just-purchased house in downtown Washington, D.C. when she spied a blue patch — unusual in the mildewy mess of browns and beiges. Removing a few more gunky strata revealed a Star of David. And tearing off even more exposed an arc of Hebrew letters across a sky-blue background speckled with stars. “We didn’t know what it meant, but it seemed awfully cool,” she told the Forward.
The artwork turned out to be a 1920s mural commissioned by Shomrei Shabbos, an Orthodox congregation that occupied the house in the early 20th century. To understand its history, Slewka called on the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. To restore it, she tapped local artist Nicholas Kahn, who also added a Venice-inspired winged lion. And so the non-Jewish homeowner became the unlikely guardian of a rare and valuable piece of the region’s Jewish history. “It just became part of the house,” Slewka said.
That was 1993. Now, ten years after Slewka sold the house, the mural is facing a new threat to its survival. A developer plans to convert the house to condominiums. And the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is mounting a last-ditch effort to save the artwork, believed to be the only surviving synagogue mural in Washington.
Congressional efforts to shut down the Palestinian delegation office in Washington have garnered only tepid support.
A letter, co-authored by the outgoing and incoming leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee from both parties and calling on the President to close the PLO office in Washington, has closed on Friday with only 239 signatures.
The letter came in response to the United Nations November 29 vote recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state, a status strongly opposed by Israel and by the United States.
While not a bad number for a congressional effort, this figure is on the lower end of support for AIPAC-backed initiative. Letters supported by the pro-Israel lobby in recent years easily got more than 300 signatures.
The party breakdown shows clearly more support for the measure by Republicans, with 172 co-signers. Only 67 Democrats signed on.
Why the chilly reception to the anti-Palestinian measure?
Chuck Todd on MSNBC is saying Virginia and Florida are too close to call but look likely to go for Obama, because the counties still outstanding are generally Democratic-leaning. The call in Ohio by the networks was for the same reason, as Michael Barone explained rather patiently to Karl Rove on air at Fox: the outstanding votes are mostly in overwhelmingly Democratic counties - and in Democratic precincts within those counties, as Barone explained.
An MSNBC reporter at Romney HQ reports that Romney had prepared an acceptance speech but no concession speech. Nobody from the campaign is around to answer questions. If the margin is close, they will go to provisional ballots, which won’t be counted until the end of the month.
Colorado and Washington both approved ballot measures legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Not medical marijuana - happy weed. That could set up a conflict with the incoming Obama administration. Up to now his Justice Department has opposed California’s medical marijuana law, which effectively nullifies federal drug laws. Tho without much conviction. Recreational use might change the equation and set up a real constitutional confrontation.