Photo by Nir Keidar/Haaretz
(Haaretz) — When I first heard about Rabbi Barry Freundel’s arrest on grounds of voyeurism, I was upset, but not horrified. If the allegations are true, I thought, we have a case of a sick man who couldn’t control his sexual urges. Sad. Especially since he carries a title that would make us expect he should know better.
But then I heard how he allegedly carried out his crime: Placing hidden video cameras in the mikveh, the ritual bath, to watch his female conversion candidates practicing their nude immersions. Horrifying! I cried when I heard this. The ultimate abuse of male rabbinic power, yet an unsurprising symptom of a patriarchal system that sexualizes and objectifies women in so many ways. A prime example is the exclusively “women’s mikveh”, where all know that women are going to immerse in the nude to purify themselves for sex, but where men make the rules.
Twenty-three years ago, I was a creative writing student living in Washington, D.C. and took a part-time job running one of the (if not the) first mikveh located in a Conservative synagogue, Adas Israel. It was the only mikveh in Washington, D.C. Yet Freundel told his congregants not to come to our mikveh, but rather to travel to Silver Spring, Maryland, to a mikveh that was located in an Orthodox synagogue there. This too was upsetting but not horrifying. An expression of Orthodox Jewish distrust of and disrespect for anyone not Orthodox, especially liberal Jewish rabbis and institutions.
But Freundel always wanted his own mikveh, which is probably one reason he did not want to acknowledge that there was a perfectly kosher mikveh already existing in Washington, D.C. A few years ago I heard that his dream had come true; there was now an Orthodox mikveh in D.C., and he was its rabbi.
We know that sexual predators are not created overnight but rather develop patterns over time. If the accusations about Freundel are true, I wonder if even back then he was plotting this extreme abuse of his rabbinic power and fantasizing about the women’s bodies he would have access to once he had his very own women’s mikveh.
It’s time for Simchat Torah, but I don’t feel much like dancing. A promise I made long ago has been broken.
In the summer of 1986, I wrote what many consider the first piece about non-Orthodox women using the mikvah. Published in Lilith Magazine, in “Take Back the Waters” I proposed a feminist re-appropriation of mikvah and all its symbolism. I suggested that the mikvah no longer be considered the domain only of married women; its rationale not only to make us “kosher” for resumed sex with our husbands but to mark important moments in our female lives: first menstruation, menopause, lactation. After that article I started taking women to the mikvah for all sorts of experiences: after chemotherapy, after marital infidelity, after rape. I went before my ordination and again after shloshim for my sister. I wrote other articles and suggested many times that mikvah be considered “spiritual therapy.” I found myself on panels with psychologists speaking about how helpful mikvah could be for these non-traditional uses.
In effect, I promised women that the patriarchy which controlled our bodies and the mikvah itself could be overturned with our good feminist intentions.
This week proved me wrong.
Rabbi Barry Freundel, a once-highly respected Orthodox rabbi, is accused of peeping at women through hidden cameras in the mikvah. Much has been said and written already about all this.
Let me add my voice in this direction: we must continue to see this travesty not as an isolated incident but as a result of a system which continues to both sexualize and desexualize women concurrently, and all within the name of Jewish law.
Something important has gone unnoticed amid the chatter about the titillating revelations of an affair between four star General David Petraeus (he of the name worthy of the leader of ancient Greece’s military forces, never mind the United States’) and his fawning biographer, Paula Broadwell.
And that is the fact that there was a tremendous power imbalance inherent in the relationship between Petraeus, who on November 9 stepped down as head of the Central Intelligence Agency as a result of his affair coming to light, and Broadwell, a lieutenant colonel in the army reserves.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni astutely observes journalists’ tendency to describe the women in these all-too-familiar tales as the temptresses who no man could truly resist. He points out that The Washington Post wrote of Broadwell’s “form-fitting clothes” and The Daily Beast of her “expressive green eyes.”