Power and Powerlessness in Religion

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 08: FILE, Rabbi Barry Freundel at Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown is taking and making a num
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 08: FILE, Rabbi Barry Freundel at Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown is taking and making a number of calls since the announcement that one of his congregants Joe Lieberman, was just selected to be Al Gore's running mate, in Washington, DC on August 8, 2000. (Photo by Michael Lutzky/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Up until last week, Barry Freundel was the rabbi of a large Orthodox Jewish shul in Washington D.C. He was a leader in modern Orthodox thought and an intellectual force in the Jewish world. He was on the executive board of the Rabbinical Council of America and served as an expert on conversion and ethics across the nation. Until last week, when he got caught committing acts of voyeurism in the mikva (ritual bath) -- namely using hidden cameras to film women showering before immersing in the ritual bath. After the initial revulsion passes, let's talk about a broken system that allows this to happen. After we shake our heads in disbelief and say how stunned we are that this could ever happen -- let's talk about power. And let's talk about the powerless.

Let me preface with this: I am aware that this situation is an outlier. The majority of clergy are people who have sacrificed their family, their time, financial gains to serve their higher power. They are good folk. With mostly good intentions and are usually the kind of people you want on your life team. The ones I have been lucky to know (with one or two exceptions) have been people with incredible love of fairness. They are ethical to an eye-rolling degree. They recognize the responsibility they have assumed as a religious leader -- which is to see the value of every congregant (as excruciatingly hard as that may be) and to never for one second think that they can not be held accountable. And not only to God. To the congregant. To the board of directors. To the audience that listens to them every week.

When Barry Freundel violated the women of his congregation, a few things became clear. First- the man is a weak megalomaniac with a sexual fetish. Many articles and blog posts have commented on his vast intellect and his large congregation and his lengthy resume. But here's what he also is: a perverse man who loves power. And here's the kicker that's frustrating tho those who want to neatly file people into categories- you can be both - an intellectual cleric who has published and accomplished great rabbinical feats and someone who uses that exact power to prey on the powerless.

The second thing to bubble up to the surface was that the system that allowed him to do this is broken. Namely, a system that allows men to assume that much unilateral control of anything will unearth the worms that lie beneath the soil. Yes, you may also grow a verdant rose garden sometimes- but you must watch vigilantly for the worms. A system that has men making all the legal and religious decisions about women's bodies is a hopelessly flawed system. If laws pertaining to women don't at the very least have women's input and decision making and presence -- than those laws will be used against women. We have seen this happen on Capitol Hill. We have seen it happen in fundamentalist Islamic countries. We see it happening in Orthodox Judaism. Laws pertaining to women's sexuality and bodies must be legislated by women. To avoid the burka or any other obsessive covering of women's bodies and voices, we need to hand the laws (not just the keys to the mikva) over to the women.

The third thing that resonated with me after learning about Barry Freundels crimes is that those who are converting into a religion are particularly vulnerable and powerless. Lack of knowledge makes you powerless. Being new to a system (or a school or a profession) makes you vulnerable. It's exactly those people that need to be protected most. And that are easiest to prey on if you are sick and broken and nefarious. Conversion processes need to be vigilantly monitored. Specifically for female converts, those involved in the converting need to not only be men- for so many reasons. Least of all is that converting to Judaism culminates with being naked in a mikva. That is no place for men. No matter what kind of sheet or raincoat or blanket you throw on the woman. Could there be any more vulnerable position than a naked woman immersing in a bath in order to be officially accepted into a religion? Yes there can- when there are also three men observing the ritual. Beyond the ick factor and the inherent patriarchy of it, there's also the worms underneath the soil. We need to be vigilant and protect the vulnerable.

And before people get up in arms about using this heinous crime to promote a feminist agenda -- I disagree (although each and every one of us promote agendas every day of our lives). I see it as an opportunity to unearth the worms and re-soil. The current soil is all wrong. At the very least, we can learn from this pitiful event and change the broken system.