From the moment I heard the story of Rabbi Barry Freundel yesterday, I’ve had an uneasy feeling about me. For those who don’t know, Rabbi Freundel – a prominent orthodox rabbi in Washington, DC – was arrested yesterday for electronic voyeurism. He allegedly placed a camera in the shower room outside his congregation’s mikveh (ritual bath).
Now, the cynic in me says that I’ve heard enough horrible stories about people in positions of power doing horrible things that this should not affect me so. And yet, it has.
I’m sure that part of it stems from the fact that we share a title – “rabbi.” So, when one rabbi behaves abhorrently, it tarnishes everyone else with that same title. But, it’s more than that.
The mikveh is used for purification. A woman goes to the mikveh after her menstrual period – signifying the potential for life to stir within her. A person converting to Judaism enters the mikveh to signify his or her new beginning. A bride or groom may immerse in the mikveh to prepare for a new stage of life. The water used to fill the mikveh is called “mayim hayyim – living waters.”
This “rabbi” desecrated a place that was built for purity and celebrations of life. That’s what’s so disturbing.
Although he has been charged by the secular authorities, his disregard for Jewish law is even more egregious. The laws of modesty associated with the mikveh are very strict. For example, a woman is supposed to go to the mikveh at night after her menstrual period. According to Jewish law, after her immersion, she is permitted to resume her physical relationship with her husband. So, one might make certain inferences when seeing a woman leave the mikveh about where she’s heading and what she’s planning to do. By leaving at night, a woman enjoys the privacy that darkness affords.
However, the water of the mikveh falls into the same legal category as a Torah Scroll – it cannot become ritually impure. Despite the impurity of this man who violated the trust of countless people who came to the mikveh expecting privacy, it is still a place of purity. It is only he who is impure.
Tomorrow morning on Shemini Atzeret, we will recite the Geshem prayer, asking God to send water down to us in the form of rain. After reminding ourselves of all the times that water played a significant role in the Biblical narrative, we will ask God to make the rains fall “for a blessing, not for a curse.”
Rabbi Freundel’s alleged actions may have temporarily sullied the mikveh for some people and that is a shame. But the inherent purity of the mikveh is greater than the impure acts of one person. Similarly, he may have brought shame to Judaism and the rabbinate, but the inherent purity of our tradition is greater than impure acts of one person. It is my hope that just as the waters of the mikveh bring renewal and purity, the community desecrated by Rabbi Freundel will find renewal and purity.