Sunday, October 19, 2014

Another Bright Light Dims

Rabbi Barry Freundel
It seems to never end. Once again we have a case where a respected rabbi has been arrested and charged with a sex crime. This time it’s voyeurism. What a sight it must have been to see a prominent rabbi being led out of his house by the police. A rabbi whose synagogue members include such high profile public servants as former Senator Joseph Lieberman and current Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew.

As is always the case Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel should be considered innocent until proven guilty. I truly hope he is innocent and his reputation is restored to its pristine pre arrest level.  On the other hand I highly doubt that a highly respected rabbi like Rabbi Freundel would have been arrested and charged if the suspicions of guilt were not well founded. I hope I am wrong.

Barry Freundel was one of the bright lights of Modern Orthodoxy. He is the Rav of Kesher Israel Congregation. Among other accomplishments - he is also an adjunct professor at both Georgetown Law School and the University of Maryland; and an ethics adviser for the NIH.

His Hashkafos closely match those of my own. As recently as a couple of months ago he published an essay in Mosaic Magazine that clearly spelled out his strong opposition to Open Orthodoxy… a position with which I agree.

What exactly is he accused of? From the Forward
A police report, obtained by local D.C. news channel Fox 5, alleges that Freundel was seen installing a camera hidden in a clock radio above a shower at the mikvah. Freundel allegedly told the person who caught him that he was fixing the shower ventilation. The TV station reported that he would be held overnight. 
So here we have yet again another Chilul Hashem. How is it possible that so many of our finest seem to be overcome by their own Taavos – sexual impulses? What makes a man of such stature risk his reputation and the welfare of his family and do such things?!

He violated the privacy of the very people he serves. Here was the reaction of one of the female members of his Shul that uses the Mikvah: 
The allegations left one woman who had used the mikvah in shock. “I feel incredibly uncomfortable and my privacy violated,” said the woman, who asked not to be named to protect her privacy. “It’s just really sad that such a beautiful thing is now kind of tainted and turned into something that’s quite ugly.” 
I cannot imagine the feelings of embarrassment of a woman who now knows that she was being watched in secret taking a shower  (for who knows how long) by her rabbi. And who knows how many other women he watched?!

Rabbi Freundel’s behavior bespeaks a Jekyll and Hyde personality. There is the public persona of a man with high morals and integrity - a spiritual leader that holds many respected positions in both the Jewish and the secular worlds… and the secret voyeuristic persona that seems to have no ethics or morals at all.

Does that make Barry Freundel a bad man? Does it mean that his ethical and moral persona was just an act? I don’t think so. I believe that he has a mental disorder that until now has gone undetected. A disorder that he most likely battled with.  And lost. Acting on it the way he did makes him a terribly flawed person. But not necessarily an evil one. I’m sure he intended to hurt no one. He rationalized. He probably thought he would never get caught and no one – including his victims – would ever be the wiser.

We all have sexual desires and fantasies. Sometimes they are illicit. But most of us control ourselves and do not act upon them when they are illicit. Barry Freundel acted upon them. That’s the difference. That is what makes him in need of therapy… but perhaps compassion too.

He is of course not the only prominent rabbi or religious Jewish personality that has fallen (if the charges prove to be true).  Nor are Modern Orthodox Jews of which he is a prominent one - the only ones guilty of sex crimes. This is a problem that crosses all Hashkafic lines. No one segment is immune to it. We know about these cases all too well.

To say I am disappointed is an understatement. But I am also saddened for him and for his family. In one brief and tragic moment, his reputation came tumbling down and is now ruined. His family must be suffering untold emotional pain and embarrassment. I wish this could have all been handled without the publicity. But it is now out in the open for all of us to see, and be embarrassed by. But we cannot afford to ignore it. There are lessons to be learned. As Jonathan Sarna was quoted saying: 
“One can only hope that the lesson from this will be that Orthodox rabbinical institutions should do more to deal with rabbis who have these demons before these demons get them in trouble…”
What we can do to prevent anything like this in the future is beyond me. I have no answers.  I don’t know who does. But that does not free me or anyone else from seeking them.

My heart goes out to his family for what they must now be going through. If these accusations prove to be true, it is my sincere hope that Rabbi Freundel gets the therapy he needs and once again has his reputation restored.  I don’t think he will ever get his job back. He was suspended without pay by the Shul’s board of directors. Rightly so, in my view.

But all is not lost. With therapy and Teshuva -which should include a public as well as private apology to all his victims, the Shul, and all of the Jewish people  - he can still contribute To Klal Yisroel in a major way. A fine mind like his is a terrible thing to waste.

This post was written last Wednesday, just prior to the 3 day Yom Tov and auto-posted today. At the time not much was known (at least by me) beyond what I wrote in the post. Obviously from the many comments - the wrong doing goes far beyond what was known at the time I wrote this.

I have also reconsidered my thoughts about him even without the additional information. Fine mind or not - I agree with those who say that he should never be given a position of public trust again. He deserves no mercy from me or anyone else. I also think he should get some serious jail time. But I would not deny him therapy.

My feelings of compassion for his family remain in place.