My Washington D.C. community has been engaged in impassioned debates over how severe a punishment Rabbi Barry Freundel deserves for spying on women in the mikveh (Jewish ritual bath), since prosecutors recommended he be sent to prison for 17 years for 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism.
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“Murderers and rapist don't even get that much time,” one congregant insisted.
“Are you kidding me? He was a rabbi; he shamed people. It's like murder,” another interjected.
Back and forth the arguments flew, growing louder as congregants contradicted and agreed with one another. Listening to the conversation, I wondered: What does Judaism teach us about those who exploit others: do we have a right to seek a severe punishment, or must we strive for leniency, in an effort to exhibit compassion?
Teshuvah (repentance) and forgiveness are central elements of Jewish thought. In the Talmud is the famous phrase, “Human beings should be pliant as a reed, not hard like the cedar," in granting forgiveness (Taanit 20a). This phrase, and others, is often used to describe a victim's responsibility to be soft and flexible in their ability to offer forgiveness. In Shabbat 133b we are taught, “Just as it is in the nature of God to be merciful to His creatures, so man in attempting to imitate the ways of God should be forgiving toward those who have injured them.”
Yet, there is something particularly dangerous and painful bout Freundel's acts. Freundel was a rabbi of a prestigious Orthodox synagogue, a professor and lecturer at various universities and a leader of the conversion committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He used his position of power in all of these forums to prey on his victims – who were not only vulnerable, but dependent upon him for the completion of their studies or conversion – and he abused women under the guise of Jewish tradition (for example, when he urged them to take "practice dunks" before their conversion immersion in the mikveh, and filmed them in the shower, which he said should be long, prior to these dips).
Furthermore, the fact that much of the victimization occurred in the mikveh itself – one of Judaism most sacred and private spaces – makes Freundel's crime a violation of the mesorah (tradition) itself, and along with this its abundant imperatives to protect the vulnerable, weak and outsiders. Those who suffered from his crimes were not only the women he spied on; but the sacred traditions of our community and God, too, for he used his position of power as a leader in the Orthodox community to violate the intimacy of defenseless victims.
The egregious damage he has done calls for a different response to those described in Taanit and Shabbat.
The response I support reflects that which is condoned in cases of "mesira," turning Jews over to gentile, or civil, authorities. When faced with the question of whether to turn over a Jew to civil authorities for having attacked another person, the rabbis are normally hesitant to do so, unless the crime is so severe that the perpetrator deserves a severe punishment (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 388:7). In a contemporary version of this issue, the embezzlement case of Anon. v. State of Israel, Justice Menachem Elon said, “Crimes in which the criminal takes advantage of the authority and trust reposed in him by deceiving those who relied upon him are counted among the most serious crimes which undermine the foundations of civilized society."
When we apply the ethical and rabbinical principles of these cases to that of Freundel, we find that even though Judaism often urges us to pursue compassion and forgiveness – the path toward teshuvah – when the acts are so heinous and insidious, a harsh punishment is not only allowed but necessary.
No punishment or consequence will bring peace and redemption to his victims. Yet it is our responsibility to hope he is sentenced to a clear and severe punishment: that he be distanced from his victims, from his ability to use his title to harm others, and to sit alone, facing the consequences of his actions, for many years.
Then, regardless of the verdict, let us all hope the week ahead advances the healing process for his victims.
Elianna Yolkut is a Conservative Rabbi. You can reach her at www.keepingkavannah.blogspot.com.