The voyeurism case against Rabbi Barry Freundel prompted calls for reform in his Modern Orthodox community this week, with a key rabbinical group creating a committee to improve the conversion process and other leaders calling for women to have a more prominent role in the use of the mikvah, or ritual bath.
Freundel, the longtime rabbi of Georgetown synagogue Kesher Israel, was arrested and charged with six counts of voyeurism this month after allegedly planting video cameras in the mikvah he oversaw. The case intensified debates within Modern Orthodoxy the more liberal part of Orthodox Judaism over the place of women in the spiritual and legal leadership.
On Wednesday, the Rabbinical Council of America the worlds largest body of Modern Orthodox rabbis announced that it had formed a committee in response to the Freundel case. Two years before his arrest, several conversion students of Freundels complained to the RCA that he was coercing them to donate money and do clerical work for him. Other converts have come forward since the arrest to say Freundel made inappropriate comments about their appearance or seemed to relish his power over them in an unscrupulous way.
The current [conversion] structure requires a thorough review and enhancements to avoid future abuses, the rabbinical group said in statement announcing the committee. The panel will look at such topics as how to make less vague the conversion process so converts dont feel in the dark during what can be a long and difficult process. It will also discuss establishing a system for potential converts to voice complaints or discomfort about their experiences.
The 11-member committee includes two female converts to Judaism, both of whom worked with Freundel, 62. Soon after Freundels Oct. 14 arrest, the RCA said it would appoint a woman to serve as an ombudsman for all the regional rabbinical courts that oversee conversions.
Also this week, a trailblazing Modern Orthodox school that ordains women as spiritual leaders an institution far to the left and not recognized by much of Jewish Orthodoxy said the Freundel case shows a prevailing need for the development of a new approach to the male-only court that oversees conversions, including the final visit to the mikvah at the end of the process.
Rabbi Jeff Fox, the academic head of Yeshivat Maharat, which seeks to expand womens leadership roles in Orthodox Judaism, said the school will soon come out with a paper arguing that under Jewish law, men need not be in the mikvah room when a woman immerses at the end of her conversion.
In Judaism, three rabbis are appointed to each converts court and must affirm at the end of the process that the person was fully immersed in the ritual bath. Practices vary, but in many places, the men are able to see at least some part of the woman as she goes under the water, though she may be behind a sheet or wearing a robe. In some places, she is completely naked before them; in others, the men are in the hallway with a door open or in the next room.
My sense is that the experience is extraordinarily uncomfortable for many women. We need to rebalance that hierarchy in some sense, Fox said Thursday. Having men outside the door and women educated to assist is a small attempt to focus on the need for modesty and to help with the imbalance of power.
The issue of womens roles has been explosive in Modern Orthodox Judaism in recent years, and some say the Freundel case is being exploited by both sides by the more permissive to say that women need more authority and by the more conservative to say that Freundel wasnt Orthodox enough.