Illustration by Lily Padula
A respected rabbi installing cameras in the preparation room of the mikveh in the building next door to his synagogue? The sensationalistic story of alleged voyeur Rabbi Barry Freundel seems tailor-made to go viral in our internet age. So what can be done to counteract the negative publicity this gives to the observance of mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, and to general trust in rabbis? How can we ensure this type of situation (assuming the allegations are true — that has yet to be legally corroborated) doesn’t happen again?
It’s simple: Put women in charge of the mikveh system.
I’d like to see a world where the mikveh and all questions about it are totally overseen by female scholars, who possess the relevant Jewish legal wisdom and are permitted to be part of that authority structure.
This is an area where we women need to be trusted with the knowledge of our own bodies and how they function. This is an area where we should be the main experts.
I recently interviewed a number of women trained as yoatzot halacha, legal advisors, at Nishmat in Jerusalem, for an article on female educators. These women have studied the laws of “family purity” and are able to answer questions over the phone and online from women all around the world, and from all walks of Jewish life. Manhattan’s Yeshivat Maharat — the only Jewish seminary dedicated to training Orthodox women as synagogue clergy — is likewise educating a new generation of female experts on Jewish law as it pertains to sensitive topics like the body, fertility and sexuality. The Israeli institute Matan also has a five-year program in which women study Jewish law at the highest levels.
More public awareness of such learned women, studying these laws in order to observe them and help others observe them, would add immensely to our understanding of modern Orthodoxy, beyond lurid stories of voyeuristic rabbis.
Ultimately, the skepticism that Rabbi Freundel’s behavior induces in us needs to be tempered with the awareness that there are many learned women able to teach us about what mikveh really means, as well as model mikvehs created to teach, like Mayim Hayyim, for example, in Boston.
I’ve only met Rabbi Freundel once personally, when he came to speak at my synagogue in Minneapolis, but I also interviewed him back in 2012 for an article. The question I asked was: If you knew that you would be giving your last High Holiday sermon, what would you say, what message would you want to leave your congregants? Rabbi Freundel told me in a phone interview that he would want to let his congregants know that “Judaism is not only feel good-ism or spirituality. There are rules and standards which are not the easiest things.” He wants his congregants who are part of this “era where we focus on our own autonomy” to know “that we have a tradition with a great deal of wisdom.” I wish he’d listened a bit better to himself. I had been impressed at the time with his message, but maybe I shouldn’t have been.
As of now, I personally am going to avoid mikvehs connected to synagogues and avoid having any interactions with a rabbi who could be prone to voyeurism. Wherever possible, I will address all my questions to a female expert.