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Why Barry Freundel Story Makes Me Physically Ill

Illustration by Kurt Hoffman

Yesterday, prominent Modern Orthodox Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested on charges of voyeurism. The police report obtained by the media indicates that he had used cameras to record women showering as they prepared to use the mikveh.

Freundel should, and will, have his say in court. These charges are serious, though, and there are implications to the fact that this allegedly took place in the mikveh, of all places.

The mikveh is sacred space. All of it, including the rooms in which women prepare to immerse. The act of preparation is, in fact, part of the ritual. And the profound, complex, and deeply personal feelings that can be part of mikveh immersion can manifest in the preparation room as well as in the water itself.

Picture a woman returning to the mikveh for the first time after a miscarriage. She’s swimming in grief, still, maybe. Judaism doesn’t traditionally have a formal ritual to mark the loss of a pregnancy — except the mikveh. Her first immersion after first a time of hope, and then one of what’s all too often an unnamed bereavement is her ritual to mark what’s happened inside her body and her heart, everything she’s feeling and everything that’s different now.

Now picture a woman coming back to the mikveh after her third miscarriage.

Now picture a woman coming to the mikveh once again, despite months or years of trying to conceive, and the ways in which that ritual space holds her frustrations, pain, questions, grief, anger, letting go, not letting go.

Now picture a woman coming back to the mikveh after the birth of a child. Perhaps it’s her first child, and she’s feeling unsteady and overwhelmed and grateful and not quite sure who she is yet, today, anymore. Perhaps it’s far from her first, and she’s exhausted and overwhelmed in a different way.

Picture a woman coming to the mikveh to immerse before resuming sexual relations with a man who is abusive to her.

Picture a woman who is coming to the mikveh to immerse before resuming sexual relations with someone she loves.

Picture someone coming to the mikveh to immerse as part of her conversion, full of trembling and joy at her own spiritual rebirth.

Picture someone going to the mikveh because they are in need of deep renewal with the divine. During a depression. In the midst of a time of real loneliness. After a sexual assault. To mark the end of chemotherapy.

I don’t know what percent of the water in the mikveh is actually made up of women’s tears, but I suspect it’s a lot. The mikveh is meant to hold vulnerability. The fact that one is naked when immersing is not just a literal fact — the symbolism of it penetrates every single pore, every inch of the self that goes under the living waters. It is, for a lot of women, a unique place for a certain kind of stopping, a certain kind of reflection, a certain kind of engaging with the present moment and with God. Not everyone has the same experience, obviously, but the ritual of mikveh opens up a space that can be exquisitely intimate and deeply personal.

I feel physically ill at the idea that anyone, let alone a rabbi, might have turned all of those women, during a time of intense solitude and feeling, non-consensually into objects for his own sexual gratification.

But this is the thing with objectification, isn’t it? No matter where a woman is — in the bathroom, walking down the street, dancing in a club, preparing for ritual immersion — she’s full of her own subjecthood, having her own experiences, and does not ask to be torn, through the eyes of the viewer, into a thousand tiny pieces, her complexity and humanity torn away. The move from objectification into non-consensual electronic voyeurism is in a lot of ways a big move, but in others, it’s not so big — if a woman has already ceased to be a person, then maybe it’s not such a leap of logic to help yourself to access to her body in some way.

Stealing access to someone’s body without their consent is a horrific violation in any context. The intimacy of feeling that sometimes takes place in and around the mikveh is a reminder of what we carry with us all the time. And it’s a reminder of what is, far too often, taken from women in our culture on a regular basis.

We should be shocked and disgusted by the fact that this crime may have taken place, and we should feel that our sense of the holy has been trampled on. This was no ordinary violation, in a lot of ways.

But in other ways, it’s just a starker version of a story that takes place all the time, just not in Jewish ritual space.

Perhaps this incident can wake us up to that painful truth as well.

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