osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Mentally dealing with an apparent monster in our midst

As some here may have heard, a very prominent local rabbi appears to have violated his sacred trust in the most vile way possible. The accumulated evidence from the police looks fairly damning. I am torn in a number of different ways. First, as a lawyer, I believe strongly in the presumption of innocence. OTOH, the evidence discussed publicly seems to lack much other credible explanantion. OTOH, that is exactly the problem with public release of the evidence -- even when it is necessary as it is here. The accused is silent on advice of counsel, so the public see only one side.

At the same time, lots of muttering about things that, in retrospect, seem odd. Self-construction by the community after the fact? Or useful self-examination? The police, I should add, appear to be handling the matter appropriately and sensitively. From what I can tell, the outreach to women of the community who may have been impacted seems designed to show respect for the violation of privacy, respect for the religious sensitivities, and to reassure women that any photos recovered of them will not be made public or accessible in a way that could be hacked.

I am not a member of the Georgetown community so I am not in the thick of things. My parents were members of Rabbi Freundel's shul when they lived in DC in '95, and have remained friendly with him, so this is also something of a personal shock.

I am extremely angry and upset with the announcement by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate that it will "investigate" the conversions supervised by Rabbi Freundel, despite the declaration of the Rabbinic Council of America that all conversions supervised by Freundel are valid. Feundel was head of the RCA conversion committee, a leading authority on conversions, and supervised the conversion process of dozens of people over the years. While I cannot claim to be a halachic authority, in light of the RCA ruling, I am not at all clear on what 'defect' the arrest charges (even if proven true) would create from the standpoint of halacha, or what evidence the Israeli rabbinate would be looking for. Jewish conversion takes place halachically at the ritual supervised by the beis din of 3. And, while Freundel's behavior -- if the allegations are true -- is reprehensible and a violation of halacha, they are not of the kind that would retroactively even void him as a witness. Further, since the beis din is 3, even if Freundel is retroactively disqualified, two valid witnesses remain.

But the politics of Israel and conversion recognition are extremely unfortunate. As are the long-standing issues with our religious establishment.

Which brings up another point which should not be ignored. We are seeing, IMO, not merely in this incident but in others, the culmination of many unhealthy trends in traditional Judaism. A distressing trend toward aggrandizement of Rabbinic authority and refusal to question established Rabbinic authority (leading to its antithesis, the automatic dismissal of Rabbinic authority as political and elf-interested in all cases). The shift in attitudes on sex to an unhealthy suppression and incorporation of viws more traditionally associated with Christianity and Islam on women and sex and sexual temptation. Increasing fragmentation within the Jewish community on a regional and doctrinal basis. All of these play into each other to create an increasingly dysfunctional situation.

Finally, I will say that in one way our community remains quite steretypical -- men deal with these uncomfrotable situations with really bad, tastless jokes. I am myself a practioner, although I like to think we are being extremely erudite. (None of these, I am pleased to say, have to do with the victims. For example, and I am not going to translate this: "I hear there will be a new tell-all book on Rabbi Freundel. It is called sheketz b'yado.') But it is, I think important to recognize that -- at least in my experience -- this is a necessary psychological defense mechanism. it was almost a ritual among the men I talked to. We would exchange one or two such tasteless jokes, sigh and then actually talk.

Going to take awhile to sort out, on both a personal and community level. But I have reminded myself of something many times in recent days. When I was growing up, I had a lot of issues adjusting in Jewish day school. Undiagnosed ADD and dyslexia, gifted and talented (which actually makes dealing with most traditional education programs more difficult, not less), and with poor social skills, I had a lot of Rabbi teachers who ranged from indifferent to downright mean. it would have been easy for me to cnclude: 'If these guys speak for God, then God is a total jerk.'

But even as a pre-teen and teen, I recognized that Rabbis were people. I had the good fortune to know and be taught by a very exceptional man named Rabbi Walgemuth. As for the others, accepting Rabbis were people, it meant that they would have the usual assortmen of good people, bad people, average people, insensitive people, heroes, fools and villains of every description. But my relationship is with God and with the halacha. I am not an Island. I fit in the matrix of a culture and a tradition. But the awefulness or cluelessness or mediocrity of people placed in positions of responsibility doesn't have anything to do with my fundamental relationship with God and halacha.

Put another way, a doctor is a trained specialist. I would never diagnos myself. But when it turns out that a gynacologist was taking 'upskirt' pictures of his female patients to enjoy on his own, in direct violation of his oath and duty to the patients who trusted him, that did not make gynocology bullshit or necessarily tell us much about other gynacologists (although it might tell us about the need for certain systemic reforms on practice) -- even if other gynacologists reflexively defend one of their own or if a handful of patients stay stubbornly loyal to their doctor.

So I'm not troubled about God or halacha. I'm distressed about a lot of things, and I'm panfully aware that this is the ultimate in chilul Hashem. And I see rough times ahead for us as a community -- above and beyond the awfulness to the victims themselves.
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