There has been a scandal recently in the orthodox Jewish community when a prominent rabbi of a big temple was arrested when it was discovered that he had secretly installed hidden cameras to film women taking a ritual bath known as a ‘mikvah’. I was curious about what a mikvah was and its purpose and this article by Lauren Markoe addresses most of the questions. It turns out that it relates to the obsession that all religions have about women’s purity and how to make them ‘clean’ so that they become worthy to be in the presence of men and have sex with them.
The details of the rabbi’s actions were the usual tawdry story of a religious leader turning out to be a creep, a story that by now has become depressingly common.
Tiny cameras and memory cards capable of holding hundreds of thousands of images were found in the Towson University office of Rabbi Barry Freundel.
The devices, memory cards and flash drives, as well as a photo of naked women and a handwritten list of names, were found in the rabbi’s office on the campus near Baltimore during a police search, the Washington Post reported on Friday. The cameras were hidden in a laptop charger, a clock, a tissue box, a key chain and other items.
Freundel, a prominent Orthodox leader and rabbi at Washington’s Kesher Israel synagogue, was arrested on Oct. 14 for allegedly installing a clock radio with a hidden camera in the shower room of the synagogue’s mikvah, or ritual bath. He is believed to have secretly filmed women showering and undressing before their immersions, which is part of the conversion ritual and which married Orthodox women perform each month following menstruation.
Freundel would give tours of the facility to female Towson college students where he was an adjunct professor and encourage them to try it out just to see what the experience was like, or so he told them, and some of them accepted the offer even if they were not religious or ‘need’ to be purified. Of course they did not know what his real intentions were.
Even though orthodoxy prohibits women from having sex outside of marriage and thus they would not require the purification ritual, it turns out that Freundel encouraged sexually active single young women to also use the mikvah for ‘practice’
But several women who converted to Judaism under Freundel have spoken publicly about Freundel’s frequent remarks about their youth and their beauty, and man say that Freundel encouraged them to take practice dunks in the mikvah, so that when the time came for their conversion to be finalized, they would know how to immerse properly as part of the conversion ceremony.
Unsurprisingly in the wake of this scandal, women are now suspicious of mikvahs in general but the Orthodox Jewish hierarchy, all male of course, are pooh-poohing their concerns with the old chestnut about Freundel being a solo rotten apple. If the experience of other male-dominated religions is any guide, this revelation may lead to the exposure of other abuses.
It turns out that there are mikvahs for males too and Shmarya Rosenberg says that they too have a history of being used for sexual abuse.
No, that isn’t really why Rabbi David Zwiebel or Rabbi Avi Shafran requested anonymity. Likely it was because the organization they work for and the entire haredi rabbinic estabilshment has long covered up child sex abuse – a lot of which takes place in haredi men’s mikvahs. And haredi rabbinic leaders (like the one who the Jewish Week spoke to) long insisted child sex abuse couldn’t happen in their community and, if it did, it was an outlier occuence, an extreme rarity, and that it happened far less in haredi communities than in the secular world. But all of that was false, child sex abuse was common in haredi communities and still is. Religion offers no particular protection for innocent victims.
Religion provides a convenient home for sexual predators who can use their authoritative positions as god’s spokespeople to justify their actions and use the threat of punishment by the almighty to keep their victims silent.