A Bitter Pill

It’s been a little more than a week since my synagogue was rocked by the arrest of Rabbi Freundel.  Elanit spoke eloquently about the first-order effect on Shmini Atzeret;.  Since that time, I’ve seen all sorts; of reactions and even more additional information.

My perspective on the matter might be a bit different from some others.  I’m a convert – and one of Freundel’s converts, no less, but I didn’t have quite the horrific experience which many of the recent (female) converts describe.  I came to Judaism after a long journey through a bunch of different religions (up to and including paganism) – I was reading Rabbi Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, and I realized that this was exactly what I had been looking for for years.  I initially contacted a nearby Conservative rabbi who enrolled me in the conversion class and gave me a reading list.  Around the time he dismissively brushed off the idea of taharat hamishpaha, I realized he wasn’t the rabbi for me. I switched sponsoring rabbis, and then finished the conversion with the Conservative movement about 2 years after I had started.
Two notes about that: first, the mohel didn’t show up, so my hatafat dam brit was performed by one of the (non-mohel) rabbis there, using a diabetic finger-stick. Relatively high on the unpleasant scale, that was. Second, of the three rabbis, one later left town after allegations about discretionary fund mismanagement, and another got featured on “To Catch a Predator” (in the wrong way).

I was attending the third rabbi’s synagogue, but quickly found myself too far to the right for the Conservative movement. When I went to a local Orthodox minyan, the gabbai checked with his rabbi, and told me I wouldn’t be counted. D’oh!

I called Rabbis Tessler and Freundel, and RBF returned my call first. When I went to meet with him, I wore a suit (dress up to meet the rabbi, ‘natch), and had tzitzit (fringes) out, and at the time had a full beard. He later told me that his first thought was “this guy must be here to talk about his girlfriend,” and that he was really surprised to hear that I wanted to convert myself. By this point I had already taken a year of Hebrew at U Maryland.

After ratcheting up my observance a bit, I converted with him about six months later (shortly after simhat torah 5758). The mohel showed up, and was one of my beit din. My big surprises were getting my circumcision inspected – to make sure that I didn’t need to go have it re-done surgically – no, that wasn’t traumatic at all, and the other surprise was that the men’s mikvah in Silver Spring wasn’t heated at all. In October. Yep, composing an impromptu declaration of faith while standing in extremely cold water was my idea of a good time.

But that was the end of the crummy part.

Sarah and I got married shortly after, and RBF performed the ceremony – his wife Sharon walked Sarah down the aisle, and we got introduced to Kesher Israel by the lovely wedding the community threw for us. We babysat for the Freundel kids when they were little, attended their bar & bat mitzvahs, and even one of their weddings. Sharon was the person we spoke to about our daughter’s name to make sure we weren’t walking into an accidental Hebrew language trap (or picking a name with bad associations).

I’ve been fully welcomed into the community, serving as a mashgiah (kosher supervisor), gabbai (sexton), ba’al tokea (shofar blower), speaker, sheliah tzibbur (prayer leader), board member and later officer, and then president of the mikvah. I’ve taught classes in practical Judaism (primarily directed for converts and the newly observant), and innumerable times I’ve been the person RDBF would send someone to talk to after their first meeting with him (generally after morning minyan) – I would tell people that they’d be evaluated by the questions they asked: “why do we keep kosher” is asked by a person in a different place in the process than “I just bought a chicken and it had a broken leg – is it still kosher?”

So I’m heartbroken. With the actions of which R’ Freundel has been (compellingly) accused, I feel like I just had a big chunk of family taken away.

The betrayal is really raw – this isn’t a private porn addiction, an affair, or the like: this is the perversion of a fundamental Jewish institution. It’s a betrayal of the years we all spent building the mikvah (especially given all of the flack we got during the construction). It’s a betrayal of all of the trust we’ve built since then.

I remember conversations with RDBF on many occasions when some Jewish religious leader or other would get into an ethical or sexual scandal – I would lament that I would wish that being immersed in the study of Torah would have served as a prophylactic against that sort of behavior – that is to say, that being learned would make someone better. He said he understood my disappointment.

He has been a mentor to me, and now that crumbles through my fingertips. I keep hoping that I’ll wake up, and this will turn out to have been the longest dream ever, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

There are a lot of stages of grief, and I’m probably holding at anger, mostly, but in the words of a good friend, sampling of the different emotions is like a misery tapas.

It isn’t supposed to be like this, with the chief of police on the bimah – people asking (legitimate) questions like “how do I talk about this to my kids”? That just twists the knife. I don’t think I was videotaped (but it’s possible – there were men’s hours recently), but I feel terrible for all of the people who have been. I feel terrible for Sharon and the extended Freundel family, who also didn’t ask for this, and now suffer for something they didn’t do.

I’ve never been prouder of the community and our leadership – Elanit (KI) and Adela (NCM) both acted with all due speed and without hesitation. Not every institution is as responsible or as committed to ethical behavior. But I sure wish they weren’t put into the position to have had to do this. This is horrible.

It is worth noting that many articles are calling for “the keys to the mikvah to be in the hands of women” and the like. That’s nice, but that doesn’t have anything to do with this case, because 5 of the 6 National Capital Mikvah presidents have been women (including the current and immediately past president). The current president of Kesher Israel likewise is a woman. Clearly, being run by women didn’t keep the local rabbi from causing a deep hurt. However, being run by the right women – the best people for the job – meant that their responses have been clear and compelling. The problem is, as Juvenal asked, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” (who watches the watchmen?) – when the person at the root of the web of trust defects, it is nearly impossible to prevent and is devastating.

But back to the issue – this sucks mightily. I miss my friendship, which was apparently gone before I realized it. I miss the trust I had – the sense of innocent search for truth, and the feeling that I had a friend and ally. I miss the feeling that someone was actively trying to protect converts, and actively trying to hold the center against the pull of the left and the pull of the right.

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

I know to me it leaves an ashen aftertaste.

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Parshat Bereshit 2014 (or, “From the Peanut Gallery”)

Because of the events which unfolded this past week related to Kesher Israel, I was asked on Tuesday to give the sermon this shabbat. Below is what I said.

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Shabbat Shalom.

This week’s parsha, Bereshit, opens with God creating the world ex nihilo – from nothingness – and describes that primordial nothingness as tohu va’vohu – void and confused. We move through the days of creation, observing the complexity of the created world increase from inanimate objects to plants, animals, and finally the zenith of His created work – the human being. One might think this would be a story of how the perfectly created people would live in perfection.

However, it is not.

Those first human beings, in relatively quick order, manage to be disobedient, deceitful, and murderous. Hava listens to the voice of the snake, eats the forbidden fruit, and then gets Adam to do the same. For this, they are cast out of the garden with a curse. Their oldest children, Kayin and Hevel, follow suit when Kayin commits the first murder, and then lies to God upon being challenged. For this, Kayin is also cast out to wander the earth.

Our sages tell us that the reason for the sixth day being described as “very” good was that God placed in us conflicting desires: the good inclination – the yetzer ha-tov, which wants to constructively obey God’s commands, and an evil inclination – the yetzer ha-ra, which includes the impulsive, the acquisitive, the angry, and the carnal. Our task as people, and a fortiori as Jews, is to yoke the yetzer ha-ra so that our actions – regardless of their initial genesis – can serve God.

In the cases of Adam, Hava, and Kayin, it’s clear that whatever else happened in their lives, they were overcome by their yetzer ha-ra, and while God had conciliatory things to say about it – they were all punished severely for their transgressions. Their actions tore at the fabric of their (small) society, and the nature of their punishment reflected the sense in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that that which is crooked cannot be made straight (Ecc 1:15). It was a permanent punishment – Adam and Hava never made it back to the garden in their lives, because innocence lost cannot be regained. Kayin’s wanderings likewise did not cease – no earthly repentance could repay the loss of Hevel’s life, which we judge to have infinite value.

This could be viewed as the earliest example of “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

These two examples have another thing in common: the transgressions and punishment completely take over the characters, so that their good qualities are all but forgotten in the stories themselves and in how they are remembered. If one were to describe Kayin, “that guy who murdered his brother” pretty much sums up the totality of how he is remembered – no attention is paid to how dutiful he was as a son, or any of the good he did his life – that one act became the defining aspect of his persona through history.

Or to put it in the words of Kohelet again, “zevuvay mavet yavish ya- biah shemen rokeah yakar mahokhmah mikavod sikhlut m’at” – “dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s oil; wisdom and honor are outweighed by a little stupidity.” (Ecc: 10:1)

Kohelet isn’t saying that the wisdom and honor go away, or that they do not matter, rather that the damage which can be done by a little stupidity will be what is remembered.

The last thing that these two examples have in common is that the people involved in them act in a similar way when confronted by God – they first attempt to escape blame, and then try to deny responsibility. Adam blames Hava, Hava blames the serpent, and God is angry with all of them. Kayin impudently challenges God with “am I my brother’s keeper?” when given the opportunity to admit what he has done. This, too, is an all-too-human trope – David famously asked “Shegi’ot mi yavin?” – “who can discern his own errors?” (Ps. 19:12)

We are charged with learning both positive and negative examples from the Bible, most famously expressed as “ma’aseh avot simanim l’banim” – the deeds of the ancestors are signs to their descendants.

What does that give us here?

We learn from their examples that the yetzer ha-ra is powerful enough to overcome the reluctance to sin even when one is right in front of God. And more – the three things I find in common here are that the individuals were drawn to follow their yetzer ha-ra, sinned, denied their own role in the sin, and were punished with exile, and the remembrances of their transgressions vastly outweighs the memory of the good they did in their lives.

Judaism teaches us that a corrective to the yetzer ha-ra is engaging the yetzer ha-tov – and we have an opportunity to do that here, now. We can increase our commitment to community service, to study of Torah, and to acts of loving-kindness. We can financially support our community efforts to repair our building, in addition to our other charitable acts. And we can call out to God for His assistance – as David wrote, “the LORD is close to all those who call upon Him in truth.” (ps 145:18)

May we merit to yoke our yetzer ha-ra to the service of God and His commandments.