If Barry Freundel secretly violated sexual ethics, in public he pored over them.
Allegations that the Georgetown rabbi hid a camera in a ritual bathing area have astonished people from Washington to Israel, in part because Freundel had positioned himself as an ethical beacon. The internationally known Orthodox rabbi served as spiritual guide to the likes of former U.S. senator Joseph I. Lieberman and Supreme Court expert Linda Greenhouse and proffered wisdom on a wide range of moral matters.
Freundel’s writings, interviews and sermons, however, reveal that he appeared deeply worried about the dangerous overlap between sex and ethics, especially where it concerns technology.
Technology, he told a 1999 congressional bioethics panel, is “value-neutral. You can use it for good, you can use it for bad; the concern is how you use it. Every technology is a tool given to us by God to improve the world, if we use it the right way.” Same with knowledge, he said. Jews “style ourselves the ‘People of the Book’ because we think knowledge is valuable. But are you using it ethically?”
“The lack of sexual morality that pervades this society is all over the place, and the Orthodox community, no matter how traditional, is not immune from this,” he told Washington Jewish Week in a story last month about divorce among the Orthodox. “Pornography and its accessibility is wrecking marriages. It’s two keystrokes away. You get on the computer, you hit the button twice and you’re there.”
This week, police charged the rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation with voyeurism, saying he used a hidden camera to videotape women using a neighborhood mikvah. The mikvah is a large bath that observant Jews, mostly women, are required to immerse in at certain ritual times, such as conversion or marriage and after the menstrual cycle. On Thursday, police said they were expanding the investigation after finding additional computers and storage devices, including one with more than 100 deleted files — some labeled with women’s first names.
Freundel’s community has been silent — beginning late Wednesday and continuing to sundown Saturday — because of the back-to-back Jewish holidays of Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah and then the weekly Sabbath. Orthodox Jews don’t use phones or computers or write on holy days.
But much can be gleaned about Freundel’s approach to ethics from his sermons and articles. Approaching the subject like one might a scientific problem, he looked to the Jewish scriptures for references and to clear answers about right and wrong.
“For me, the absence of objective, externally-created values would leave me struggling to find a glimmer of light in a world gone mad with darkness and lack of direction,” he wrote in a sermon titled “Why Tradition?”
In the Sept. 17 Washington Jewish Week piece, he predicted Orthodoxy’s return.
“Unless people really want to continue with the direction of where this world is sort of falling apart, I think the liberalism of the last few years is not working and I think that means that there’ll be a turn back,” he said. “Once there’s a turn back, people are going to look for rules, for structures.”
Yet even as he emphasized the powerful, challenging world of ethics, Freundel seemed to keep the topic at emotional arm’s length. Congregants and students describe the beefy 62-year-old as erudite and removed. He never spoke about the topics in a personal way.
“He was not warm and fuzzy,” said one woman whose conversion to Judaism Freundel guided and who was for a time a member of Kesher Israel. Congregants who spoke about Freundel did so on the condition of anonymity because they didn’t want to be seen as hurting Freundel’s family.
“He’s not interested in the pastoral dimensions of a rabbi’s job. People come with their deepest fears about illness, death. This is a very central part of the job of a rabbi, and he wasn’t very good at it,” said a longtime congregant. “Does the congregation have great affection for him? It has more respect than affection. Now that’s shot to hell, too.”
Freundel, who led Kesher Israel from 1989 until he was suspended this week, taught law at Georgetown University and ethics at Towson University, and he advised the National Institutes of Health on ethics.
Freundel spoke about a lot more than sex. In sermons and other writings, he worried about the impact of modernity, divisions between Jews over religious pluralism. He has a relatively conservative stance for liberal Washington on issues including gay rights and Israel.
On High Holidays, a period when Jews are expected to atone, Freundel questioned sharply how Jews can acknowledge God’s judgment but ask — perhaps unfairly — at the same time for his mercy.
“We are asking G-d to do something other than what He expected to do. We are asking G-d to, as it were, disrupt His orderly life. We are asking Him to rearrange the structure of the way He does business,” the text of an undated teaching, titled “To Judge or not to Judge,” reads.
In that specific sermon Freundel mentions a community in which he was considered a giant: converts. He describes them as people who have “turned their world upside down for what they believe in.”
Judaism, unlike Christianity or Islam, doesn’t evangelize. In fact, Orthodox Judaism says someone who wants to convert is supposed to be dissuaded three times to be sure the person really wants it (and for genuine reasons). Freundel took up the cause of helping converts. It was that commitment combined with his reputation for rigor that boosted him to become an arbiter of sorts from the United States to Israeli rabbinical authorities, who often look askance at Western conversions as not sufficiently thorough.
This week, some of the many whom Freundel converted felt violated.
Because of concern among Orthodox women in the community, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has scheduled a meeting with them for Sunday night. The meeting was called to answer questions about how images Freundel allegedly took — many of which likely show women naked — may be used by law enforcement.
On Thursday night, several dozen congregants filed into the small Georgetown synagogue to mark Simchat Torah, a holiday marking the end of the annual Torah-reading cycle. Freundel had been ordered to stay away from his synagogue.
Years earlier, the rabbi praised the congressional bioethics panel for looking — as he does — to religious faith for ethical answers. He appeared with other faith figures.
“It’s critically important as technology explodes that morality and ethics go along with the technology. And you ought to be commended that you’ve reached to the faith communities to try and speak to these very sensitive issues.”