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Confusing Jews with Judaism

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OCTOBER 20, 2014

Scanning through my Facebook newsfeed Wednesday morning, I suddenly felt sick as a Huffington Post headline glared at me: Barry Freundel, Prominent D.C. Rabbi, Arrested on Voyeurism Charge. Clicking on the link, the knot in my stomach grew as I read about accusations against Modern Orthodox Rabbi Barry Freundel for allegedly installing video cameras in a mikvah, a Jewish ritual bathhouse for women.

For me, if the charges are true, this isn’t just some run-of-the-mill, creepy peeping Tom case. It’s personally painful as a self-identified Modern Orthodox Jew — not to mention as a feminist. One of the struggles and rewards of identifying with a religious community is that how you act as an individual naturally reflects the values of your community to others and how community members choose to act in turn reflects on you. I didn’t choose Freundel to represent me, but he inevitably does, regardless of his intentions, as a member of the same faith community. My first reaction to the headline was a sense of personal shame and responsibility.

Let me better explain my anger from a Jewish perspective. Going to the mikvah is a full-body immersion ritual for Orthodox married women after menstruation each month and after having a miscarriage or giving birth. Traditionally, Orthodox couples refrain from sex during a woman’s period — a practice called nidah  — so immersion signifies a renewal or new beginning, so to speak, for a couple’s sexual relationship. To keep a woman’s sex life as private as she might want it to be, part of the ritual is ensuring her privacy. Only one woman goes to the mikvah at a time with a single female attendant from the community present to help her through the ritual if she needs. Communities usually put mikvahs in high-walled areas so no one walking by sees who goes in or out. Essentially, a mikvah is the most private space for women in the Orthodox Jewish tradition.

The ritual itself aside, Jewish law encourages men to an almost extreme degree to refrain from objectifying women’s bodies. Orthodox Judaism emphasizes a concept called shmirat eiynayim, which literally means “guarding of eyes.” The precept is basically this: If you see a woman walking down the street, don’t do a double-take, don’t stare, don’t ogle. Toward the same end, there’s an Orthodox modesty dress code for women (knee-length skirts and long-sleeved shirts) in part to help feeble men control their thoughts — an idea I admittedly find very problematic — but that’s a topic for another article. The point is, outside of a consensual (traditionally, marital) relationship, Orthodox Judaism stresses that women’s bodies aren’t for sexualizing, even fully clothed in public, let alone naked in private without their knowledge.

So if the allegations are true, I’ll be deeply saddened and, frankly, pissed. Pissed because someone who supposedly represents Orthodox Judaism as a spiritual leader ignored its principles. Pissed because his actions are inevitably associated with a community with which I identify. Pissed because his identity as a rabbi implies that his behavior is OK within our value system. It’s not.

The case of Freundel epitomizes an important idea: The practitioners of a religion cannot be equated with a religion’s values. As my stepmom sometimes shakes her head and says when issues like this arise, “You can’t confuse Jews with Judaism.”

And likewise with any other religion. As the atrocities committed by ISIS increasingly appear in the news, I see more and more posts on social media condemning Islam as a violent religion. And while a rabbi’s voyeurism, of course, can’t be compared to massacres committed by ISIS, I can’t help but cringe every time I read one of these generalizing comments, knowing on a much smaller level what it’s like to struggle with gross misrepresentation. Yes, ISIS is a self-identified Muslim group that claims to act based on Islam — and it’s not the only group that has committed acts of terrorism under similar pretenses. But the acts of certain factions don’t reflect the values of individual Muslims, the global Muslim community or Islam as a faith.

Many Muslims stare at the headlines, as I did Wednesday, pained and sickened, not only by the brutality of ISIS, but by the fact that people who claim to represent them and their religion fundamentally misinterpret and act against their most deeply held convictions. The #NotInMyName social media campaign, started by British Muslims, is one outgrowth of the overwhelming feeling in many Muslim communities that ISIS does not represent them and how their actions are a distortion of Muslim doctrine.

Ultimately, religious people don’t have power over what other members, even leaders, of our communities do, and sometimes the actions of those members completely ignore or even defy our values. Yet society connects us to their behavior, and they represent us. This is partially inevitable. But the less we generalize about religious communities, the less we give people who misuse religion the power to define it. Terrorism is not Islam, and voyeurism is not my Judaism.

Sara Weissman writes the Monday column on religious identities. You can contact her at [email protected].

OCTOBER 20, 2014