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There is no instance in which violating someone’s body should be considered anything less than reprehensible. These violations, as we learn over and over, come in many forms. There are the unwanted catcalls on the street, the stealing of nude photos off someone’s phone, and, most horribly, rape. All of these, and everything in between, constitute a violation of one’s being, and in the eyes of the law, most are considered illegal.
On Tuesday, police arrested Rabbi Barry Freundel, who leads the modern orthodox Kesher Israel congregation in Georgetown, on a voyeurism charge, saying he may have set up a camera in a room where people shower to prep for a mikveh, a spiritual bath. These are, of course, allegations, and if Freundel is found guilty, the law will hold him accountable.
But there’s something additionally disturbing about this alleged crime, which police say happened during a holy ritual. In Judaism, women and men partake in mikveh for a variety of reasons. Men and women must have a mikveh during the conversion process to Judaism. Women have one if they just had a baby and, in very religious settings, at the end of their menstrual cycle. It’s a spiritual cleansing, and the mikveh ceremony is supposed to be available for worshippers whenever they want it. Some will choose to have a mikveh because they’re feeling depressed or have had a major life event.
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, the executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, explains that in a typical set-up, worshippers will enter a prep room, perhaps containing toothpaste, q-tips, and a shower, before the mikveh. The idea is to be naked and rinse one’s body of all dirt so that nothing comes in between the person and the mikveh. The person is then led into the mikveh room by a person from the temple. (Weiss-Greenberg says if it is a woman is going to the mikveh, then she’ll be led by a woman.) The mikveh itself is a bath filled with water that comes from a natural source.
“A mikveh is a place where a woman can feel fairly vulnerable,” Weiss-Greenberg says. “We need to make sure that this is a safe place.”
Going to the mikveh is a Jewish commandment; anyone taking off his or her clothes and participating in the ritual does so because the Jewish religion tells them to. The shower before the actual bath is part of the ritual and, if D.C. police’s allegations are true, then something did come between their bodies and the mikveh: a camera that their rabbi may have installed so that he or someone else could glimpse their bodies.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this before,” Weiss-Greenberg says.
Weiss-Greenberg says she and the Jewish community are hoping that the allegations aren’t true. Freundel is expected in court this afternoon, at which time we will likely learn more about the allegations and his defense. If he is found guilty, voyeurism is a misdemeanor, so he likely won’t face more than a year in jail (that’s assuming he didn’t distribute any of the collected images, a crime that would likely result in a longer sentence). The violation against Kesher Israel and D.C.’s Jewish community, however, may take a toll for a much longer time.
“Ancient mikveh” photo courtesy Shutterstock