People asked me if I was scandalized by the story of a rabbi using a camera on unsuspecting women in a mikvah.
I told them the story was horrible and unconscionable, a true chilul Hashem. But shocked? Few things shock me about human sexuality and the human capacity to do shameless things. The potential for sexual corruption lies within each of us, which is why Judaism safeguards the sanctity of sex with institutions like mikvah. Sex must be something more than just instinct and impulse. Judaism seeks to elevate sex to a higher plane without stripping it of its erotic pleasure.
Now that institution has been abused. Women go to the mikvah to feel ritually pure. They do not go to feel dirty. The mikvah is a place of female sanctity. It has been shockingly violated.
A comprehensive review of male access to the female mikvah must be undertaken so that all women feel and know that the mikvah is an inviolable place of religious privacy and spiritual security. This sorrowful story also highlights the need to accelerate the establishment of female halachic (Jewish legal) authorities so that increasingly women can regulate private feminine Jewish matters. Let women become halachic guardians of the mikvah.
I would be lying if I did not say that I felt pity for Barry Freundel, a brilliant scholar whose insightful and lucid writings on Jewish ethics I have found informative. To see any rabbi spend decades building a community with true devotion, only to drive his life off a cliff, is a terrible thing. Even virtuous men can self-immolate and engage in reprehensible actions that are utterly inexcusable.
But Freundel, of course, is not the victim but the culprit. The victims are the virtuous and trusting women who sought to bring greater sanctity to their marriages by going to mikvah. Few things are as noble.
We can only hope that they will find healing. We also hope that we rabbis will win back people’s trust and be a source of spiritual uplift rather than inflictors of pain.
And while Freundel is singularly responsible for his inexcusable actions, I hope to find some positive instruction in this painful story.
In my book “Kosher Adultery,” I discussed the male need for voyeurism for sexual excitement. I suggested that husbands make their wives into webcam girls. I was being facetious, but there was a grain of truth in the joke. We remain sexually healthy when our sexuality is not repressed. Why not cater to the male need for erotic excitement by allowing husbands to stare at their knowing wives? It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but then sex is highly personal. Rather than condemn individual erotic needs as sick, why not cater to them in a kosher way? And if a wife is fine with her husband taking pictures of her changing, who cares?
I have long argued that sex is not something that can or should be tamed but channeled, not suppressed but sublimated. Alone among the religions of the world, Judaism embraces the human sexual instinct as pleasurable, not merely procreative. The Torah reading at the very beginning of Genesis, two weeks ago, makes it abundantly clear that the purpose of sex is not having children but for creating intimacy born of cleaving: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and leave his mother. He shall cleave unto his wife and they shall become one flesh.”
In an age of romantic cynicism and the decline of marriage – last month’s new census data revealed that more people than ever are not marrying – why would we not harness the single most powerful human instinct to draw men closer to their wives? Instead of making husbands feel that their erotic needs are aberrational, let’s always encourage them to direct it toward their wives.
I recognize that this would not have stopped the actions of the rabbi in question. But I am not merely addressing sexual aberration. I am looking to find erotic ways to strengthen marriage.
Recently an Orthodox Jewish sex counselor attacked me for an interview I gave on “Kosher Lust” to New York magazine, where I said that that Jewish law encourages a man to make his wife climax before he does. This is Judaism’s tacit acknowledgment of a fact that modern science has finally caught up with – that women are much more sexual than men, with more deeply-rooted sexual needs. But the counselor in question accused me of putting undue pressure on men to pleasure their wives.
Can we stop this? Can we cease always portraying sex in religion as a man’s game? The ketubah – the marriage contract read at every Jewish wedding – is an express and shockingly public declaration of a man’s sexual obligations to his wife, rather than the reverse.
And that’s what makes this story of rabbinic voyeurism so particularly tragic.
If there is one message conveyed by the mikvah it is the sacredness of sex. Before a couple indulges their pent-up sexual passion, which has been denied and allowed to build for a number of days, they declare the godliness of sex by immersing in holy waters. It is a far cry from the declaration of the celibate St. Paul that marital sex is a concession to man’s sinful nature and it’s better to have it than to burn. Judaism sanctifies carnal desire instead, by preceding it with immersion in a ritual pool.
Sex is kosher, steamy, and wet.
And why the woman? Because men always have needed sexual novelty to create passion and have often made the tragic error of finding it in new flesh rather than in creative play with their wives. So God gives them a woman who emerges fresh from the primordial waters.
Men have their source in the earth, a symbol of sexuality that can be left arid and lifeless, while women find renewal in the eternal spring of life. And a husband should seek sexual renewal in his wife – unpeeling her erotic layers – rather than in the superficiality of porn or the criminal invasion of a woman’s privacy.
It’s a lesson that every man and husband, without exception, must learn, learn again, and repeat.