(RNS) When I was in grad school on the path that would eventually lead me to become a rabbi, I took a class in the philosophy of Jewish law. The teacher was clear and interesting, if not terribly personable. When the semester ended and I wanted to learn more seriously about the body of Jewish text called Mishnah, I asked the professor if he would help.
He agreed but specified that our study had to take place over the phone. I thought it odd, but knew that philosophy departments are full of eccentric personalities, and I was grateful that he was willing to take the time. I didn’t think much of it, but now, I wonder if even back then Rabbi Barry Freundel was already fighting his demons.
The story of Rabbi Freundel is notorious: a nationally known figure, the rabbi of an important Orthodox congregation in Washington, who was disgraced after he secretly recorded women immersing in the mikvah ritual bath. It is a sad story, one that certainly reveals the truth of the Talmudic comment: “When anyone commits a transgression in secret, it is as though he thrust aside the feet of the Divine Presence.”
In the Washington area, where I live, there is shock over the Freundel scandal. I myself have struggled with what to tell people who ask me about how we should respond as a community. As a former student, I, too, was shocked.
But after much reflection, I think there are two primary responses: one personal, one communal.
First, unlike in some spiritual communities, Judaism holds that sins against God can be forgiven by God, but sins against other humans cannot be forgiven until the offender takes action to fix it. Judaism specifies that an offender must admit his or her sin, in words, out loud before God; confess the sin publicly; apologize to the wronged party; offer restitution (where possible); and abandon the sinful behavior. The offender’s return is complete only when the opportunity to commit the sin offers itself again and the person refrains from it.
Thus, the only people who can forgive Rabbi Freundel are the women whom he wronged; his family, whom he also wronged; and his congregation, which he wronged in a different way.
The nature of the American legal system makes it difficult to do teshuvah (literally “return,” the Jewish word for repentance), given the system’s limits on the speech and action of the accused during legal proceedings, as well as its focus on punishment. That means that only once Rabbi Freundel has finished paying for his crimes will he be able to try to fulfill the requirements of Jewish teshuvah. Before that time, anything he does will be seen — at best — as mercenary.
The second thing is the role of the community. There is a famous — and tragic — story in the Talmud of a rabbi named Elisha ben Abuyah, also known as Acher. Acher became a heretic and cut himself off from his friends and colleagues. But his student, Rabbi Meir, refused to abandon him. Regardless of what Acher said to him, Rabbi Meir would walk with him and use the familiar format of study to try to provoke Acher to repent. But Acher would always answer him: “I have already heard from (God): ‘Return, ye backsliding children’ — except Acher.”
I wonder if the community could have helped Acher to do teshuvah. Jewish law requires us to rebuke the sinner. But a rebuke isn’t the same as punishment: It is for the end goal of helping the person return to wholeness and for the community to bring the person back into itself — for redemption and reconciliation.
Rabbi Freundel’s crimes were a violation of the vulnerability of the convert, the outsider who makes herself vulnerable and joins us. But as long as his victims live, there is always hope for repentance. If all we do is rebuke and punish, does that serve the end goal of holiness? Helping the victims comes first — that should go without saying (although, sadly, it doesn’t always) — but we also need to try to help the sinner do teshuvah as well.
When I first heard of Rabbi Freundel’s arrest, I felt compelled to do … something. After a great deal of thought, I decided a short email was the most that could be appropriate, and so I sent one to him. I wrote that despite the accusations, as terrible as they were, I wanted to offer hope for his teshuvah, and a reminder that whatever he had done, no one is limited by their worst deeds. Redemption is always possible, and his Torah is still Torah.
Rabbi Meir and his colleagues never gave up on Acher. I do not know if Rabbi Freundel will be able to do teshuvah – even a truly heroic effort will require many years of therapy, humbling himself, and reaching out to the women he harmed to try to make some sort of recompense, which will be very difficult given the nature of his crimes against them. But all of us must hope for the ability to overcome the worst things that we have done.
In both versions of the story of Acher’s death, it is Acher’s colleagues who storm heaven, insisting to God that in spite of everything, Acher was of value and that when his punishment has been sufficient, he should be allowed into the World to Come with his colleagues. Ultimately, according to the story, they are successful.
(Rabbi Alana Suskin is director of strategic communication at Americans for Peace Now and a board member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. She is an educator, activist and a senior managing editor of Jewschool.com.)
KRE/MG END SUSKIN