How do we forgive the ‘Peeping Tom’ rabbi? Can we? (COMMENTARY)

Rabbi Alana Suskin is director of strategic communications at Americans for Peace Now and a board member of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. She is an educator, activist, and writer published in dozens of anthologies and journals, and a senior managing editor of Photo courtesy of Rabbi Alana Suskin

(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 Alana Suskin is Director of Strategic Communication at Americans for Peace Now and a board member of T'ruah, a Jewish human rights group. She is an educator, activist, and writer published in dozens of anthologies and journals, and a senior managing editor of Photo courtesy of Rabbi Alana Suskin

Rabbi Alana Suskin is director of strategic communication at Americans for Peace Now and a board member of T’ruah, a Jewish human rights group. She is an educator, activist and writer published in dozens of anthologies and journals, and a senior managing editor of Photo courtesy of Rabbi Alana Suskin

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


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  • Should he still, or in the meantime, preach Judaism by telephone, which is what he is currently doing now according to another recent article about this matter from RNS?

  • Speaking of repentance, heading strat coms for an organization that stubbornly insists that Israel make the sort of radical compromises which can only lead to more war and bloodshed is not exactly a great place to be in the divine economy.

  • His Torah is still Torah? Not until he publicly apologizes and takes full responsibility for his sins, which he has still not done. Until then he is making Torah a spade to dig with and teaches us nothing.

  • “If all we do is rebuke and punish, does that serve the end goal of holiness?”

    Holiness? The end goal should be the safety of women and the prevention of such crimes.
    Your argument adds up to enabling and shaming – just put the rabbi in jail and stop pretending this is about anything else.

    If forgiveness worked, if repentance were real and if a real God cared even a little bit – the Pedophile Priest Network would never have happened and the 25,000 known cases of child rape would never have been possible.

  • Max, you’ll note Rabbi Suskin’s subtle criticisms of the criminal justice system and her membership on the board of T’ruah, a rabbinic “human rights” organization that lately seems more about being anti-law enforcement than anything else. In fact, they’re part of the religious campaign against solitary confinement, as covered by RNS.
    This stance informs Rabbi Suskin’s view of teshuvah from prison as being near impossible, and that we must allow room for the offender to perform teshuvah in other ways. My nearly two decades in the LE field make me see it differently: prison would be an excellent place for him to start doing teshuvah. Yes, there will be restrictions on him contacting the victims, but that’s for a good reason. And we’ll see, with any statement he makes at sentencing, whether he plans on apologizing to them.
    Don’t write off teshuvah, Max. If you take out the God part it could work on a secular level too.

  • Max, Mz. Suskin’s critique of the legal structure applies to pedophile priests as well. The media / legal approach triggered an immune response of the church’s structure (established during the Counter-Reformation), causing it to be secretive, revive it’s “persecution complex”, and established a new witch-hunt against gays in Catholic seminaries.

    The general dialogue in the church, when it got beyond “persecution” branched into a reactionary approach, where fundamentalists insisted it was the outcome of Vatican II bringing “modernism” into church & sexualized culture. It concluded the proper cure was in reverting to a purer Catholicism (banning books, donning mantilias and obsessive devotionals).

    Romanticizing innocence, depriving religious from authentic socialization with children (& adults), unquestioned authority, shame over sexuality, etc. created the abuse. Exploitation is a social phenomenon & the society must investigate, not simply shun, to resolve it.

  • Although Judaism for the most part is not hierarchical like the Catholic Church, there are lessons for the institutions here as well, how to in the future, as Max put it, ensure the safety of women and the prevention of such crimes. The Rabbinical Council of America (the Modern Orthodox rabbinical org that oversaw the US conversion process), and Kesher Israel (the synagogue that employed Freundel), among others, were in a position to stop Freundel long ago, and did not. They must perform teshuvah as well. Considering their exposure in the many coming lawsuits, restitution to the victims may be a big part of that.

  • Today is the sentencing of Mr. (not Rabbi) Freundel. He was in charge of the conversion of many converts and grossly exploited their vulnerabilities. Soon we will celebrate Shavuot and read the Book of Ruth who was probably the most famous of all converts. Please pay close attention to the love and beauty expressed in her response to Naomi in Chapter 1 and her dialog with Boaz in Chapter 2 and ask yourself if this is how we should treat converts using Ruth as the prime example of those who embrace our people and faith. No words can say better what Ruth answers Naomi after Orpah returns to her people.

  • I just don’t happen to believe that ‘forgiveness’ is a real thing.

    If the words, “I forgive you” are to be morally applied
    the intention can only mean,
    “I’ll let you off the hook this time, but don’t do it again”

    Think about what that adds up to:
    If you behave immorally toward me I have to decide if it is in my best interest to let you off the hook or not.

    Thus, ‘forgiveness’ – the idea that one can be made whole and pure before the immoral deed was done – is impossible.

    I think words matter. Justice (not forgiveness) is the only word which is honest and relevant.

    He will never be trusted again regardless of the next steps.
    “Mercy” may be a relevant word but only within the man made, secular rules of Justice under the law.

  • Meir Elazar,

    “pay close attention to the love and beauty expressed in her response to Naomi in Chapter 1”

    Look. Mercy is the operative word – not forgiveness! Forgiveness is nonsense.
    Freundel, and people like him, will never be trusted again. Which should tell you that ‘forgiveness’ is a useless concept and just another religious word for something that doesn’t really exist; like ‘sin’.

    Whether God exists is irrelevant. Human law is more than sufficient to deal with creeps and to protect humanity as best we can – and that is the only issue.

    If mercy applies, let a jury decide.

  • Atheist Max,
    Your response is totally irrelevant to what I posted. I did not use either “mercy” or “forgiveness” in my post. You seem to be full of answers to spew looking for a question to hang them on whether it is relevant or not. I seriously doubt that you have any competence in Hebrew whatsoever and as such cannot possibly relate to brilliance expressed in the Book of Ruth during the conversation between Ruth and Naomi that I am citing. The great Sage Saman Trey said “Adif Lishtok Ve-Leheraot Tipesh Miliftoach Peh Ve-lehachasir kol safek

  • Meir Elazar,

    “…Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me,” – (Ruth 1:16-17)

    One doesn’t need Hebrew for this.
    Ruth is an ancient myth and its theme is very dated.

    It is a story of loyalty as devotion (a primitive idea of love) – a very over-rated virtue.
    Ask the 25,000 victims of the pedophile rapist priests what they think of the ‘loyalty’ within priestly ranks. Or the ‘loyalty’ within the ranks of the Ferguson police to protect bad cops.

    Loyalty is not a virtue by itself. It often is not even loving – but betrays fear and the thickness of theives.

    Tribalist loyalty, religious loyalty, loyalty to all these various gods, is exactly what we have too much of in this world.

    I know the Bible very well, which is why your reference to Ruth was particularly out of place given the circumstances of Mr. Freundal.

  • Atheist Max,

    If you don’t know Hebrew and I mean really know Hebrew properly then you must rely on a piss poor translation as you do. Translations are poor at best and cannot possibly convey the sheer brilliance of the original Hebrew. It is like taking a black and white photocopy of a Rembrandt. You lose the color, the gradations, texture but you can sort of make out that it is a woman. As such your knowledge is totally worthless and useless.

  • My argument is that religion should never play a role in law breaking clerics – ever.

    I don’t care if Jews, Muslims or Christians want to wring their hands and make magical incantations and propitiations to some god afterwards.
    It is utterly irrelevant to me.

    The first step is to give up the perpetrator to the proper authorities
    and have his clerical enablers arrested as complicit accessories to these crimes.

    Throw the book at them and let the secular world deal with justice.
    I have no time for atonements and redemptions – if god exists let him exist on his own time.

  • Meir Elazar,

    “if you don’t know Hebrew…”

    Well, You clearly have missed the boat, not knowing Arabic is the real problem for you – because if you really knew Arabic you would follow the beauty of the Q’uran and you’d see the brilliance and beauty of Allah and you’d be Muslim.

    So there.
    If lost language arts are required for God’s wisdom, then God was very unwise to let them fade away or allow them to be mistranslated.

    You have every right to believe in your religion. Enjoy!
    But your special pleading is not an argument.
    The Book of Ruth is about devotional loyalty – a primitive, enslaving idea of “love” – but it isn’t love.

  • Atheist Max,

    Actually I do speak Arabic. Wa-Inta Ibn Sharmutah ya kalb. Yinal Abook. Kul kalb bijiyomo.

  • It speaks volumes that people are already seeking ways to bring this heterosexual rabbi back into the fold, while defrocked homosexual priests remain demonized and damned.

  • My argument is that once you remove God or “magical incantations,” teshuvah or repentance is a secular value. It’s not that the victim has to or needs to come to a place where she can forgive the offender. Like you say, forgiveness may make you feel better but it doesn’t do anything to change what happened. With repentance, the offender has to realize what he did wrong and resolve to better his conduct in the future. The victim’s forgiveness may help the offender but it’s neither necessary nor mandatory. It’s like a Twelve Step program (which I realize you may have a problem with because of the “Higher Power” aspect): you have to make amends.
    I doubt anyone else at KI or the RCA will be charged criminally because what they knew about Freundel didn’t directly relate to the hidden cameras and no one underage was involved so there was no mandatory reporting. It was more about his bullying nature and his harassment of female converts, never overtly sexual, just creepy.