One Lesson From The Voyeur Rabbi Scandal: Women Must Be Part of Every Board Room

One Lesson From The Voyeur Rabbi Scandal: Women Must Be Part of Every Board Room October 23, 2014

It has now been more than a week since the revelations occurred in the media of the alleged voyeuristic spying committed by one of the most influential and powerful Modern Orthodox rabbis in America, Rabbi Barry Freundel. If it was not horrible enough that women, most of them in the process of converting to Judaism, were violated in one of the most special and intimate ritual places in Judaism, it is now clear that the problems go back for years. Abuses of a sexual nature are often more about exerting power over someone as much as they are about sexual gratification. Secretly filming women nude at their most vulnerable in a time of their lives during a conversion process when they are particularly vulnerable is about unequivocally declaring, “I have absolute power over you: your soul, who you will marry and when you will marry them and, yes, even your very body.” The violations of rabbinic propriety that surfaced beginning in 2012 (and perhaps earlier) were also abuses of power.

These abuses of power are not unique to Rabbi Freundel or to the Orthodox rabbinate as Rabbi Ruth Abusch Magder pointed out in a blog post on MyJewishLearning.com. They do send a very powerful message though: The time has long come to open up the door for learned women working in clergy roles in the Orthodox community to join all of the Modern Orthodox rabbinic associations. The time has long come to make sure every mikvah has women serving on its board of directors.

Opening up the power structures to women is not because all men have failed, it is because men in conversation only with themselves fail. Men and women together can make better decisions, hold each other accountable and make sure that the needs, concerns and voices of both women and men are respected.

This should be obvious, but unfortunately it is not. All Orthodox rabbinic associations, except for one, still refuse to accept any women into their ranks. As one prominent leader, the head of a regional conversion court in the largest Orthodox rabbinic association in the United States stated recently when asked how many women serve on committees to oversee conversion: “[certain rabbinical organization] is an organization of rabbis. Its committees consist of those rabbis. There cannot be any female Orthodox rabbis, so obviously the answer would be none.”

When Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Daniel Sperber conferred ordination on Rabba Sara Hurwitz in June of 2009 almost all Orthodox rabbinic associations, with the exception of one, published policy statements condemning the ordination and reiterating their refusal to recognize any female rabbis. This, by all likelihood, also made it more unlikely that male students of Rabbi Weiss would ever be admitted as a group into the largest Orthodox rabbinic association. (The male students continue to be denied entrance because apparently Rabbi Weiss’ habit of standing up for the disenfranchised, disempowered and vulnerable as a rabbi make him the most controversial Orthodox rabbi in America and his students too tainted by association to his broadening the tent of inclusivity to join the ranks of their colleagues.)

This scandal has demonstrated that a little bit of sunlight can accomplish a great deal of good. Even without admitting female Orthodox rabbinic leaders like graduates of Rabbi Weiss’ Yeshivat Maharat there are graduates of Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program in Advanced Talmud Study, Drisha or programs in Israel that could join the ranks of these rabbinic organizations. If it offends the sensitivities of the male rabbis let them enter with some other title other than “rabba” or “rabbi” but invite them to the meetings where decisions are made, invite them to the board rooms and committees.

The same is true for board of directors of local mikvahs. There is no reason why women are excluded from leadership positions in places that are built almost exclusively for their use.

This latest scandal has demonstrated beyond any doubt that we need not throw all men out of the conversation of power and decision making but we do absolutely need to include women.


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