• John Kador

A Disgraced Rabbi’s Apology–“I Shattered the Worlds of Those I Loved Most.”

Is there any offense that’s so terrible that no apology can be its equal?

Rabbi Barry Freundel leaves the D.C. Superior Court House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. Freundel accused of videotaping women at a Jewish ritual bath, was in court for a scheduled status hearing. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

This is one of the most common questions I hear as I talk about effective apology.

We now have an offense that tests the question.

It’s the case of Barry Freundel, a once-influential Orthodox rabbi in Washington, D.C.  who secretly videotaped dozens of unrobed women at Kesher Israel synagogue in Georgetown as the women prepared for the purification ritual known as the mikvah, a ritual bath that is a basic part of Jewish life and indispensable for those who seek to convert to Judaism.

His conduct at such a sacred moment constitutes a profound violation and betrayal of trust almost unspeakable in its spiritual destructiveness.

Freundel’s actions were detected. He was arrested in 2014.  In May of 2015 he was sentenced to more than six years in prison for videotaping 52 women. On September 8th, he issued a public apology to the women, the first time he has spoken publicly since his arrest last fall.

The text of the apology is here.

My Take

I write this on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Days of Awe when Jews are called on to forgive those who have wronged us and reach out with apologies to those we have wronged. Most of all we hope to occupy a space of forgiveness for ourselves and others.

Freundel’s apology is obviously full of angst, self-disgust, and genuine remorse. I take his apology as sincere.

There is no restitution possible for this offense.  His punishment is real. His life is ruined.  The criminal justice system has done it’s job.

Now, as for the apology . . .

The apology is unsparing as to the offender’s personal lack of merit.  In that, the apology is rare.

In the matter of form, the apology is too long.  I’ve never seen a public apology that wouldn’t be improved by eliminating the first sentence. That rule applies in this case.

And the entire fourth paragraph (“Throughout my life. . . “) can go, as well.  The best apologies dispense with explanation.  It’s almost impossible to include explanation in an apology without it coming off as rationalization or minimization. My main criticism of the rabbi’s apology is that it focuses a too much on the rabbi and not enough on his victims.

That said, I give the apology high marks for identifying the many varieties of the people he victimized and specifying the many ways his conduct was reprehensible.  Even better for him to actually name the offenses for which he was convicted.

The apology is rare for not offering excuses. He concludes, “There is no excuse for what I’ve done. Again, I’m truly sorry.”

I appreciate his comment that he would have preferred to apologize individually to each of his victims, but he felt that it could cause further harm to some and would be unwelcome. In violations so intimate, the offender must be very cautious not to re-offend.

I accept Freundel’s apology.

I will look into myself to see if I have the moral fiber to forgive him.

Apology is inherently liberating. At its best it allows all parties to move ahead, although–and this is the key point–not necessarily together.

This is the stubborn fact about apology that Rabbi Freundel can ponder for the next six and a half years.

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