Thursday, October 30, 2014

Rabbi Barry Freundel and Personal Safeguards

CHEATING ON A SPOUSE IS USUALLY considered an unforgivable sin and often ends in divorce. It is also socially reprehensible, though regrettably, we have become numb to its frequent occurrence. I was surprised to learn that research indicates that oftentimes cheating spouses are not necessarily unhappy in their marriage, or are looking to cheat as a way of satisfying their ego, and do not always engage in this act impulsively. The way a psychologist explained it to me is that, oftentimes, it’s the outcome of a fantasy that festers and festers in his or her mind for days, months, and maybe even years. Psychologically speaking, if a spouse has multiple affairs, we can chalk it up to the idea that has been around since Talmudic times, that once you have tasted the forbidden fruit, it’s too difficult to go back.

I don’t know Rabbi Barry Freundel or the particulars of his character, other than what I have heard and read recently. But it might very well be that his sick and perverted behavior stemmed from a fantasy that festered within him for a very long time. Perhaps after a particularly frustrating day he did some research about cameras. A few months later, after an unfulfilling day in the office, he bought one, and a few months after that he installed it. Once he recorded his first victim, it was too difficult to turn back.

Whether my psychological analysis of Rabbi Freundel is correct is not the point. What is important to recognize is that even the most moral, ethical and family oriented person can succumb to a desire that is the product of a far-fetched fantasy he or she never dreamed would actually come to fruition. The unfortunate truth is that we can destroy many lives by turning a fantasy into a reality that we never really wanted in the first place. We need to protect ourselves from ourselves, but how? Just as important as creating communal safeguards to prevent society from acting on its basest instincts, is the need to create personal safeguards to prevent ourselves from yielding to the unholy and unhealthy temptations we face on a daily basis. Is there anything we can do to ward off the “impure,” “evil” or inappropriate thoughts that enter our minds? Are there strategies we can adopt to protect ourselves from allowing an idea to fester to the point that we make the biggest mistake of our lives? Can we be programmed to flip an “off” switch to shut out these thoughts? Is it possible to diffuse or at least control them?

Orthodox Rabbi Barry Freundel Arrested for Voyeurism; Abuse

Jewish tradition provides a number of what has currently come to be called “cognitive behavioral techniques” to protect someone from succumbing to their base desires. The advice is remarkably prescient and remains relevant today.

The first suggestion comes from the 18th century Chasidic master Noam Elimelech, who recommends revealing to another ones temptation and weakness as a way of avoiding to act on it. In his “Tzetil Kattan,” a 17 point program on how to be a good Jew, he encourages everyone to relate every time before the one who is teaching him the way of the Lord, or even before a true and trusted friend, all the thoughts and evil fantasies……. He shouldn't hide anything out of shame. The result will be that by telling these things, he will gain the ability to actually use his potential strength to break the force of the evil impulse, so that it shouldn't be able to overpower him to such an extent another time. This is apart from the good advice that he can get from his friend. Such is the proper way of the Lord, and it is a wondrously precious, effective method. R. Elimelech reminds us that we are only human and encourages us to talk about our problems and issues. By doing so we will be able to move them out of the realm of fantasy and bring them into our reality, where we can diffuse them with the help of others. As contemporary cognitive behavioral therapists recommend, identifying our “automatic” and unspoken thoughts and fantasies and then relating them to a trusted other gives us the chance to reflect on the veracity or worthiness of those thoughts.

A second approach can be gleaned from an interpretation of the story of Joseph in Tractate Sotah (36b) that he almost succumbed to the temptation of sleeping with a married woman. Though a cursory reading of the biblical text (Genesis 39:7-12) shows that Joseph overcame the advances of Potiphar’s wife with ease, one of the sages argues that Joseph fell victim to her daily advances and one day came home to cohabit with her. At that moment he saw a vision of his father looking at him disapprovingly, overcame his desire and ran away. What this interpretation suggests is that we can “snap ourselves out” of a desire to do something terribly wrong by replacing one image with another; thinking of the one’s we love and the harm and anguish they will endure if we commit this reprehensible act. Consider the feelings of those people in our lives who mean the most to us- a spouse, parent, grandparent, child- and that will serve to control our inappropriate impulses.

Rabbi Joshua Hess and his wife Naava, left, join benefactors Mark and Kim Roshanski at the mikva ground-breaking ceremony.
Rabbi Joshua Hess and his wife Naava, left, join benefactors Mark and Kim Roshanski at the mikvah.

Reish Lakish in Tractate Berachot (5a) offers us a third strategy. He writes, A person should always arouse his good inclination to fight his evil inclination...If he does not overpower his evil inclination, he should learn Torah….If he still does not overpower it, he should recite Shema...If he still does not overpower it, he should think about the day of death. There are a few possibilities as to why the study of Torah and the recitation of the Shema have the ability to overpower the evil inclination. It may be that the Shema contains mystical powers (Berachot 5a) or perhaps by recommitting to God through Torah study, God will help us overcome our lusts and desires (Kiddushin 30b). But perhaps on a more basic level, what Reish Lakish is saying is that we can prevent ourselves from succumbing to temptation through distraction.

If our mind is wandering dangerously, do something different so that you can distance yourself from those thoughts. Doing something holy is a great way to stop thinking about the profane. Reish Lakish must have read the contemporary journals in psychology which indicate that a person’s thoughts usually dictate how he or she will feel, which in turn dictates how one acts. Changing the subject and nature of one’s thinking, drawing one’s mind substantively into another place will change one’s mood and, hence, one’s course of action.

Finally, if none of these options work, consider utilizing the final Talmudic strategy which stems from the following statement: If a Jew is tempted to do evil he should go to a city where he is not known and do the evil there (Moed Katan 17a). Many rabbinic commentaries caution us from taking this statement literally. They explain that the Talmud is suggesting that a person be required to exert extra effort to sin, because in many instances, such extra effort will cause him or her to realize that it’s not worth the trouble.

This also reflects contemporary thinking in psychology, and in particular in addiction recovery. The concept of “postponing” an act which would threaten to undo a person’s good work and character, is sometimes the last attempt to control oneself. Giving oneself “permission” to do something unhealthy, but only after a period of time, can often allow the person’s mood-state or frame of mind to elapse or run its course. When the time comes for a person to go ahead with the deed, he or she may have lost interest in it or have found another way out. Perhaps, when all else fails, the last thing we can do is stall in the hope that eventually, we will come to our senses.

As Jews, we all share in the responsibility of protecting each other, kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh. Therefore, it is imperative that we create communal safeguards to protect ourselves from sick and perverted people. At the same time, let’s not forget that each of us is individually responsible to protect himself from his darkest impulses. By adopting techniques to help prevent our fantasies from festering and growing into unforgivable misdeeds, we will be protecting innocent victims, beloved family members, and most of all, ourselves.

Rabbi Joshua Hess, a native of Los Angeles, CA, is rabbi of Congregation Anshe Chesed in Linden, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiHess.