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More Voices Weigh In on Marc Gafni Controversy

Phillips Exeter Academy chaplain on the ex-rabbi: ‘I hope he comes back regularly’

Mark Oppenheimer
January 04, 2016
Marc Gafni / Flickr
Marc Gafni at the CWS/Venwoude Festival of Love in Holland, 2012. Marc Gafni / Flickr
Marc Gafni / Flickr
Marc Gafni at the CWS/Venwoude Festival of Love in Holland, 2012. Marc Gafni / Flickr

In the week since I last wrote about Marc Gafni—the ex-rabbi who, despite charges of unethical sexual behavior, as well as plagiarism, has become a New Age impresario and a spiritual advisor to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey—there have been numerous further developments. Here is a brief roundup:

 A petition at, calling on Whole Foods and the conference center Esalen to dissociate from Gafni, has garnered nearly 2,500 signatories from across the spectrum of Jewish observance, including Orthodox rabbinic luminary Saul Berman; author Joseph Telushkin; Jill Jacobs, head of T’ruah, The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights; Sharon Kleinbaum, rabbi of the LGBT-oriented Congregation Beit Simchat Torah; and leaders of Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, transdenominational Hebrew College, and Renewal association ALEPH. The comments section of the petition includes numerous statements from men and woman who said they’d had personal experiences with Gafni.

— On January 1, The Times of Israel ran an “A voice for Gafni’s victims, from one who was there,” written by Gafni’s third wife, who did not disclose her name (I have interviewed her). Written in the form of a diary, it detailed years of alleged emotional abuse, and also condemned my New York Times article for being too sympathetic to Gafni: “Dear God, I have just read this New York Times article. About him and his latest lunge to power. The sick tale retold, again, decades later. How can it be that there is zero condemnation in this spineless article? Just quotes of excuse from high-power supporters. Just the last word given to the abuser.” It was shared on Facebook 2,600 times.

— Whole Foods CEO John Mackey removed from his company’s website some videos of himself in dialogue with Gafni (they can still be found elsewhere) and posted a note reading, in part, “My involvement with Marc Gafni and the Center for Integral Wisdom is conducted strictly in my personal life and does not represent an endorsement or support for either Mr. Gafni or the Center for Integral Wisdom by Whole Foods Market.”

— The New York Daily News ran its own version of the story, including lengthy excerpts from interviews with both Gafni and the woman who said that Gafni abused her when she was 13 and 14. According to the Daily News: “‘This is sexual McCarthyism,’ insisted Gafni, who provided polygraph tests to support his position. ‘What they’re doing is social media rape.’”

— Numerous leaders of the New Age world where Gafni now works and teaches have spoken out. Mysticism teacher and best-selling author Andrew Harvey, a former Gafni supporter, expressed new reservations in a blog post. Harvey, Deepak Chopra, and other New Age leaders associated with the Shift Network, which works toward “an evolutionary shift of consciousness,” circulated a letter to 180,000 list subscribers, vowing not to feature Gafni “in any event, publication, or online activity [they] produce, nor [to] participate as a speaker in any event in which he is featured.”

— And, on December 31, 2015, Lisa MacFarlane, the principal of Phillips Exeter Academy, the elite prep school in New Hampshire where Gafni has given multiple lectures to students and led a retreat for the religion faculty, responded to my inquiry about Mr. Gafni’s connection to Exeter, writing: “Mr. Gafni’s last visit was several years ago and preceded my arrival as principal. We routinely invite people to campus who collectively speak to a variety of academic areas, perspectives, and work experiences for students and faculty. Mr. Gafni’s published scholarly work was of interest, as it has been to many. He is not scheduled to return.”

However, in a separate email on the same day, Rev. Robert Thompson, Exeter’s chaplain, who serves on the “wisdom council” of Mr. Gafni’s think tank, the Center for Integral Wisdom, responded with a more positive note. Thompson wrote, in part:

I must say that it is very odd to read some of the rationalizations of Marc’s (possible) behavior. I say “odd,” because it isn’t often that I hear serious people speak about tantric energies or the fire of Eros or Shakti. Marc is very lucky that he lives in a time when such explanations of bad behavior are available.

Have you met him? If not, then any explanation of his energy by others does not quite allow you to know what they are speaking about. He has a great deal of intense energy that does feel, for want of a better word, sexual, as well as compelling. When he and I met, there was a surprising, nearly immediate connection. Yet there was the sense I had of trying to capture smoke. I am someone who makes connections with others easily. Those connections are usually deep, and few have ever been as intense as was that first meeting with Marc. There was also an odd absence, a difficulty I experienced getting to a “true” place with him, a place of real intimacy. Had we more one-on-one time, I do believe we would have made a connection I felt was more authentic. As it was, he saw something in me, and it was reciprocal. It was simply not as intimate as I prefer.

Still, I really like Marc. I like what he writes about, his ideas are compelling. It is his ideas that draw me, along with the intuitive personal connection, more than anything else. He does not have contact with individual students when he visits with us, and he speaks to groups of adults, as well as students and adults on this visits.

In a follow-up email, I asked, “Is the door open for him to come back to [Phillips Exeter Academy]?” Rev. Thompson replied, “As far as I know it is. I hope so. Kathy [Brownback, who teaches religion at Exeter,] is who invited him and who has the best relationship with him. He is valuable in the classroom, so I hope he comes back regularly.”

Ms. Brownback is featured on the Center for Integral Wisdom’s new website, which has gone live since the original version of this article ran. According to the website, Mr. Gafni’s “vision of Unique Self and Eros is really taking root in Exeter transforming teachings and culture.”

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.