Ryan C. Jones
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Understanding the Marc Gafni Story, Part II

Talking to the friends and colleagues of a controversial ex-rabbi

Mark Oppenheimer
December 29, 2015
Ryan C. Jones
Marc Gafni. Ryan C. Jones

On Friday, my article about the controversial ex-rabbi Marc Gafni was posted online at The New York Times website; it ran in the print edition on Saturday, December 26. Since then, it has received a tremendous amount of attention, and generated some very significant questions, many of them having to do with who supported Gafni, and when, and why.

As readers of that first piece know, Gafni, 55, who worked as a rabbi in both the Orthodox and Renewal wings of Judaism, long ago admitted that when he was 19 and 20 he had repeated sexual encounters, over a nine-month period, with a girl who was 13 and then 14 years old. In 1986, Gafni was accused of twice groping 16-year-old Judy Mitzner, a student involved with his Jewish outreach program, once getting into bed with her completely naked. (She was staying with him and his wife during a rough period at home.) He once told a reporter that the first girl was “14 going on 35” and that they were “in love”; the second girl was, he told me, “highly initiatory.”

Gafni’s also been accused of plagiarism, of emotionally abusive relationships with women at his Jewish Renewal community in Israel (which imploded after his multiple liaisons), and, in 2011, of sleeping with a woman he was counseling, which led her employer, a book publisher, to cancel Gafni’s book contract. (At the time, the employer, publisher Tami Simon, gave a statement to a blogger about why she was dropping Gafni, and the woman who alleged the affair recently confirmed the story to me. Speaking with me, Gafni denied that the relationship was a breach of ethics because, he said, he was not counseling the woman.)

Yet Gafni has continually found students and financial backers. The question is, who are they? And what is their reasoning?

We can gain some idea by listening to his supporters themselves. Many of them have gone on the record over various years. They include some of his earliest friends in the Orthodox Jewish community; the rabbi of a wealthy Reform temple in Los Angeles; and a religion teacher at one of America’s most prestigious boarding schools. They offer a range of explanations for why they trust (or trusted) Gafni, from skepticism about the sexual-abuse charges, or the veracity of such charges more generally, to a New Age belief that Gafni is sometimes overwhelmed by his own sexual energy. Taken together, they teach us something about what some call forgiveness, others denial.

Early in his career, in the 1980s, Gafni (then known by his birth name, Mordechai Winiarz) worked in the Modern Orthodox community. He attended the high school then run by renowned rabbi Shlomo Riskin. “He was one of the most brilliant students I have ever taught,” Riskin said, as I wrote in the Times. Riskin added: “For a period of time he lived in my house, that’s how much I loved him.” Riskin even left Gafni in charge of his Lincoln Square Synagogue when he was traveling. As a young man, Gafni also worked for a program, Jewish Public School Youth, housed at Yeshiva University.

A youth advisor who worked with both Gafni and Mitzner, but who told me that she was afraid to use her name, said that Mitzner (now in her forties) shared the story with her at the time, and she brought the alleged episode to the attention of the Yeshiva University administration. In a recent interview, Rabbi Kenneth Hain, who then worked at YU, said that he remembered that the university hired a psychologist to investigate. “The psychologist interviewed the parties and came back with a letter,” said Hain, who recalls seeing the letter. “And what it said was that he could not determine whether there had been any wrongdoing.”

Unlike many Modern Orthodox rabbis in the years thereafter, Hain—who is now a rabbi in Lawrence, N.Y., and from 1999 to 2001 was president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the major organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis—never vouched for Gafni or attested publicly to his integrity. And he was uncertain if anyone recommended Gafni for the job he got right after leaving New York, at a pulpit in Boca Raton.

Mitzner, though, told me that she suspected a cover-up all along. “You hear all the time about priests and pastors who sexually molest people, but you never hear about rabbis,” Mitzner said. “Everyone in the Jewish community wants to cover it up.” In any case, Gafni lasted less than a year in Boca Raton, then left for reasons that are unclear. He moved to Israel.

In 2004, The Jewish Week ran a damning exposé on Gafni, which included Mr. Gafni’s admission of the incidents with the ninth-grader, as well as the news that Shlomo Riskin had rescinded his rabbinic ordination. The article quoted Gafni saying he now took precautions against future missteps: “‘I don’t work with kids,’” Gafni said, “‘I don’t counsel men or women, and I don’t meet alone with women.’”

But many defended Gafni. “If you want to find fly specks in the pepper, you can always find them,” the late Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, considered the founder of the Renewal branch of Judaism, told the Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt. “But I’ve watched him teach. He is learned, exciting, and charismatic.” (Schachter-Shalomi later regretted, and in a public letter rescinded, his support.)

The article had little effect on Mr. Gafni’s stature in Israel, and after it ran, three more prominent rabbis—Joseph Telushkin, author of the popular book Jewish Literacy; adjunct Columbia Law professor Saul Berman; and Renewal rabbi Tirzah Firestone—wrote a letter offering support to Gafni. In 2005, seventeen rabbis and communal leaders circulated a letter endorsing Gafni and casting doubt on the charges against him. Among the signatories were Berman, Firestone, Schachter-Shalomi, and other major leaders in Judaism, including Arthur Green, now the rector of Hebrew College, near Boston. They wrote, in part: “We affirm without reservation that in addition to being a person of enormous gifts, depth, and vision, Rabbi Gafni is also a person of real integrity.”

Many of those rabbis later recanted their support of Gafni. In 2006, after the dissolution of Gafni’s Bayit Chadash community in Israel, amidst complaints of emotional abuse from multiple sexual partners of Gafni’s—whose stories to this day Gafni denies, as one can read on his website—Telushkin, Berman, and Firestone apologized for their support. Green has also said he regretted supporting Gafni. When reached by telephone, both Telushkin and Green declined to comment; Berman did not return multiple emails and calls.

But Gafni’s support did not come just from the Orthodox world. Beginning in 2002, he was a frequent teacher, and even a High Holidays preacher, at Stephen S. Wise Temple, in Los Angeles, one of the largest Jewish congregations in the world. A 2004 article in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal quotes the senior rabbi, Eli Herscher, fiercely defending Gafni—again, after Gafni’s public admission that he had been sexually involved with a 13-year-old.

But Herscher hasn’t found any substance to the rumors he said he personally checked out after Gafni himself brought the issue up soon after they met.

The article, Herscher points out, brings up incidents alleged to have occurred more than 25 years ago, when Gafni was 19, and even those are based on allegations that have never been proven and that Gafni denies …

Herscher takes The Jewish Week to task for implying that Gafni has admitted to wrongdoing or done teshuvah, or repentence, for specific incidents.

For instance, [Jewish Week editor Gary] Rosenblatt says that Gafni has done teshuvah by agreeing not to work with children, to do private counseling or to be alone with a woman.

But Herscher said he discussed those self-imposed ground rules with Gafni, and it was clear to him that Gafni was not trying to avoid temptation, but only trying to preclude even the appearance of wrongdoing, given the rumors that have haunted him for two decades.

“There are people who could be learning with him and being counseled by him who don’t have that opportunity,” Herscher said.

From 2004 to 2006, after the revelations about Gafni’s past with minors, the temple continued to have Gafni in to speak “every few months,” according to a 2006 article in the Jewish Journal. Only after Gafni lost Bayit Chadash, his Renewal community in Israel, after numerous women alleged emotionally painful romantic entanglements with him, did Stephen S. Wise Temple sever its connection with him. Only then did Herscher, the rabbi, distance himself from Gafni. “I pray that all who have been misled and hurt by him—first and foremost the women he has harmed—will soon recover,” Herscher told the Jewish Journal, in 2006.

Reached at his home in Los Angeles this week, Herscher, now senior rabbi emeritus, said that he had no comment.

Gafni’s also has defenders in the New Age world. My article in the Times quoted Gafni supporters Ken Wilber and Sally Kempton defending him on various grounds having to do with his nature, or his innate energy, which they believe in time he’s learned to control better. There were others I spoke with who believed either that Gafni’s past had been exaggerated, or that he had changed, and often both.

The men’s rights advocate Warren Farrell is in a monthly men’s group with Gafni, author John Gray, and others, and he is the third author on Gray’s planned next sequel to Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Farrell is also associated with Gafni’s think tank, the Center for Integral Wisdom. “Marc is able to bring people in, see what their gift is, and then co-create with them,” Farrell said in an interview.

“I’ve looked into it,” Farrell said, when asked about Gafni’s controversial past. “People who know me say the single thing that stands out most with me is word integrity. Marc was very open about telling me and sharing with me what his background was. I did do some research on it. I knew one of the women he was involved with at the time I met him.” Farrell said that while he had only “Marc’s perspective on it,” he had concluded, “What feels pretty accurate to me was that Marc was basically in an Orthodox community and he tends to behave in unorthodox ways … Orthodox communities are pretty sexually repressed, and Marc is not sexually repressed.”

That line of argument—that Gafni suffered from an imperfect fit with the Orthodox Jewish world in which he was raised—was also put forward by Kempton, who writes about Eastern wisdom traditions and yoga, who is revered in certain precincts of the New Age world, and whose endorsement was instrumental in helping Gafni rebuild his reputation after he left Jewish life. She suggested that there was something in the hothouse of boys’ yeshiva education, or in his Jewish “lineage,” that explained why he turned to a 13-year-old for sexual release.

“I recognize,” Kempton said, “that particular heart-to-heart transmission in Marc, that he is able to offer in a large group, and that I think is very connected with one of the Hasidic lineages—I don’t know enough about Jewish lineages to understand it, but it’s a felt sense that I recognize … As you probably know, those highly, incredibly high-energy, smart young yeshiva boys are just filled with energy that spills over in super-, hyper-talking, obviously, in their hyper-sexuality. And I don’t think that in that sense Marc is that different from a lot of young Orthodox guys that I have known who are trying to stay celibate until they got married, and it was killing them.

“So the early relationship that started this whole thing,” Kempton continued, “was with a freshman in high school, he was 19, I think it was his first serious girlfriend. They made out, and he was very persuasive. He is a high-energy person. She was 13 or 14—it is not exactly clear which—but having been a 13-year-old girl with an older boy, I know how 13-year-old girls are kind of polite when somebody is kissing them, and they don’t really love it. And I think a lot of what is called abuse in teenage interactions really comes from girls being over polite and boys thinking that if a girl isn’t kicking them in the balls, that means [it’s okay].”

But in an email to me, the girl, now a grown woman living in New York state, rejected any characterization of her as Gafni’s girlfriend, or willing partner. Instead, she described their encounters as “aggressive, forced sexual contact without consent.” She wrote, “He would come in, in the middle of the night, and wake me up. He forced me into sexual contact with him against my will. I repeatedly pleaded with him to not touch me. I repeatedly said, ‘NO.’ He was physically stronger than me, and forced me into sexual contact that I did not want. He tried to force me to touch his penis, and against my will he touched my breasts and genitals in a forceful way. I tried to push his hands away from me. The experience was terrifying. He told me that I must keep it a secret, and if I did not, I would be the one who would be blamed by my parents and community.” She gave a similar, but more detailed, description to the blogger Luke Ford in 2004.

Not all of Gafni’s new supporters come from the New Age world. Adam Bellow is an editor at HarperCollins known for working with conservative authors, including Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. He is now advising Gafni’s think tank, the Center for Integral Wisdom, and helping Gafni plan future publications. He is one of the talking heads in Rise Up, a short movie that seems to be a preview for a planned longer movie for the center. (Motivational speaker Tony Robbins, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, and Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus author John Gray are also in the five-minute movie.)

Bellow—who in 1993 published David Brock’s The Real Anita Hill—believed that the charges against Mr. Gafni may have been exaggerated over time, in part due to contested, and politicized, definitions of “rape.”

“We obviously cannot know for certain what occurred between two people—as the Hill/Thomas case amply demonstrates, memory is a very tricky thing and an experience that might seem benign or acceptable at one time in a person’s life may look very different in hindsight,” wrote Bellow in an email to me.

“Clearly there is something about Marc that elicits strong reactions, some of them harshly negative, but many others strongly positive. Can all these people who love and admire him really be completely wrong? Are they under some weird kind of spell? I think when you meet him you will see that he has no such magical power of enchantment. If he does, I am certainly immune to it. And yet in your position, I would be reluctant to dismiss the deeply felt and no doubt convincing claims of women who insist they have been harmed by him.”

In the end, Bellow suggested that Gafni was in part a victim of his own unconventional energy. “I can tell you from my own experience that the fire of Eros is a real thing,” Bellow wrote. “In recent years I have myself developed a capacity to experience and channel this energy in a series of tantric relationships. I have no doubt that it is real, that it has been experienced and described by many great poets and mystics, and that Marc himself is a powerful receiver and transmitter of it. I also have no trouble believing that in his early life he had little understanding or control over this powerful gift … Anyone who has gifts of this kind needs to learn to handle them responsibly and ethically. This can take some time, and even in the best of circumstances, people can get burned.”

Gafni has had a repeat gig lecturing at Phillips Exeter Academy, known as Exeter, the elite boarding school in New Hampshire. He is brought to campus by Kathy Brownback, who teaches religion at Exeter and is also affiliated with the Center for Integral Wisdom. She said that she finds Gafni’s writing extremely useful, and has included one of his articles on her syllabi. And according to a blog post she wrote, in 2012 Gafni spoke to students, met with a faculty book group, and led a retreat for the whole Exeter religion department.

“He’s come [to Exeter] two or three times,” Brownback said. “In person, he’s very intense, and he’s got a bit of, some would say more than a bit of, the charismatic evangelical preacher about him. He is really forceful about his ideas—some kids were completely drawn to that, and some kids were put off by it. In person, he’s not as helpful as the ideas are. The ideas really speak to kids.” She uses one Gafni article in her class Interdisciplinary Approaches to Epistemology, where he is taught alongside Plato, Aristotle, and Kant.”

“I have learned a lot from him and talked with him on a bunch of occasions, and been involved with the Center for Integral Wisdom board, so I know his work pretty closely,” Brownback said.

I asked if she worried about the sexual allegations against Gafni.

“I don’t,” Brownback said. “He’s never alone with any kids anyway, so that’s not an issue. It feels to me like there’s not a lot of distortion with him. But I don’t have any direct knowledge of that stuff, so I can’t say.”

Later, Brownback sent a follow-up email in which she wrote, in part: “I know about the stuff on the web, and as I mentioned in my earlier email people at Exeter have sometimes asked me about the web. I’ve talked with Marc and with others involved who have reviewed all the material. I trust them and I trust Marc. I know him well and have full confidence in his integrity.

Later in the email, Brownback wrote: “In a way Marc reminds me of Jacob—not always orthodox (though more than the rest of us), and most assuredly wrestling with God. If his work had ever been thought to be racist, or sexist, or anti-Semitic, or anything else along that line, the criticisms would land completely differently with me. But the attacks on him are of a very different nature, and I am not concerned about them. I trust him and trust the very strong group that he has gathered.”

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.

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