Revelations about sexual misconduct have led to the cancellation of an upcoming local event featuring prominent Rabbi Mordechai Gafni.
Gafni had been scheduled for a public talk at Stephen S. Wise Temple on June 9. Over the past two years, since being appointed to the Wisdom Chair in September 2004, Gafni has returned every few months to the Bel Air shul, where he’s had a loyal following.
Last week, four women in Israel — students and staff members at Tel Aviv’s Bayit Chadash, the Jewish renewal center that Gafni co-founded — filed complaints of sexual misconduct with Israeli police. In a public letter, Gafni, 46, admitted to being “sick” and promised to seek therapy. Leaders of Bayit Chadash immediately dismissed him.
Gafni was appointed to the Wisdom Chair at Stephen S. Wise two years ago — despite anecdotal allegations that he had a history of sexual misconduct. The temple’s senior rabbi this week issued a short statement denouncing Gafni.
“It is with a deep sense of shock and disappointment that I have learned of the sexual misconduct that has led to Rabbi Mordechai Gafni’s dismissal from Bayit Chadash,” senior Rabbi Eli Herscher said in a written statement responding to an inquiry from The Journal. “His actions, including vast deception, are indefensible.”
Herscher declined further comment, but the temple canceled Gafni’s June participation in a public conversation with commentator Dennis Prager.
Before being appointed to the Wisdom Chair, Gafni had been a regular scholar-in-residence at the 3,000-family Reform synagogue since 2002. His lectures and sermons attracted thousands.
Congregant Alan Finkelstein said he remembers Gafni’s 2003 Rosh Hashanah sermon as, “my finest moment in shul. He involved the crowd, He helped you connect with the person next to you. It was one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.”
Finkelstein said he was moved to go back to hear Gafni on several other occasions.
But Gafni’s popularity was undermined by persistent rumors that he had, in the past, manipulated women into sexual relationships. In October 2004, The Jewish Journal reprinted a Jewish Week article exploring allegations that Gafni had inappropriate sexual contact with students when he was 19.
Attendance reportedly decreased at Gafni’s events following the publication of the article.
At the time, Herscher said he had discussed the rumors with Gafni and, after investigating them on his own, found them baseless. Herscher was in good company defending Gafni, as some of the country’s top Jewish thinkers, of all denominations, called Gafni a remarkable teacher who was the target of a malevolent campaign. Herscher also decried Jewish newspapers for printing lashon harah (malicious gossip).
“Rabbi Gafni coming to teach here makes a deeply important Jewish statement – that if rumors and allegations and innuendo are allowed to destroy someone who only wants to teach, Jewishly, that is tragic,” Herscher said in October 2004.
This week, Hersher’s sympathies lay elsewhere.
“I pray that all who have been misled and hurt by him — first and foremost the women he has harmed — will soon recover,” Herscher wrote.