Mordechai Gafni, 46, a rabbi whose charisma and brilliance dazzled students and large audiences in spiritual renewal communities in Israel and America, even as he dodged rumors and accusations about improper sexual behavior for more than 25 years, has been dismissed by the leadership of Bayit Chadash in Israel, a Tel Aviv-based prayer and study group he co-founded and where he served as teacher and religious guide.
Gafni also has had a large following in Los Angeles, where he frequently preached and served as a scholar-in-residence at the Stephen S. Wise Temple. During one such stay, 1,000 people came to hear him even on the second day of Rosh Hashanah — traditionally a low-attendance day at Reform congregations — and hundreds more came to evening lectures during the week.
Gafni’s dismissal came last week after four women, including students of his and a staff member, filed complaints of sexual misconduct against Gafni with the police in Israel.
“We feel we were deceived,” Jacob Ner-David, a co-founder of Bayit Chadash, told The Jewish Week, which first reported on allegations against the rabbi in September 2004.
“He should not be called a rav [rabbi], his was not the behavior of a rav and he should not be in a teaching or counseling position,” said Ner-David, who noted that the incident “is my worst nightmare come to life.”
He added that Gafni is “a sick man, and has harmed so many.”
A statement issued by Ner-David and his Bayit Chadash co-founder Avraham Leader said “there is no place for relations like this between a rabbi and his students or between an employer and his employees, whether consensual or not. It would seem that this is the opinion of Mordechai, since he swore all the women involved to eternal and absolute silence.”
Gafni achieved much attention here and in Israel as a leader of the New Age Jewish movement. He taught classes, led retreats, wrote several books and appeared in a PBS documentary about the quest for spirituality.
In a statement this week to his followers, he took blame for his actions and said he was “infinitely saddened and profoundly sorry” for the pain he had caused. He acknowledged that he was “sick,” and said he planned to enter a treatment center and leave his “rabbinic teaching capacities.”
Gafni, who was divorced from his third wife about a year and a half ago, said in 2004 that he had “made mistakes in my life” and had “a sense of exaggeration” and was “too ambitious.” But he insisted he had done teshuvah (repentance) and was the victim of a longstanding “witch hunt” from a small cadre of women accusers and Orthodox rabbis jealous of his success.
“I am moral and ethical,” he said during a series of conversations with this reporter in 2004, during which he asserted that he was sharing his “deepest truth.”
Ner-David said that one of the women involved with Gafni over the last 18 months came forward to Leader, and that soon after, another woman spoke out about her relationship with the rabbi.
“And then we discovered there were two more,” he said.
Leader and Ner-David asked the women to give sworn statements to an attorney, which they did. At this point the police have not acted on the complaints, which address the boundaries of relationships between teacher-student and employer-employee.
“We have no doubt that they [the women] speak the truth, and willingly risk our personal credibility and integrity in support of their testimony,” Leader and Ner-David said in their signed statement.
“For us it was a complete surprise,” Ner-David said, noting that as recently as a month ago he had a conversation with Gafni affirming that immoral behavior could never be tolerated within Bayit Chadash.
Ner-David, who first met Gafni when he was a 13-year-old at summer camp in the United States and the rabbi was his counselor, said he had long known of the allegations about the man born Marc Winiarz in the Midwest. Winiarz moved to Israel in 1991 and took the Israeli name Gafni after a series of controversies about sexual improprieties dogged him when he was a youth leader and later a rabbi in several U.S. communities.
He was ordained by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City and now chief rabbi of Efrat, in the West Bank. Riskin revoked his ordination in 1994 after his former student, in a lengthy interview in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, called for restoring a balance between the erotic and the spiritual in Judaism.
Gafni’s response was that he had other ordinations and had moved beyond Orthodoxy.
Ner-David said he was guilty of having relied on information from others in seeking answers to questions about Gafni’s past. Several prominent Israeli educators hired the rabbi as a teacher despite complaints from some women and rabbis who asserted he was unfit to work with students. Those who hired Gafni said he was a gifted teacher, that he acknowledged past wrongdoings (though he was vague about them) and that they could find no current cases of women with complaints against him.
Some of the charges went back more than two decades.
Ner-David said he realizes now that Gafni was “a master manipulator,” but in the past he had felt justified in working with him because no one had come forward with recent complaints about the rabbi’s behavior.
Rabbi Saul Berman, the founder and director of Edah in New York, has been an outspoken defender of Gafni. In a letter taking this reporter to task for writing about the controversy in 2004, Berman, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone and ethicist and author Joseph Telushkin said they had looked into past allegations and found them “totally unconvincing.” They described the article as “unfair” and “scandalous.”
This month, Berman said he is “deeply regretful” of his prior support for Gafni, and worried that his past defense may have prolonged the rabbi’s “predatory behavior against women.”
“I was clearly wrong in stating that Rabbi Gafni’s continued role as a teacher within the Jewish community constitutes no risk to Jewish women,” he wrote in a statement.
Berman said he had felt the earlier accusations “were not justifiable foundations for public disgrace and exclusion,” and noted that he will “continue to struggle with the ideal line between presumption of innocence and protection of potential innocent victims.”
He said the Gafni case underscores the ongoing need for a mechanism to investigate allegations against rabbis “in a way that the community has confidence in, so that when it’s over, it’s over.”
He said that rabbis are “not capable of enough objectivity to handle such matters themselves,” and called for a collaborative effort of rabbis, lay leaders and professionals in the health care field who deal with abuse.
Other institutions and individuals who had supported Gafni in the past also spoke out this month. Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia said he felt “sad, angry and betrayed” by Gafni’s behavior, noting that it “raises questions once again about how to walk that thin line between spiritual ecstasy and the domineering frenzy that is not only damaging in itself but sometimes even leads to sexual abuse.”
One of the criticisms of the spiritual renewal movement is that its emphasis on charismatic teachers and the search for religious bliss lends its members to being emotionally manipulated.
Ner-David, acknowledging that he will be asking himself “for a long time what lessons can be learned” from the Gafni episode, said that Bayit Chadash “must make sure not to allow anyone to become a guru.”
He said the members of the group, which includes hundreds of Israelis who pray and study together, are determined to go on with their work even though Gafni, their spiritual leader, has been removed.
As for whether Gafni truly understands the pain he has caused and can be rehabilitated and return, Ner-David said it was too early to say.
“It is hard to tell if he really means it or not,” he said.
This article appears courtesy The Jewish Week.
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The Jewish Week.