This message just went out to the entire Shalom Center list…
Once again we face the news that a position of spiritual leadership has been turned into a platform for sexual abuse.
I am sending you a statement issued Friday by Avraham Leader, head of the Board of Bayit Chadash in Israel — a community dedicated to the spiritual renewal of Judaism..
The statement announces that its Board has just fired Rabbi Mordechai Gafni (its founder and chief teacher) because of his actions described in the formal depositions of four women, and the statements of others — some who had been students and subordinate staff — that he had had sexual relationships with them, and had sworn them to secrecy. Leader affirms his
and the Board’s conviction that the accusations are true.
I hardly need to say how sad, how angry, and how betrayed Gafni’s behavior makes me feel — And how much 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.
I am grateful that these women have come forward to say the truth.
There is a lot more to say. Some of it I will say below, after inserting here Avraham Leader’s announcement so that we can all know what we are talking about.
I must share with you that yesterday women from our community filed complaints of sexual misconduct against Rabbi Mordechai Gafni with the police. I was aware of this situation because I had previously read the depositions that these women had declared to an attorney. I also personally heard the testimonies of these women, as well as that of another woman from
an institution where Rabbi Gafni previously worked. I shared my findings and recommendations with Jacob Ner-David, the chairman of our board; with Shantam Zohar, a Bayit Chadash teacher and leader; and with Or Zohar, a Bayit Chadash teacher and our CEO.
My colleagues agreed with me that in the present situation, we should recommend to the Bayit Chadash steering committee that Rabbi Gafni’s tenure in Bayit Chadash be ended immediately, or alternatively, we would collectively resign. After the members of the steering committee read some of the depositions, they decided to remove Rabbi Gafni from the Bayit Chadash staff. The decision of the steering committee was further reinforced in light of the complaints filed with the police.
…Were this was a matter solely related to Rabbi Gafni’s private life, this would not be my concern, and certainly not that of the community. The problem is that this involves women from our community, staff members and students. Although these relationships were apparently consensual, it is our position that there is no place for relations like this between a rabbi and his students or between an employer and his employees. It would seem that this is also the opinion of Rabbi Gafni, since he swore all the women involved to eternal and absolute silence.
The women, however, decided to speak. I have no doubt that they speak truth, and willingly risk my personal credibility and integrity on my support of their testimony. I may add that my colleagues arrived at similar conclusions.
As to the criminal aspect of his actions, that is up to the police and the courts to decide. Beyond that, judgment is in the hands of the Judge of all the world.
The sense of disappointment is very great, for me personally as well. Mordechai always treated me with friendship and respect. At times like this our sages say that one should scrutinize one’s own actions, and meditate upon why one is part of such a story. Certainly there is much to learn from such a difficult and painful experience.
May we all see, fear and tremble, may healing to our shared soul come swiftly, and may this healing encompass all involved and all who are witness, in this and all worlds.
Avraham Leader, on behalf of Bayit Chadash
Iyar 14, 5766, the 29th day of the Omer, Friday, May 12, 2006
Back to me, Arthur Waskow:
There is a great deal we could do in all communities of spiritual depth – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, no doubt others — to prevent or minimize this deformation of the Spirit into an idol – an event that has happened in each of these traditions, and not just once.
Not only must the teachers who might fall into this idolatry be taught how to celebrate in joy but not in frenzy; those learners or on-staff subordinates who might fall into the role of victim also need to empower themselves to access their own inner “rebbe,” not feel that the only rebbe-energy that they can access comes wrapped in domination.
And in this they need the help of the community in creating a culture that encourages each of us, all of us, to see ourselves as rebbes, able to be in touch with God.
Of course this involves not just theory or theology but also the real-life suffering of many people. (Truthful theology always flows from the lives of the people – the Images of God.)
Avraham Leader says on his own behalf and that of Bayit Chadash, “At times like this our sages say that one should scrutinize one’s own actions, and meditate upon why one is part of such a story.”
True enough. And I ask myself the same question. Mordechai Gafni taught at both ALEPH Kallot and at Elat Chayyim retreat center. Both organizations will need to respond in their own voices. What I know, having also taught and learned at both places, is that both have extremely strong and clear prohibitions on any sexual relationships between teachers, davvening leaders, and other such persons in positions of authority with any students, participants, etc. Those prohibitions are communicated not only to the teachers but to all participants.
When reports surfaced about Gafni having been an abuser 25 or so years ago – none till now ever surfaced about any occasions more recent – rigorous investigations went forward. Persons in leadership at Elat Chayyim deliberately interviewed women who were in a position to know whether Gafni was violating the ethics standards. No evidence surfaced that he was. Outside the sexual sphere, he was rebuked several times for behavior in classes that was domineering, and seemed to restrain himself thereafter.
I myself have been accused by a few people on the Internet of having “defended” him. What I did defend was a process for investigating allegations – a process that insisted on serious evidence, not second-hand or third-hand statements like ” I have been told that … ” I continue to believe that this is the only way to deal with any allegations of wrongdoing, including this kind.
And in this case, nothing emerged that indicated any problem less than 25 years old – and even those seemed unconfirmable.
It is true that there is an unusual problem in applying this standard in this kind of situation. Some or all of the women who have made statements in regard to his behavior at Bayit Chadash have said that Gafni swore them to secrecy — and they agreed, till now. The fusion of spiritual power and sexual abuse is liable to create such a situation when even people who might be thought to have every reason to reveal violations feel so overawed or so “beloved” by the abuser that they do not define what is happening as abuse, or are unwilling to talk about it.
So that means it is a lot harder to get the kind of evidence that can justify dismissal, etc. At Bayit Chadash, when such evidence did surface the institution responded. I am open to suggestions on how to act in some other way that as the tradition commands, will pursue justice, justice–pursue the ends of justice by using just means.
For some of my thoughts of how we might address and act on this whole matter of the relationships among spiritual leadership, sexual energy, and sexual abuse, see my essay on our Website — (It was written years ago in response to a previous case, and of course I will continue to keep thinking and writing about this issue.)
May all those who are involved in this, the victims first and most of all — and ultimately the perpetrator too — find a healing that includes tzedek and mishpat, both restorative & transformative justice.
To use the Kabbalistic language about God’s aspects or emanations — not just Chesed (overflowing lovingkindness) and not just Gevurah (rigorous boundaries) and not just a “balance” between them — but their profound synthesis in Tiferet / Rachamim, that womb-like, heart-like outpouring of life that is rooted in powerful boundaries, just as the powerful and strongly boundaried heart-muscle sends life-blood pouring through the body, and the powerful and strongly boundaried womb-muscle births new life into the world.
In setting forth this prayer, I do not mean to leave its fulfillment “in the hands of God.” Or rather, I do – in the sense that when human beings act in a holy way, they are indeed “the hands of God.”