Culture, Sex & Gender

Reb Zalman Speaks on Gafni

Dear Friends,
This letter was written by Reb Zalman last week.
He has now sent it to the Forward , and is sharing it with the ALEPH community. Please, if you want to respond, do so to the ALEPH office only, not to Reb Zalman.
Blessings and Shabbat Shalom.
Susan (on behalf of the ALEPH Board)

I’m getting pulled from all sides to make statements that I’m unprepared to make.
What I can say at this time is that I’m in mourning, in some form of Shiv’ah, I’m grieving like one bereaved for an ideal that I held in my mind of a genius, though erratic, but ultimately at the service of the values he claimed for himself. This image has been shattered.
I’m also devastated by what see as my gullibility, to be taken in by a brilliance that had a dark center. And this way I am chiding myself, although that is too mild a word for the feelings that I have, for having been an unwitting accessory to his depredations.
It goes without saying that I withdraw my support of the Smikhah he obtained from me by deceiving me concerning his past unethical behavior. It is null and void.
In searching my conscience I find that I was influenced by the fact that my daughter had attended one of his seminars then called Torah Light or some such name, an event that turned her from a worldly secular person to one who is deeply committed to a beautiful Judaism.
I’m praying for clarity and discernment.
What is yet to happen beyond all the tempests, beyond quarantining him, a surgically separating ourselves from him, is not yet clear to me. So please allow me my process of grieving, praying and learning more about the devastation he caused before you ask me to make any other statement.

28 thoughts on “Reb Zalman Speaks on Gafni

  1. Reb Zalman’s letter saddens me deeply. In it, there are only words about his own suffering. Nowhere in his letter does the word “women” appear, nor does he acknowledge the kind of shattering they are going through.
    This is not the first time that a Renewal leader has talked about being a victim in this situation. But the leaders are not the victims.
    Whatever anger, disappointment, and grief the leadership is going through, it is as nothing compared to the unspeakable pain that the women of Bayit Chadash, and G-d knows where else, are going through–and will go through for a long, long time. I want to say that it is the *women* who are the victims here, but that would be wrong. In their courage and pain, in the shattering of their hearts, in the betrayal of their love and trust, they are not victims. They are heroes, they are leaders, and they are teachers in the most profound sense. With every breath, they are living out Torah’s most essential teachings–to pursue justice, to act with courage in a time of fear, and to speak the truth when others are silent.
    While Reb Zalman acknowledges being an “unwitting accessory,” I expected more. Much more. His letter makes no attempt at teshuva–to reach out to the women, to ask forgiveness for his blindness, and to ask what he can do to bring healing. Am I wrong to ask the founder of Jewish Renewal to live out Judaism’s most basic teachings and begin the teshuva process? I am wrong to ask him to reach beyond his own pain to the women who are suffering?
    We can go to Renewal events and listen to the leadership talk about Kabbalah and Torah and justice and love and joy and opening our hearts and gathering the holy sparks and being a vessel for the Holy One from now until the end of time, but it matters not if our leaders can’t reach out beyond themselves and do the simple act of teshuva when the situation demands it. And this situation surely does.
    At present, I am withdrawing my financial support and participation in all Jewish Renewal organizations. In good conscience, I cannot support these organizations while my sisters in Israel and elsewhere have not heard the simple words, “I’m deeply sorry for what I’ve done. What can I do to comfort you? And how can I begin the healing?”

  2. Dear Rachel,
    Interesting post. This is my interpretation. Simply stated, if Reb Zalman hadn’t felt compassion for the victims, he wouldn’t be making statements regarding the “depredations” and “devestation” created by Gafni. To me this entire letter is one of teshuvah as Reb Zalman openly admits his own “gullibility” as he now prays for “clarity and discernment”.

  3. Dear Rachel,
    Interesting post. Here’s my interpretation. I feel that Reb Zalman’s compassion for the victims is what made him refer to Gafni’s “depredations” and the “devastation he caused”. To me the letter is one of teshuvah as Reb Zalman publicly addreses his “gullibility” as he now prays for “clarity and discernment”.

  4. Before everyone’s so quick to judge and nitpick, let’s be clear that this is not Reb Zalman’s official statement; it’s just a pre-statement letting us know that he’s still processing what happened and doesn’t feel ready to make a statement yet, which I think is valid and better than spouting off prematurely.
    I know for a fact that he has a lot of compassion and concern for the women involved; just because he doesn’t voice it here doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
    Zalman is not responsible for Gafni’s behavior at Bayit Chadash, which is an independent organization having no relation to the Jewish Renewal movement. He was duped by Gafni, but so were a lot of very intelligent people; the guy is a master manipulator, and there are lots of valuable lessons to be learned by everyone. I doubt this kind of mistake will be made again.
    BTW, members of Aleph, the national Jewish Renewal movement, are raising money to help the women in Israel with therapy and other financial needs.

  5. Rachel, Your letter moves me deeply. Strong voices like yours are so important.
    This particular letter from Rabbi Schacter-Sholomi did not upset me so much, but I have been very upset by many of the letters I have seen regarding this case, from religious leaders who defeneded Gafni in the past.
    I realized that my central question for all of them is this: Given multiple and similar accusations of unwanted sexual involvement (seemingly with minors), how did that not break your hearts, for the alleged victims? How did it make so little of an impact? Or was it somehow beyond belief?
    We are all only human, as I know these leaders, are and Gafni is, but to me, unwanted sexual involvement (ie a sex act happening with you, without your consent) is extremely serious. Is it possible that our leaders think that something like that is not such a big deal? Or did they think it didn’t happen? How did they explain multiple and similar stories? I’m at a loss to understand, and I know that I’ll never assume that my religious leaders share my values and I’ll keep thinking for myself.

  6. Rebecca–I’ve been struggling with these same questions as well, and I don’t think I’ll ever completely understand why people acted as they did. But I’m really trying, so I’ll make some educated guesses.
    Part of the problem, I think, is that many Renewal leaders have never been touched by these crimes before. And so, they don’t know a lot about them. Given the current situation, some of them sincerely want to learn; Reb Zalman, I think, is one of them. Others seem happy to remain in their illusions. Such is life.
    But ignorance isn’t the whole answer. I think that denial, which is the most human and intransigent of all responses to horror, plays a very key role. Most people, when faced with the idea that someone they know and love may be an abuser, will immediately defend that person. They’ll do it because, ultimately, their whole sense of their reality is under attack. If you have a long-time friend and colleague, or a life partner, or a beloved father or mother, you’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and love in that person. The fabric of your life and of your identity is bound up with him or her. To be faced with the prospect that the person isn’t who you think they are is devastating, and often, the first defense is to deny it.
    This is certainly true in families, in which people will deny that abuse happens because they want to maintain their belief that their family is perfect. They will deny it in the face of overwhelming evidence; sometimes, they will even deny it despite having witnessed it. It’s as though they see, but they don’t see.
    And now we are finding that this is equally true in spiritual communities. People in Jewish Renewal have invested a lot of years in building a movement. They’ve invested their love and trust in one another, and they’ve been very attached to maintaining their vision of what their movement is about.
    So, up until now, people have been defending the accused abuser, and making all kinds of of statements that they have no authority to make. They said they did a thorough investigation, but who gave them the qualifications? They said they’d known the man for a long time, and that the accusations couldn’t possibly be true, but where is the expertise that would allow them to make that judgment? There are articles in which the abuser talked about what he’d done, and the leadership saw the articles, but somehow, they didn’t really see them at all. The lengths to which people will go to protect their sense of the status quo can really be quite astonishing at times.
    And so, despite all the warnings and all the stories that all sounded so eerily similar, people just kept defending their sense of their world. And now, that sense has been shattered. Reb Zalman’s statement is a painful and eloquent expression of that. I have no problem with what he said; I only have a problem with what he didn’t say.
    I hope that the shattering of his illusions will ultimately lead him, and others in the leadership, to reach out to the survivors. They have not only had their world shattered; they have had it shattered with the weapon of sexual abuse. I hope that the leadership will someday come to see that simple and sincere words like, “I was fragile and I failed you. What can I do to mend this?” are some of the sweetest and most healing words that any survivor will ever hear.

  7. I don’t think the Renewal folks were aware of recent allegations. The only women who formally came forward until recently were from the distant past, before Gafni was a rabbi.
    An “official investigation” at the time of one of the allegations cleared him of wrongdoing, and he was able to explain away the others as youthful indiscretion (he was only 19) or something like that.
    What really helped him was that the people attacking him most vocally were all clearly wacko and extremist: Vicki Polin, Luke Ford, and Jewish Whistleblower, and it was incredibly easy for his defense team to paint them as being not at all credible sources of information. (many of their claims about him were indeed not true and easy to disprove).
    One of the big lessons from this debacle is the need for a respectworthy legitimate national resource for victims of abuse or harassment to turn to…unfortunately the Awareness Center isn’t it.

  8. This is simply not true – for years the accusation which hounded Gafni was from his years as a young rabbi working with JPSY. As a result he was chased out of NY and landed on an unsuspecting community in Florida. When that experiment ended with rumors of impropriety, he ended up in Israel where again he voluntarily left the rabbinate due to an inappropriate relationship with a young woman he was seeing in the role of Rabbi/counselor – congregant/patient. Over the next number of years there were a series of inappropriate relationships, to the point that he could no longer find a job in orthodox rabbinic circles.
    Why Bayit Chadash and the Renewal movement ignored his history is part of the story. How rabbis Berman Fierstone, and Telushkin “cleared” him is astounding, especially when they didn’t speak to any of the victims – Gafni convinced them all that he was the victim of jealousy and pettiness because of his views. The fact that this attack against him continued as his views changed never made an impression on his protectors.

  9. “many Renewal leaders have never been touched by these crimes before. And so, they don’t know a lot about them.”
    Here is one of the misconceptions that allows abusers to continue in their trusted roles. We like to think of sexual violence as something that happens outside of our communities. Our stereotype of rape is the quintessential example: the rapist is an unknown man (usually of a different racial background than the victim) who is lurking the the shaddows and attacks a young woman who has done something to ‘deserve it’: she is alone, wearing a short skirt or a bit drunk. The rapist is someone we dont know and the victim will not be us or our loved ones because we will act smarter.
    Unfortunately the reality is that sexual asault happens in all communities, regardless of race, class, religion or location. The Jewish Renewal movement is no exception to this, no matter how much they might strive to build a utopian Jewish community. The attitude that it cant happen here only serves to blind us to issues when they happen in our own community.
    as for Reb Zalman’s response, I too am upset that he focuses on his feelings for Gafni and not the survivors. I do think that the way he voices his struggle is important for people to hear. It is difficult when someone we care about or respect violates our trust so deeply. what really bothers me about Zalman’s post is that he borders on saying that Gafni’s teachings help balance out some of his wrongdoings. It was exactly this logic that helped shield Baruch Lanner, the notorious child molester/’rabbi’, for 30 years. His superiors valued his ability to make high school kids interested in orthodox observance. Some victims were outright told that their suffering and complaints did not hold a candle to the ‘good’ Lanner did for NCSY.
    Does Reb Zalman really think that Gafni’s teachings which got his daughter more involved in Judaism can possibly outweigh the harm he has caused? Can we say anything that would imply that his teachings will exonerate him? Or is expressing gratitude for his intellectual offerings part of our healing process, in which we recognize the good and the bad in someone?

  10. I don’t think he said that Gafni’s teaching to his daughter outweighed the harm; rather, he is blaming himself for letting that make him reluctant to believe accusations against Gafni.

  11. it is as nothing compared to the unspeakable pain that the women of Bayit Chadash, and G-d knows where else, are going through–and will go through for a long, long time.
    Oh give me a break, please. From the news accounts, it appears that these women were perfectly happy with their improper relations with Gafni — that is, as long as they thought they were the only one who had the charismatic rabbi as a pet. Once they started comparing notes and found out they were sharing the guy, well, that’s when all hell broke loose.
    This is a classic case of “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” and I have no sympathy for the so-called “VICTIMS.” Not thet I have much sympathy for Gafni or the Renewal leaders either. But if this causes my rabbinical leadership to over-react, I can expect a more pompous detached leadership style and even more defection of young Jews from a Jewish community that doesn’t really care about individuals in the first place, except in their ability to contribute money.

  12. Rachel, Thank you so much for your response…. It’s helpful to hear that others are wondering similar things to what I’m wondering. Just to hear that someone else thinks that much of the leadership was “in denial” is heartening… I would love to hear some of the leadership discuss that fact, and I don’t remember hearing that thus far.
    Chava, I’m confused as to why people think that an alleged event of nonconsensual sex by a 19 year old is a youthful indiscretion. Indiscretions are small acts – being too outspoken, offending people, etc. If actual noncensual sex goes on…. that’s not an indiscretion. It’s not a normal part of young manhood!!! Honestly, I wonder, do people sill think, “boys will be boys”?

  13. He didn’t portray it as nonconsensual sex; he honestly thought (from his narcissistic mindset) that they were in a loving relationship, and convinced himself and everyone else that that was the case. (He told everyone he had a letter the girl had written him 6 months after they broke up saying how much she still loved him; clearly not the action of someone who felt totally abused).
    He also said there was only fooling around above the waist. When Vicki, et al, started calling him a rapist, he was able to point at the girl’s own words in which she never claimed intercourse, and call them liars.

  14. he honestly thought (from his narcissistic mindset) that they were in a loving relationship, and convinced himself and everyone else that that was the case.
    You are aware “Dr.” Chava, that mental health diagnoses made without actually examining the patient are very unethicial? How can you be so sure of Gafni’s mental condition? Or that of his partner at the time. It might be just as well that the two fo theme ngaged in perfectly consensual activities with no strings attached, but both are embarrased to admit it, and so the both make up stories. Or it might be that the activities were consensual, but oneor other of the parties lost interest or the attraction went away, and again, they make up stories out of embraassment, becuase the only “proper” relationship is a “loving committed” one.
    So basically, both of these people have every reason to lie about just about everyhting that happened. Had Gafni really assaulted this woman, she would have gone to the police right away, not sat around and thought about it, and then decide to complain when he wasn’t giving her what she wanted.

  15. I think gafni was so successful b/c he played the right against the left. He made the people on the left think that the right wing jews were out to get him…and we believed it…

  16. this “woman” was 13 years old.
    i understand that one of the Bayit Chadish victims was involved in a counseling relationship – and was working through her own previous abuse – he then abused her as part of the therapy – this is where the possible rape charge came from.

  17. In the New York Jewish Week article of 9/24/2004, Gafni defended his “relationship” with a 14-year-old girl with the following words:
    Here is what the New York State penal code has to say about the age of consent and sexual contact between a minor and an adult:
    –Regarding free and informed consent: “A person is deemed incapable of consenting to sexual contact if he or she is less than 17 years old.”
    Under the law, a minor child cannot give consent, even if the child shows no resistance to the activity. The reasons for this are that a) a minor cannot consent freely because he or she does not have the power or autonomy of an adult and b) a minor cannot give informed consent because he or she is considered insufficiently mature to appreciate the physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual effects of sexual activity.
    –Sexual contact is defined as “any touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of a person…for the purpose of gratifying sexual desire of either party. It includes the touching of the actor by the victim, as well as the touching of the victim by the actor, whether directly or through clothing.”
    I’ll try to be discreet here and just say that “intimate parts of a person” include places above the waist.
    –Regarding sexual abuse: “A person is guilty of sexual abuse in the third degree when he or she subjects another person to sexual contact without the latter’s consent; except that in any prosecution under this section, it is an affirmative defense that (a) such other person’s lack of consent was due solely to incapacity to consent by reason of being less than seventeen years old, and (b) such other person was more than fourteen years old, and (c) the defendant was less than five years older than such other person. Sexual abuse in the third degree is a class B misdemeanor.”
    Conditions a, b, and c must all apply in order to create an affirmative defense. In the case of sexual contact between a 14-year-old girl and a man of 19 or 20, only the first condition applies, so there is no affirmative defense.
    So, even if we are to believe the best-case scenario, that a 14-year-old and a 19-year-old were just “fooling around” and everything was “above the waist,” and it all happened just the way the adult described it in the Jewish Week, this activity fits the definition of a sex crime in the state of NY (not to mention many other states as well.)
    Whether the adult would get convicted in a court of law is another matter. Of course, the statute of limitations on this has long since expired.
    Needless to say, the 14-year-old survivor related a much more harrowing series of events, and her story has never changed, despite numerous attempts to discredit her.

  18. For some reasons, the quote from the Jewish Week dropped out of my post. Here is what it said:
    “He pointed out that he was only 19 or 20 at the time of the relationship.
    ‘I was a stupid kid and we were in love,’ the rabbi said. ‘She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.'”

  19. There was a problem with the famous quote from Gafni. “she was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her”.
    The girl was 13 and she always referred to Gafni as a rapist. He called it a loving relationship and she called it a sexual assault.
    How many 13-year-old girls from ultra-religious backgrounds have sexual loving relationships with 19-year-old men? Especially men who are going to YU to become orthodox rabbis.

  20. this “woman” was 13 years old.
    i understand that one of the Bayit Chadish victims was involved in a counseling relationship – and was working through her own previous abuse – he then abused her as part of the therapy – this is where the possible rape charge came from.
    Comment by david — May 29, 2006

    The correlation between Gafni’s behaviors and Worch’s behaviors are too uncanny. Heaping new abuse upon those with histories of abuse.

  21. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s email statement about Gafni follows a series of statements by various Renewal leaders – Marcia Prager, Arthur Waskow, and the chairs of the Boards of Aleph and Elat Chayyim among them.
    The Renewal statements prior to Reb Zalman’s generally seek to distance themselves from the Gafni situation, and of most concern, seek to deflect responsibility. It troubles me that none of the statements prior to Zalman’s imply or suggest that the Renewal leadership is examining the role that they may have played in creating a culture that may foster abuse.
    I would want the Renewal leadership to ask itself such questions as: what has the Renewal leadership done to create / contribute to a culture where teachers are treated like gurus, and how does that culture foster abusive relationships; how does the intensely hierarchical Renewal model contribute to the potential for abuse; is the goal to empower students or to support dependence on charismatic teachers, and if so, what does fostering such dependence contribute to the potential for abuse; if it is known or suspected that a teacher is or may be a bogus scholar or plagiarizer what is the responsibility to address that situation, even if means the loss of income from a popular teacher; how does a Renewal leader’s allowing himself to be referred to as “the prophet” foster the potential for abuse; what makes it so difficult to take responsibility for whatever role was played in fostering an abusive or potentially abusive culture.
    I am not suggesting that the Renewal leaders are responsible for Gafni’s actions. I am, however, proposing that rather than deflecting responsibility, distancing themselves and the like, there is a crying need for spiritual leaders who model a deeply Jewish – i.e., responsible, moral and ethical – response to this horrid situation. I find Reb Zalman’s email statement to be such a model of personal responsibility, humility and sincerity.
    It interests me that Zalman’s personal response to the Gafni matter is starkly different from that of his “talmidim.” It would appear that something has gone awry in the transmission from this tzaddik rebbe to his talmidim.

  22. One of the things Art Waskow said in his email is, to paraphrase from memory, everyone involved has to ask him/herself how he/she became a part of this story.
    What this means is why didn’t Gafni’s “victims” decline his sexual advances? When Gafni said to these women “have sex with me and I’ll marry you, but you must keep it absolutely secret,” why didn’t these women see a red flag, recognize this was an unhealthy situation and run as if from a fire. Or at least suggest to Gafni to go back to his wife.
    Everybody’s got to take responsibility for themselves, not surrender all power to a guru, whether the guru is benevolent or not.

  23. Zalman sid, “I’m .. devastated by what see as my gullibility. … [I am] an unwitting accessory to his depredations.”
    I read today in Washington Jewish Week:
    Bethesda Jewish Congregation’s [where Gafni recently spoke] spiritual leader Hazzan Sunny Schnitzer said he had been aware of 25-year-old charges of sexual impropriety with teenage girls. “He had personally refuted all the allegations,” Shnitzer said of longtime rumors of such misconduct that swirled about Gafni.
    Why do these people keep saying they were dupde, deceived and unwitting? Gafni ADMITTED to having sex with a 13 year old girl — AFTER the Catholic clergy scandal was in all the papers! (And the Renewal movement faced this problem before with Carlbach) The Catholics have learned a lesson. “One strike and you are out.” (They also discovered that asking the accused if he committed a crime does not constitute a thorough “examination of the accusations” as early defenders claimed.
    Not one person among Gafni’s former supporters has addressed the issue of why they condoned his sexual activities with a minor. (Did they too believe that if a man declares a minor to be sexually precocious — 14 going on 35 — then she is fair game? Not one has suggested they should have heeded the Catholic bishops’ guideline. They keep saying they were duped! When you know the truth and decide to ignore it — or worse yet, imply that it is an unsubstantiated rumor — that is not called being duped. That is called duping others.
    Abuse requires a triangle — perpetrator, victim and denier/collaborator. These defenders played a classic role, like many before them, but they don’t seem to even know that their role was not that of victim, but of enabler! If indeed, they were truly victims and not morally mature enough to recognize an abuser when he admits it, then they should collectively step down as rabbis and community leaders take up some other occupation with less moral responsibility, as befits their powers..

  24. You are all brainwashed followers! Are you all really spending time debating whether Reb Zalman was appropriate enough in his comments about his reaction to the Gafni scandal? Do you really believe that Gafni is the only one of your beloved Renewal Leaders who has participated in inappropriate sexual escapades with female followers? They’re selfish hippies at heart! Free love! Don’t fool yourselves, narcissists. If you want to be “spiritual”, stop worrying about Gafni and all the other nonsense and take responsibility for your own ethical behavior; at least this is what the women who were “duped” by Gafni’s promises of marriage after sex should have done. Poor jilted lovers, you. Did the bad Rav Gafni lie before bed? Is Reb Zalman responsible?

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