Culture, Justice, Religion

Waskow + Leader on Gafni

This message just went out to the entire Shalom Center list…
Dear friends,
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.”

30 thoughts on “Waskow + Leader on Gafni

  1. If you want to clean up the problem, the first step is to fire Arthur Waskow and remove him from public life. He put his name behind Gafni. He treated Gafni’s earlier survivors like garbage as did his colleagues. Now he must take responsibility and be held accountable.
    This was not an apology in any way, shape or form.
    Waskow knew the allegations of sexual assault against children AND still claimed an investigation when there was none. He proclaimed Gafni’s innocence when he could not possibly claim so.
    He is personally responsible for what people have suffered. He put them in danger. He owes a public apology to past and current survivors of Gafni.
    Damn him and the rest of those who protected child abuser Gafni.
    Damn them all.

  2. FULL DISCLOSURE: I am banning JWB from posting further as he/she has absolutely nothing further to contribute to this conversation and keeps writing massively long diatribes saying the exact same thing over and over and over and over… WE HEARD YOU THE FIRST 50,000 TIMES and it’s enough.

  3. At this point, JWB/Jewish Survivors/Vicki Polin have become part of the problem, not part of the solution. They have sufficiently discredited themselves with their own craziness on their blogs and others that people like Tendler and Gafni have successfully deflected their attacks.
    The question is, is there a need for a group advocating for these issues? What would its charter look like? What services would it provide?

  4. Jewschool is that group, in a way. Where else would this conversation be taking place?
    I think we have a lot of ability to make this better simply by having this forum and paying attention….

  5. What do people think about the last couple paragraphs of the letter, where Arthur uses Kabbalistic terminology (the Sefirit, etc) to deal with a realist dilemma? The problem being asked is: How do we deal with abuse, and the answer is: Through a synthesis of Chesed and Gevurah in Tiferet.
    On one hand, this type of language is very loose. I am unclear how utilizing Tiferet will make any difference in abuse cases. On the other hand, using theoretical Jewish language to address real events is very interesting. It implies that those contexts can address these situations.
    So I think the question is: How? Is this just dodging the bullet, or is there something meaningful in the way that Arthur chooses to address his letter. Am I reading too much into it?

  6. Mordy,
    I think on an individual basis, a person can choose kabbalistic imagery or framework to address this issue – almost any issue.
    But I’m not satisfied with throwing it around in a vague, generic way.
    Because of Gafni’s association with Jewish Renewal, what is needed is not a generic conversation about ‘spiritual leadership turning into abuse’ but about Jewish Renewal’s relationship with charismatic male leadership, abuse of power and sex.
    1. Have women (and men) victimized in our circles felt good about how cases of harrassment and assult were resolved?
    2. Is there a link between Jewish Renewal’s ‘rebbe-ism’ and what happened with Gafni?
    3. What is the process for Jewish Renewal leaders who are abusive, but not in a sexual way? How does any community deal with leadership that turns out to be unaccountable?
    My movite here is not some JWB style quest for revenge… it’s that the Gafni issue is triggering some thoughts about what obstacles have existed between me and some Jewish communities I’ve been part of. It hasn’t been sexual abuse…. but I’ve seen what happens when the most powerful and entitled feel comfortable trampling on those of us with the least power and standing. When this happens in the ‘mainstream’ it’s par for the course. But when it happens in the Jewish Renewal orbit, it feels like much more of a betrayal, a distance between professed values and actual behavior.
    Oh well.

  7. Reb Yudel,
    I’m also interested in a discussion about what this would look like, how it could take form.
    We need to reclaim this fight, and restore legitimacy to those defending survivors of rabbinical abuse.

  8. Yes Charles Yes. Important questions about leadership and accountability that are long overdue in being asked and answered. Thank you to you and Mobius for bringing this out.

  9. I am not a regular reader to blogs. Time and availability simply prevent it. A number of points. First, as to criticism of the blogs that seem hysterical, it is a sad truth that to make a noise that can be heard above the din of empty words the Jewish world produces, pushes the passionate to be extreme. It does not mean that they are neccessarily wrong. JWB is correct in his disgust with Waskow. And I plan on writing him and his list a blistering effort at seeing a truth they avoid in the most sophisticated way.
    I am an post-denominational Jew. I come from the Modern Orthodox world. My father was Dean of Communal Service and Rabbinics at Yeshiva University. I grew up in the world of Jewish Communl life. Iwas a chassid (I hope) of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, for 35 years, including a stint as manager of his Synagogue in NYC. I received ordinationation from Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shlomi, the Founder of Jewish Renewal. I co-Founded Yeshivat Bat Ayin and Jerusalem Camp at the National Rainbow Gathering. ANd I remain a Jew committed to Halacha, observing it in an Orthodox way, while rappling with the challenges today imposes upon observance. So I am all over the Jewish map.
    I have also been a roomate of Gafni, worked for him and both mourn the continued damage he’s done to so many and celebrate that finally, he’s being stopped, exposed and the that maybe, just maybe, justice will be done.

  10. As I sit at a conference yesterday and today on Interfaith Youth Service, I am meeting some extremely inspiring members of other faith communities, from Jains to unapologetically evangelical Christians.
    It makes me think:
    Do other communities encounter the same types of crises that we do in terms of “Renewal’s relationship with charismatic male leadership, abuse of power and sex?” The phenomenon of young people reclaiming their faiths and engaging in renewal processes can be seen in many religious communities, and I have to assume that they have many of these same challenges. How are the Christian, Muslim, and other religions’ equivalents of the Jewish Renewal movement dealing with these specific challenges.
    Any thoughts?

  11. I have been aware of Mordechai Gafni/Winiarz and his problematic behavior with women for over two decades and have tried many times to warn others about him. Many have responded by dismissing the accusations, without making any serious attempt to contact the the women who were willing to speak out. Even the fact that he has left positions suddenly, changed his name and his location did not raise any doubts. At one point I was contacted by a private investigator in Israel who had no doubt that Mordechai should not be allowed to function where he had access to young women. The private investigator allowed me to give out his phone number which I did a number of times but it had little impact. Two years ago an article appeared in the Friday magazine of Maariv which seemed to clearly indict Mordechai from his own quotes but it was also ignored.
    It is tragic and saddening that more women were hurt before the latest revelations. If I had been the only one who complained I would have understood the defenders but there have been numerous others whose warnings were dismissed. There have been enough cases of charismatic gurus who were revealed to be abusers that minimally some controls should be put in place. Since the problem exists in all parts of the Jewish community (as well as in all other communities) a common protocol for seriously investigating accusations should be adopted. Rabbi Mark Dratch has created an organization JSAFE to initiate this effort.
    Treating abusers and their victims equally might sound like a universal expression of love, but in reality to enables the abuser and frightens those who might have had the courage to step foward. Judith Lewis Herman writes that both the abuser and victim turn to others but while the victim needs help all the abuser wants is for people to remain neutral.

  12. My first reaction to waskow’s letter: nice attempt to cover your ass–with any luck, it’ll take much more than that.
    The hypocrisy of all this is just so disgusting…and it’s not just within the renewal movement. Major neo-spiritual icons like Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen gave huge face time and coverage to this guy.
    Waskow says he feels betrayed. What he feels is scared to death that this will inevitably bite him in the ass, as it absolutely should. The victims who have been betrayed time and again by the renewal movement are those who should be indignant–waskow and his ilk have nothing to feel but shame.
    Still, I have this nagging fear that nothing will come of this, in terms of charges pressed, and that at most Gafni and at least these renewal leaders will once again get off scot-free….

  13. And in the end…Dan/Mobius was correct. Your efforts to expose this story will help many, many children and families.

  14. religious ecstacy, and the pursuit of it often seems to play an important role in non-traditional Jewish communities.
    A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who is heavily involved in Jews in the Woods, questioned how desirable and sustainable this need for ecstacy was.
    Already important questions to be asking, Gafni’s abuse of power, and the larger system that let him get away with it, makes these questions more urgent.
    so I think its worth asking . . .
    -why do so many of us feel this need for religious ecstacy?
    -is religious ecstacy a means to an end, or an end in itself? If its a means to an end, then what is that end?
    -ignoring for a moment the rumors of naked dancing parties at bayit chadash, are these ecstatic religious gatherings sexually charged for many participants? Is this desireable?

  15. I want to hear more about the Jewish renewal orgies. Is this true? How do I get invited? The issue clearly merits more objective research, if not detailed first hand testimonies.
    Who wants to break the veil of silence with me? Such an odious practice is probably very wrong on moral and ethical grounds, but first, let’s shed some light upon the subject!

  16. Comment #13 says that
    the Jewish Renewal movement is not simply out of the mainstream of Judaism; it is something entirely outside the realm of humanity’s sense of morality and justice.
    Why? Because the writer alleges that naked estatic orgies are a regular part of Renewal observance. Funny, but at the Renewal Chavurah I’ve attended on and off for the past few eyars, I’ve encountered no nudity, let alone orgies. Is this something standard that I’m unaware of? Or is this an occasional practice of a few renewal leaders?
    I agree that beyond sexual assault or harassment, bringing sexual content into rituals can easily cross the line into coercion. But can we discuss that without saying that sectors of the Jewish community are “outside the realm of humanity’s sense of morality and justice”? Lines like that certainly seem to me to cross the line that Soloveitchik sets out.

  17. Sara M questions the need for religious ecstasy. So do I; it appears to be a move to force oneself to feel G-d as opposed to simply walking through life with G-d. G-d is not found in ecstasy (although one may live with G-d which generates a continuous low-flame ecstasy) or in contact with charismatic people (but rather in contact with ourselves, all people and the universe).
    May this be a push to move the movement and all of us to experience the indescribable presence of G-dness and not use discourse to “create” partial-truth and thus false constructions of G-d’s presence; idolatry of G-d is still idolatry and inevitably leads to evil.

  18. I don’t understand the big deal. Is it illegal to have sex with women? Don’t all of you do it? So why are you picking on Gafni?

  19. A few points I’ve gotta get off my chest:
    1) Waskow can apologize, R’s Berman, Firestone, et al can apologize, hell, Winiarz can apologize if it helps him sleep better at night. The fact remains, Gafni has done real damage to real women. The Forward article lists NINE allegations (recent ones). Undoubtedly, that number is DOUBLE (ie- only a minority will risk coming out, due to marriages, relationships, fear, etc.). The suffering of these people is the fault of the Rabbinic leadership who propped Gafni up. THEY will have to suffer the dire spiritual consequences. I hope THEY can sleep at night.
    2) Orthodoxy at least has Yichud and Monogamy-related laws to guard against abusive sexual coercion.
    3) Is there ANY proof that Gafni was “Orthodox trained” for more than a few months reading through a Soncino Gemara? Should the Forward be allowed to recite this “Orthodox training” with glee without protest?

  20. BS”D
    Treating abusers and their victims equally might sound like a universal expression of love, but in reality to enables the abuser and frightens those who might have had the courage to step foward.
    Ad kan, R’ Blau.

  21. Oy, what can I say. I met Gafni years ago in Israel at a shiur (on Ishbitz) he was teaching at his home in Jerusalem and later at Elat Chayyim (where I was on staff–no naked services/orgies that I was aware of). I never felt comfortable around the guy. He always seemed “fake” to me. I could not see what people saw in him, his teachings, or books. He is charismatic and bullshits well. It is so important to trust one’s intuition. May justice be found and the women who were abused find healing and support.

  22. his teachings are really great on paper, largely because he had hired teams of scholars to dig for material for him, for which he would pay them nominal amounts, but not give too much credit. Alot of his genius was in the ability to put together pleasing and helpful info of a pretty radical and synechretic nature and pass it on, in books and classes, which if read, sound really good. The Mystery of Love was one of the most clarifying and helpful books on Jewish theology and the sod hamerkava i’ve ever read, expressed way readably, and offering really attractive conclusions about A Better Way.
    On the other hand, i have yet to meet anyone who expresses liking of him personally, or any sense of feeling right in his presence. Surely, there must be SOMEbody? What does his mom have to say about all this?

  23. After hearing of Gafni’s exposure, I wrote to both Arthur Waskow and Elat Chayim asking them to accept accountability for not heeding the warning I gave to Elat Chayim staff during a summer session a few years ago when I witnessed Gafni’s sexualized shiurim and predatory actions with a female registrant on a late evening walk.
    Waskow did not reply to either of my (2) letters, and Elay Chayim staff simply denied receipt of my hand-written statement – I did not think to make a copy at the time and decided to just let it go. Finding your website provides a way to add my voice to the call for careful screening and monitoring of charismatic leaders and to caution against the sexualization of Jewish teaching styles.
    Carol A. McMullen
    Temple Shalom
    Waterloo, Ontario

  24. Please write an article about this. I’m sorry if it’s hurtful to some professionals, but that’s more palatable to me than ignorning this kind of insanity —- that is hurtful to victims and to all of us as a people (not to mention all women). Please, please, make this much more public than jewschool.

  25. Hello, Jewschool readers – Anyone else concerned about what was newly posted about the accountability issues in the Gafni case? I’m deeply concerned, considering how terribly those who spoke out early on were treated (ie basically called liars when they spoke about about their experiences; even by those who had never spoken to them). Please see above comment #27 for more on the lack of accountability before the Gafni scandal and after.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.