Marc Gafni, spiritual teacher and accused sexual abuser, is back in the news, achieving both greater influence and notoriety of late. Let those who may be swayed by his New Age insights be aware of his deeply disturbing personal history.
Both were the subject of a Beliefs column in The New York Times last Saturday (“A Spiritual Leader Gains Stature, Trailed By A Troubled Past”). Mark Oppenheimer’s report, and his more extensive piece on the Tablet website this week, have revived feelings of anger and frustration among a number of women who say they were Gafni’s victims, and of dozens of leading rabbis and Jewish educators. Many of them once defended Gafni, but later spoke out against him, feeling they had been lied to and betrayed by him after learning of his sexual exploits and other errant behavior.
Readers of this newspaper over the years may recall the sad saga of Gafni (originally, Mordechai Winiarz), a charismatic rabbi whose spiritual teachings and charming personality were, in the end — at least in the Jewish community — overshadowed by his sexual misconduct and alleged abuse of women. Once heralded as an up-and-coming figure in the Modern Orthodox movement and later in the Jewish Renewal movement, Gafni left the U.S. for Israel after the media spotlight shone on him (originally in The Jewish Week in September 2004, “The Reinvented Rabbi”). He was accused of having sexually abused two teenage girls in the U.S., along with other cases of alleged affairs and seductions.
In 2006, he fled Israel after sexual abuse complaints were filed against him there by several female students and an employee of his at Bayit Chadash, the spiritual renewal community he helped found in Tel Aviv. He was dismissed as religious guide and rebbe, and he publicly apologized to those he hurt. He said he was “sick” and in need of treatment, and disappeared from view. But not for long.
Gafni moved to Utah, shed his rabbinic persona and re-emerged as a post-denominational spiritual guru specializing in integral theory among New Age practitioners. Reports of his affairs, and allegations by women of victimization, continued outside the Jewish community.
What has prompted concern about him most recently is that, as Oppenheimer reported, Gafni, now 55 and living in California, is being heralded by influential thought leaders like John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods, and John Gray, the author of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” who is seeking to write a sequel with the former rabbi.
Dozens of rabbis and Jewish educators who have known Gafni and felt duped by him are set to go public and release a signed statement calling on organizations and individuals supportive of the former rabbi’s work to withdraw their assistance. Giving Gafni a platform would be a moral violation, the Jewish leaders say.
Gafni, who has been married and divorced three times and now describes his behavior as polyamorous, has long insisted that his critics exaggerate the allegations against him and that he is the victim of a vendetta. He says he has done teshuvah.
That is for Heaven to decide. But judging from his persistent pattern of behavior, much of it documented here over the last 11 years, Marc Gafni appears to be repeating his decades-long pattern of deception. In the end, he is only fooling himself.