I was not surprised when I learned a few weeks ago of the public downfall of Mordechai Gafni, the charismatic figure who had transformed himself from an Orthodox rabbi in America to a New Age spiritual guru based in Israel, with a loyal following in the U.S.
Only after sexual abuse complaints against him were filed with the police in Israel by several female students and an employee of his at Bayit Chadash, the spiritual renewal community he helped found in Tel Aviv, was he dismissed as religious guide, teacher and rebbe. And at that point Gafni apologized publicly to those he had hurt, said he was “sick” and in need of treatment, and disappeared from view.
The fact that he managed to avoid such a humiliated outcome for more than 20 years – during which time he was surrounded by a cloud of accusations of improper sexual behavior – is a testament to his persuasive powers of argument, the support of well-meaning rabbis and educators who believed him, and the unwillingness of those who felt victimized by him to go on the record with their accounts.
I hasten to add that I fully understand why the women in question did not want to speak out on the record, using their names, and I emphasize with them. They felt they were victims, that they had suffered enough and did not want to go through a public scrutiny of past abuses and humiliations. His former wives and other women had new lives to live and reputations to protect.
But for a journalist probing these accusations and knowing that the resulting expose could destroy the subject’s career, professional standards require offering up real people and real names to make those charges. That is why I spent three years on the Gafni trail, interviewing dozens of people about the allegations of sexual misbehavior, before publishing anything. And at that point, in September 2004, I wrote an opinion column rather than a news story because I still did not have anyone with first-hand experience of abuse speaking on the record.
I tried to present both sides, offering damning accounts from several women who claimed to have been victims of Gafni’s abuse when in their teens, and rabbis an others who supported their claims. And I offered up Gafni’s denials, and other rabbis defending him. They said that even if these things had happened, it was a long time ago and he had done teshuva (repentance).
Not surprisingly, the column was criticized harshly from both sides. The defenders, several of whom I greatly respect, said I had besmirched Gafni’s name; the women said I had been too sympathetic to him rather than expose him for the criminal they believed him to be.
My role is journalist, not judge. But in hindsight, I think I should have written at the time that I found the women far more credible than Gafni.
In the wake of Gafni’s apparent downfall, I spoke about the case to several colleagues who practice and teach journalism. One thinks I should have acted on my instincts and been tougher on Gafni, even though I had no first-hand accounts on the record. Another said I was right to have held out for the on-the-record attribution.
Several of Gafni’s most fervent defenders in the community now acknowledge that they were taken in by his protestations of victimizations. Each seemed to rely on the other as the source of proof of Gafni’s innocence, underscoring the lack of serious and professional investigations into such murky matters. At least one rabbinic defender was so upset at the time with the tone and tenor of Gafni’s critics, particularly on blogs and websites, that he seemed to conflate their stridency with Gafni’s claims of innocence.
But just because critics can be zealous and over the top at times doesn’t mean the source of their ire is blameless.
In the past, when Gafni said he had made mistakes in his life but that he had done teshuvah, some were ready to believe him; others were not. At some point in the future he is sure to reappear, eager to resume his role of spiritual guide and teacher, insisting he has gone through therapy and is cured.
Will we believe him then?