Some Thoughts On Marc Gafni

Marc Gafni Bio Picture

A recent article by Mark Oppenheimer in the NY Times, and a more detailed follow-up by him in Tablet, have sparked a lot of conversation in the Jewish world and beyond about the Jewish “spiritual teacher” Marc Gafni. Gafni teaches an approach to Judaism which is uniquely his own, and combines elements of Ken Wilber’s “Integral Theory” with what you could call a kind of “Hasidic Tantra”.

I first came across Gafni when I was taking a DVD course on Jewish spiritual healing in 2005. The CDs were a melange of Hasidism, Eastern philosophy, Buddhism and Shamanism put together by various Jewish teachers including Tirzah Firestone (see below) and Gafni. As I listened to the Gafni CD I was at first impressed by a sophisticated midrash he was giving about the Keruvim in the Temple, and then it began to sour. What was it? Something about his delivery, his tone, put me on edge. Earlier in my life I had experiences with “bad gurus”, spiritual personas who were masking serious problems with emotional and sexual predation. I picked up a kind of radar for it, and later even taught a course on the “bad guru” phenomenon as part of Yoga Teacher Trainings. I sensed the sickness in Gafni. I cut the CD short, unable to get beyond about 15 minutes for nausea.

A year later, in 2006, I was doing a 3 month summer spiritual retreat at Elat Chayyim, the then flagship of the Jewish Renewal movement, with the woman I would later marry. To my alarm I found out that among the various teachers coming that summer- including mature luminaries like Norman Fischer, Alan Lew, and Dovber Pinson- Gafni would be coming. I discussed this with the Rabbi in residence, David Ingber, who was also unhappy about the impending visit. Unhappy is actually an understatement- Ingber was sick over it- in a state of severe distress. Gafni had been his spiritual teacher and was one of the Rabbis who ordained Ingber but Ingber had realized that Gafni was emotionally manipulative, deceptive, and possibly a sexual predator, and had withdrawn from him. Ingber had discussed his concerns with the Elat Chayyim board but the board held to their decision to invite Gafni.

To make matters worse, a young, charismatic and talented spiritual practitioner in the community who was close to Ingber was planning to be ordained by Gafni during his visit. Ingber and I both expressed our concerns with this person- I told him not to accept the ordination- but the individual decided to go ahead. In the end both Ingber and I participated (along with many others) in the ceremony. I was nauseous throughout, and Ingber was crying what I didn’t think then were pure tears of joy.  

A few days before I had witnessed Gafni in action. It took place in a room full of excited students. They were all pursuing some kind of credential with Gafni, I forget what it was. We all waited in the charged room singing a niggun- a wordless spiritual melody. A beautiful female assistant of Gafni’s- who I think was his girlfriend at the time- revved up the audience, telling us to prepare for the “Rebbe” ( a term of veneration for Hasidic masters usually reserved for revered elders). Gafni finally arrived, 20 minutes late, rushing and looking “aflame” with some kind of passion. He was still wearing his tallit (prayer shawl) and his teffilin (phylacteries). Normally any self-respecting Jew would have kissed and carefully put away these items before appearing in public. Walking in with them on was brazen- a way of advertising both that he had been praying in the Orthodox manner and that he was somehow “above” respecting these ancient Jewish sacred objects. Even worse Gafni took off the tefillin without rolling them up or putting them away in their boxes, simply dropping them in a messy heap on the table. Ironically the tallit was an unusual colour- black, and gave Gafni the appearance of some kind of Tantric Darth Vader, which may not be that far from the truth.

Gafni launched into an impassioned teaching, moving restlessly around the room like a wrestler, his eyes scanning the crowd constantly measuring people’s reactions to him. I sat silent as a stone, frozen, refusing to respond to what felt like a psychic groping. At the first break I left and was unable to continue the weekend of “teachings”. A friend of mine in attendance, a psychologist, later told me that based on what he had seen he thought Gafni had a clinical personality disorder of some kind. Within a few months the allegations against Gafni exploded.

Reading Oppenheimer’s recent piece in Tablet, I am struck by how many spiritual teachers have defended him or continued to work with him. Some of them had quite a lot of information, like the late Zalman Shachter-Shalomi must have, and some had very little. The obvious question that strikes me is- why didn’t they do more research into Gafni when they heard allegations against him? I am not a fan of witch hunts, and I certainly don’t think schools and teachers should fire someone merely because allegations have been made. But surely when allegations have been made they need to be carefully looked into. The evidence against Gafni available on the Internet is enough to raise very serious concerns. Why, though, didn’t they get in touch with the people who knew him and gather more information? Why not reach out to some people close to the allegations?

Some Jewish teachers were admirably canny about what was going quickly, including the revered Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who rescinded Gafni’s ordination early on, and Rabbi Ingber. Joseph Telushkin, Arthur Green and Tirzah Firestone all seem bizarrely over-concerned to defend Gafni, but all later at least took back their support.  Ken Wilber and Sally Kempton are interesting cases among Gafni’s supporters in the wider world. Wilber has a bad track record in terms of which teachers he supports- which famously include the deluded megalomaniac and serial sex abuser Adi Da Samraj, and also sex predators Gempo Roshi, Osho, and others. I once warned a female student of mine that she should avoid any teacher lauded by Wilber as a matter of principle. Kempton was herself a disciple of Swami Muktananda, a Hindu Tantric teacher guilty of massive self-enrichment at the expense of students and serial sex abuse of several students in India and the West, including teenage daughters of his own students. I suspect that Kempton may have used a similar defense of Muktananda that she uses for Gafni- that he had difficulty controlling his “shakti”.

A salient aspect of the discussion around Gafni that keeps coming up is talk of the power of his Eros, or Shakti, and the claim that this is a spiritual energy that he is tapped into. The implications are that this energy is a beneficial, desirable one, and it is unfortunate that Gafni is not a perfect master of it. Poor master, it overwhelms him so that he is forced to manipulate, deceive, have sex with, and assault others. “Eros” is just a fancy word for sexual desire, of course, though Gafni wides it’s use to include a kind of pleasurable embodied presence in the world. “Shakti” just means energy, but implies transformative, or creative energy. Usually, in Hindu Tantra, it is used to communicate that the teacher has a super-human power to transmit a beneficial, transformative energy to his students. What kind of excess energy is it exactly that Gafni suffers from? I find it incredible, to put it mildly, that there is a kind of beneficial spiritual energy which, when too strong, inspires irresponsible, immoral, predatory and destructive behaviour. As the saying goes, Detras de la cruz esta el diablo (Satan hides behind the cross).

I would submit that there is only one kind of beneficial, transformative energy. That energy is love, and one can’t have too much of it. It refuses to use other people, refuses to put them in what Buber called an “I-It” relationship. Love regards the other, seeks to really see, to really cherish, and to really celebrate the other as other, both in what they are and what they can become. I have met spiritual teachers with that energy. Most often they were not famous, not rich, and not particularly charismatic. Yet they saw me, and when I spoke with them I felt like they and I were the only two in the world. They saw things in me with a precision and speed that astonished me, yet they didn’t use these things to their own advantage. They used their sight to give me good, loving counsel and to mirror me back to myself in my potential. They did not seek to make me dependent, but rather independent. They didn’t try to make me like them, but more like myself. They did not in any way have their eye on my wallet and they didn’t try to have sex with their students (excuse me, help them “tantrically”).

There are teachers like that, and the sad thing is that the Gafnis of the world convince some people that there aren’t. One colleague once said to me, “Spiritual teachers- they’re all fakes. Exploiters, predators and crooks.” That’s not true (which I attempted passionately to explain to her). As Rumi said, Without real gold there would not be counterfeit.

Why, though, do some teachers defend and befriend the likes of Gafni? Some of it is, no doubt, naivete. Some of it is a well-intentioned desire to avoid a witch hunt. Some of it, though, I think, relates to a simple desire for capital of one kind or another. Why did Elat Chayyim act as a venue for Gafni despite the concerns of their Rabbi in residence? Could it because he was a money-maker? Could it be because his fame and charisma increased the fame and charisma of Elat Chayyim? Some people, at least, are attracted to Gafni because, simply put, they like money or power. Associating with Gafni brings the same pleasure that many would find associating with any celebrity, conman or garden variety mafioso. This is the pleasure of associating with the resource that person has- which could be sex, money, talent, intelligence, or charisma- and the power that confers. Gafni’s friends all assert something along the lines of this: “He denies the allegations. He has great ideas, great energy, great power. I haven’t looked into this in detail, but he denies the charges. I trust him.” Listening to some of the defenses of Gafni reminds me of the reaction Trump had when he was praised by Vladimir Putin, the Russian autocrat. Trump, who loves a good compliment and the friendship of powerful people, expressed pleasure at Putin’s words. When he was challenged about Putin’s well known involvement in silencing free speech in Russia- even assasinating troublesome journalists, he said: “He denied it. I mean, it’s not like anyone found him with a gun in his hand or anything.” Maybe look into it, Trump. Maybe look into it, Jewish and non-Jewish teachers and community leaders. I’m glad Oppenheimer did.

UPDATE: Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, as just released a statement condemning Gafni’s behaviour and making it clear that as far as they are concerned he should not be teaching (see their Facebook page). They point out that Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi revoked Gafni’s ordination in 2006.

UPDATE (Jan 5 2016): A petition attracting the signatures of many Rabbis and Jewish leaders, including Avi Weiss (the founder of Open Orthodoxy), Joseph Telushkin and Tirzah Firstone, is now circulating calling for Whole Foods and others to cut ties with Gafni. The petition has gone above 2500 signatures. New articles have appeared in several papers and magazines.  See here.   Meanwhile, in an utterly classless move, non- Jewish “spiritual teachers” Ken Wilber and Sally Kempton are on record comparing the Jewish community leaders who are trying to shut down Gafni-which include some of the most important Jewish spiritual teachers and Rabbis alive today- to “neonazis”. Nice. Apparently Wilber and Kempton are specializing both in aiding and abetting abusers and in provoking other people’s most horrific traumas if it helps their friends. So tell me, if a rape victim goes to the police, does that make her a neonazi? Would that only be true if she was Jewish?