A Rabbi Accused of Sexual Abuse Seeks to Reinvent Himself


Is there a statute of limitations for rabbis accused of abuse, and should there be? How does the community determine when someone has done teshuvah, or repentance, as claimed? Can rabbinic ordination be revoked? And when, if ever, do persistent rumors and allegations over a period of years add up to a legitimate story?

Prompting these thoughts in this season of repentance and forgiveness is the continuing saga of Rabbi Mordechai Gafni, 43, who in recent years has become an increasingly influential leader of the Jewish Renewal movement.

Born as Marc Winiarz, he came to New York from the Midwest for high school and college, became a youth leader and rabbi, was accused of sexual abuses and misconduct and started life anew in Israel 13 years ago with an Israeli name. He has left several rabbinic and educational posts, here and in Israel, amid a swirl of rumors and allegations spanning two decades.

Over time Gafni has assumed an increasingly high profile as a charismatic teacher, promoting what he calls a new, post-Orthodox stream of Judaism. He has been featured on Israeli television; written several books, including "Soul Prints: Your Path to Fulfillment," which was made into a PBS special; lectured extensively in the United States and Israel; served on the spiritual advisory council of Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a national organization based in Philadelphia; led retreats at Elat Chayyim, a Jewish Renewal center in the Catskills; preached frequently at the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles (see sidebar below); and founded Bayit Chadash ("new home"), a New Age Jewish community in Israel that he said strives "to restore the spark of holy paganism."

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the spiritual leader of the Israeli community of Efrat, called several months ago to tell me he would like to revoke the rabbinic ordination he gave Gafni many years ago when they had a close rabbi-student relationship. Riskin characterized as beyond the bounds of Orthodoxy his former student's theology, described earlier this year in a lengthy profile in Haaretz, the Israeli daily. In the newspaper, Gafni called for restoring a balance between the erotic and the spiritual in Judaism.

For his part, Gafni acknowledged he has moved beyond Orthodoxy. He said he has other ordinations and, in a letter to Riskin this spring, "returned" his smicha to spare his former teacher any further embarrassment.

Dogged by Critics

But the crux of the controversy surrounding Gafni is more about his personal behavior than his theology. For the past two decades he has been dogged by a small, informal network of people, here and in Israel, who charge that he has had a long history of immoral conduct, including sexual contact with and abuse of underage girls.

These critics, including alleged former victims, several rabbis and educators, have urged synagogues and educational institutions not to hire or engage him, and they have stepped up their efforts as Gafni's activities have broadened and become more public after his return from a self-imposed exile of sorts, spending several years writing and studying at Oxford University in England.

Gafni admitted to having "made mistakes in my life," including giving in to a strong temper when he was a young man. But he insisted that while he had adult relationships with women at times when he was single, he has been married for several years to his third wife, he was "never abusive." He said he has done teshuvah, in part by carefully removing himself from potentially tempting situations.

"I don't work with kids, I don't counsel men or women and I don't meet alone with women," he said, anxious to be rid of the old allegations.

"How do I make it be over?" he asked me.

Even Gafni's detractors said he is brilliant, charming and magnetic; even his supporters admitted he has a powerful ego and a spotted past. And he has plenty of detractors and supporters. Indeed, what makes this case so unusual, besides the length of time this issue has been discussed and debated, is the number of prominent rabbis and educators lined up on opposing sides, and the intensity of their convictions.

Avraham Infeld, now the president of Hillel, was heading an educational program in Israel called Melitz when he hired Gafni in the late 1990s, despite pressure not to do so. Infeld has said he had no regrets. Rabbis Saul Berman, who heads the Modern Orthodox group Edah, and Joseph Telushkin, the writer and ethicist, also defended Gafni, asserting that he is a gifted teacher and that they have heard no credible reports against him of improper behavior in the past 15 years or so.

"There is an element of unfairness," Berman said, "in continuing to resuscitate the same old claims, which are not substantiated, and for people not to acknowledge that individuals can change and grow."

Regarding the allegations of sexual misbehavior against Gafni, Riskin said he has been approached by many people over the years with similar patterns of complaints of seductive and harassing behavior toward young women on the part of his former student ā€” charges he takes seriously.

Other rabbis troubled by Gafni's past behavior and skeptical of his depth of teshuvah include Rabbi Heshie Billet, the former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University, both of whom knew Gafni in his youth.

Blau said he has spoken with a number of women "from the past who said they were victimized, and in no case do I know of his admitting direct responsibility or contacting them to express regret. So what teshuvah has he done?"

In Love or Abusive?

Two women who claim to be victims of Gafni when they were teenagers in New York more than 20 years ago have come forward separately to speak out, though both asked that their full names not be used because they said they still fear the rabbi.

One of the women said Gafni "repeatedly sexually assaulted" her over a nine-month period, beginning when she was 13. The woman said she remains emotionally scarred by the experience, which took place in 1979 and 1980. She asserted that Gafni, who was then a student rabbi, "repeatedly and forcibly sexually assaulted me" when he would stay at her house over Shabbat and sneak into her room in the middle of the night.

"It was a reign of terror and I felt helpless," she said. "He told me that if I told anyone, I would be shamed in the community and I believed him. I was physically afraid of him."

In the mornings, she continued, Gafni would be overcome with guilt and pray fervently, beating his chest and urge her to do teshuvah, as well, since he said his desire for her was her fault.

Only years later was she able to tell her family, and she still feels anger about the experience.

"I had a real spiritual home in Judaism, and he completely destroyed it," the woman said. "My work has been to make peace with my own spirituality because it died after that experience."

When told of the woman's comments, Gafni said he would like the situation to be "healed," adding that his attempt to do so several years ago went unheeded. 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."

The second woman, Judy, said that when she was 16 and deeply unhappy at home, she joined a popular Orthodox outreach group for teens that Gafni was leading called JPSY (Jewish Public School Youth), and was drawn to his charisma and concern for her.

During a two-week period when she ran away from home and was staying with Rabbi Gafni, who was then 25 and married, Judy said he abused her sexually on two occasions. Even more upsetting, she said, was that afterward, the rabbi tried to convince her the encounter did not happen, and then harassed her for many months. He threatened to keep her out of Jewish schools (she was seeking to transfer from public school to a yeshiva), called her home at all hours of the night and then hung up, mailed pictures to her home of naked men and had her followed.

"He attempted to destroy my life for a year and a half," she said.

Gafni said that Judy was a troubled, unstable teenager who fabricated the story after he rebuffed her advances.

A woman named Susan, who at the time was a 22-year-old adviser in JPSY, said she believed Judy's account. She said that when she took Judy's side, Gafni made harassing phone calls and threats against her.

"He told me I would regret it," Susan said, adding that the rabbi made inappropriate advances to her, as well.

The rabbi said his version of the episode with Judy was corroborated by a psychologist engaged by Yeshiva University, which housed JPSY at the time. Judy said other psychologists support her account.

Spiritual Signature

The back-and-forth on the charges and explanations have filled many of my notebooks over the past three years, as I have interviewed more than 50 people on this issue. Some investigations have a clear resolution; this one does not.

Defenders of Gafni note the allegations go back many years. They demand more recent proof of wrongdoing and real names to back up the charges. His critics offer, and psychologists affirm, that it is common for abuse victims to speak out only after much time has elapsed, if at all, and to feel embarrassed, if not fearful, about using their names.

Even the criteria of when a public airing of abuse charges constitutes lashon hara, Hebrew for gossip, and when it is an obligation ā€” to protect people ā€” is ultimately a judgment call. The determining factor is whether the accused person is a danger to society and may abuse again.

But who is to say when and whether Gafni is free of his acknowledged past "mistakes"?

Two groups in the Renewal movement, Aleph and Elat Chayyim, looked into the allegations against Gafni and found "no evidence of wrongdoing," according to Rabbi Arthur Waskow. (The three women with whom I spoke said they were never contacted.) And Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the acknowledged leader of the Renewal movement, said he is aware of the allegations against Gafni but supports him.

"If you want to find fly specks in the pepper, you can always find them," Schachter-Shalomi said. "But I've watched him teach. He is learned, exciting and charismatic. A good teacher is one who gets people excited."

Indeed, Gafni's followers and admirers said he is a gifted thinker and leader who has helped bring many people closer to Judaism through his writings, lectures and television shows. They said he has done teshuvah, presents no threat to anyone and should be left alone to continue his important teaching.

His critics contend that he is a self-promoter and deceiver who has never been honest with others, or himself, about his behavior. They find his increasing popularity infuriating and worry that his charisma and influence could result in trouble for unsuspecting followers.

In the middle is Gafni, who said that while others portray him as Svengali, he sees himself as a "victim" of a longstanding "witch hunt," motivated primarily by several Orthodox rabbis jealous of his success.

In his writings he described himself as "a flawed human being, forever striving," and urged each of us to establish and craft our "soul print," our personal life story, the "spiritual signature" we leave on the world.

Gafni evokes strong emotions wherever he goes, leaving a mark of darkness or light, depending on how his own "soul print" is perceived.