The news this week that Marc Gafni faces new allegations of sexual misconduct from those in the “spiritual wisdom” community with which he has been associated the last five years was sad, even tragic, but not surprising. And it brought back a flood of memories.
For much of the last decade, off and on, I followed the career of Gafni, 50, a former Orthodox rabbi who became a leader of the Jewish spiritual renewal movement, here and in Israel, and then a teacher among those in the New Age community seeking life insights. He is a charming, bright and charismatic man, but has been dogged throughout his career by reports of inappropriate sexual activities with women younger than him, many of them his students.
He has publicly acknowledged that he has made mistakes in his life, but always asserted that the accusations were false.
Gafni and I spoke a number of times about what he called “the witch hunt” against him, which he claimed was motivated by a small group of women and a few Orthodox rabbis who he said were jealous of his popular appeal.
Seven years ago I interviewed more than 50 people for a column I wrote about Gafni, and which was published in September 2004. I tried to offer a balanced portrait of a man that some women called a predator and some rabbis defended as a gifted, troubled soul who may have made missteps in his youth but who had done teshuva.
I presented the rabbis’ words of support and the women’s complaints that he took advantage of both their youth and the imbalance of the student-teacher relationship.
In the end, the women thought I was too easy on Gafni, the rabbis thought I shouldn’t have publicly scrutinized him.
At one point during my research on Gafni, in 2003 or 2004, he came to my office for a lengthy interview and insisted that his then-third wife, subsequently divorced, be present. I still have the tape.
I got the impression he felt that if he could sit down face to face with someone, anyone, he could convince that person he was telling the truth. And I think he believed he was telling the truth, even when subsequent events proved otherwise.
That day his wife, 15 years his junior, looked at him adoringly and at times referred to him as rebbe – she had been his student. A few years later she wrote, in an effort to alert others, that she had ignored warnings about Gafni when they dated and that he had lied to her, cheated on her and abused her verbally throughout their marriage.
In Israel, Gafni led a new spiritual group called Bayit Chadash, but he abruptly returned to the U.S. in 2006 when three female members of the community in their 20s went to the police to charge him with sexual harassment.
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He downplayed his rabbinic background here, becoming a popular lecturer in the so-called integral community, which promotes spiritual wisdom.
But William Harryman, a self-described blogger, personal trainer and transformation coach, posted a recent report quoting Tami Simon of Sounds True, a company that publishes books and CDs on inner wisdom, that recent actions by Gafni have left her disillusioned.
Though she said she had believed his denials about past relationships, Simon is quoted as saying that based on “new and incontrovertible information” that Gafni was having secret, sexual relationships with two women, one of whom was his student, her company decided not to publish Gafni’s newest book, “Your Unique Self.” She also wrote, according to Harryman, that she could no longer support Gafni “as a spiritual teacher in the world.
“I do not trust Marc Gafni,” she stated. “I do not trust what he says, and I do not trust that he acts in the best interests of his students or his professional alliances.”
Robb Smith, CEO of Integral Life, which deals with spiritual wisdom, wrote in a blog yesterday that he was ending his organization’s association with Gafni, removing his contributions from the group’s website and calling for a new policy on ethics among contributors to the site.
The last time I spoke to Gafni was several years ago when he called me with an odd request. He said he wanted to fly to New York from the West, where he lived, just to meet with me for an hour or two. He said he didn’t care if I wrote about the meeting or not, he just wanted to present his side of the story to me one more time.