When a gifted and charismatic spiritual leader is alleged to have abused the trust accorded him, there often follows a retreat from the public eye and from positions of leadership, and, perhaps, a period of sober self-assessment. The age of social media, however, has increasingly made such a retreat—and the efforts at self-reinvention that often accompany it—virtually impossible.
The urge for a reckoning of past wrongs draws victims from the shadows of anonymity. The result can turn into a campaign waged in articles, social media posts, comment threads, and petitions, drawing ever more attention to the individual in question, and support for a collective demand that they be called to account.
Scorn for disgraced figures in online discussion groups and comment sections can spiral outward from the individual himself to those who have helped him (or her) attempt to restore his (or her) personal and professional standing.
Such has been the case Marc Gafni, an author, educator, speaker, and one-time Orthodox and Jewish Renewal rabbi whose troubled past came into renewed focus after he was profiled in a December 25 piece in the New York Times. Gafni has also been known at various times as Marc Winiarz or Mordechai Gafni.
The Times piece, by Mark Oppenheimer, described Gafni’s efforts to “remake American spirituality” through the Center for Integral Wisdom (CIW, which he co-founded with Ken Wilber and Sally Kempton). The piece also mentioned the longstanding allegations of sexual and emotional abuse leveled against him by former spouses, students, and professional colleagues over the course of three decades, beginning during his days as a rabbinical student at New York City’s Yeshiva University in the 1980s.
Many who knew Gafni in earlier periods of his life are furious that the article appears to give credence to his reemergence as a spiritual leader—especially since his Orthodox and Jewish Renewal rabbinic ordinations have been revoked, and because numerous individuals have complained of the toxic effects of his marital infidelity and sexual and emotional abuse, and his destructive influence on the spiritual communities that he was instrumental in founding and leading.
Some of Gafni’s victims stepped forward publicly for the first time, penning articles that allege his detailed his careful grooming of them—sometimes prior to their reaching the age of consent—as well as his efforts to shame them into complicity and silence (including during the course of his three marriages), and the devastating impact that these experiences had on their lives.
The outrage against Gafni, and a gathering sense of revulsion at his attempted self-reinvention, coalesced into an online petition on Change.org. Created by prominent Jewish Renewal rabbi David Ingber, the petition demands that CIW cut all financial and institutional ties with Gafni. Those charged with enabling Gafni’s reemergence include not only Wilber and their colleague Sally Kempton, but John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods and a co-chair of CIW’s executive board.
Gafni has defended himself vigorously, on his own web page, in interviews, and—in a private phone conversation—to his attorney and public relations advisor. This conversation did not remain private for long, however. A recording of it was leaked to the Forward, a Jewish publication, which covered Gafni’s troubled reemergence and the allegations against him.
In the leaked conversation, Gafni contemplates suing the Forward and using the suit as a “test case” to quell the upsurge of negative publicity. He also refers to “the Jews” in the third person, asserting that “they are upset because the think tank is going well.”
Although he eventually says, “and I love the Jews, I’m one of them,” he seems to suggest that he is being targeted by Jewish leaders as a result of professional jealousy over his success as a New Age spiritual leader, not because of personal and communal disgust at the wrongs of which he has been accused but for which he has never been tried in a court of law.
After the media coverage and online focus intensified, Gafni (along with CIW co-founder Kempton) voluntarily withdrew from a spiritual retreat that he was scheduled to lead at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. His teacher page no longer appeared on Esalen’s web site. As of the writing of this article, the petition on Change.org has garnered more than 3,400 signatures.
Gafni remains a prominent presence, however, on CIW’s website. The site’s home page features a video in which Gafni calls, without irony, for “creating a world of Outrageous Love, through Outrageous Love.”
Anonymous. “To The Woman Who Slept With My Husband.” Hevria.com.
Baker, Carolyn. “In the Shadow of New Age Spirituality.” The Huffington Post, January 22, 2016.
Center for Integral Wisdom website. http://centerforintegralwisdom.org/.
Marc Gafni website. http://www.marcgafni.com/.
Ingber, David. “Stop Marc Gafni From Abusing Again.” Change.org.
Kabakov, Sara. “’I Was 13 When Marc Gafni’s Abuse Began.’” Forward, January 12, 2016.
Kestenbaum, Sam. “In Recorded Conversation, Gafni Considers Strategy Against Critics.” Forward, January 8, 2016.
Oppenheimer, Mark. “A Spiritual Leader Gains Stature, Trailed by a Troubled Past.” The New York Times, December 25, 2015.
Rosenblatt, Gary. “Gafni Faces Fallout From New Age Community.” The New York Jewish Week, January 5, 2016.
Shapiro, Michael. “Gafni Scraps Appearance at New Age Retreat Amid Outcry.” Forward, January 14, 2016.
ValueEdge Blog Staff: “How Should Whole Foods Respond to a Scandal Involving the CEO’s Outside Activities?” ValueEdge Advisors. Accessed February 16, 2016.
"Statement of the Jewish Renewal Movement Concerning Marc Gafni." Kol Aleph: The Voice of Aleph the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, December 29, 2015.
Image: Marc Gafni with Achok Rinpoche, a senior Tibetan Buddhist monk who lived in self-imposed exile in India for five decades and recently returned to live in Tibet. Photo taken in Rome, Feb. 4, 2013. Credit: GafniMarc / flickr creative commons.
Author, David Gottlieb, is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is also co-founder and executive director of Full Circle Communities, Inc., a philanthropic nonprofit developer of affordable housing and provider of supportive services. His Twitter handle is @dnormang.
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