Rabbi Mordechai Gafni, a charismatic but controversial leader of the Jewish renewal movement, was dismissed last week from his position as spiritual leader and lecturer at Bayit Hadash, a Tel Aviv-based prayer and study community, amid allegations of sexual misconduct and exploitation of employee-employer relations.
With the help of sympathetic rabbis, Gafni, co-founder of Bayit Hadash, has been dodging accusations and rumors of sexual wrongdoings both here and in the US for two decades.
But even Gafni's most ardent supporters were forced to backtrack when, on May 9, three women filed a police complaint against him and provided attorney Eitan Maimoni with a sworn statement of his misconduct, and a fourth women, from an institution where Gafni previously worked, gave similar testimony before Bayit Hadash heads.
Jacob Ner-David, a co-founder of Bayit Hadash, who has known Gafni for 24 years, told The Jerusalem Post that he felt betrayed by him.
"I find it hard to respect him," Ner-David said. "He lied to me."
Ner-David said that in a personal discussion with Gafni just recently the subject of sexual misconduct among rabbis had come up.
"I remember him telling me, 'I would never have any kind of relationship,'" he said.
Ner-David and Avraham Leader, another co-founder of Bayit Hadash, wrote in a letter to its board members that in the present situation, "we should recommend to the Bayit Hadash steering committee that Mordechai Gafni's tenure in Bayit Hadash be ended immediately, or alternatively, we would collectively resign."
They wrote that Gafni's sexual misconduct involved women from the Bayit Hadash community, both staff members and students.
"It is our position that there is no place for relations like this between a rabbi and his students or between an employer and his employees, whether consensual or not. It would seem that this is also the opinion of Mordechai, since he swore all the women involved to eternal and absolute silence," they wrote.
In a statement to his followers this week, Gafni took blame for his actions and said he was "infinitely saddened and profoundly sorry" for the pain he had caused. He acknowledged that he was "sick," and said he planned to enter a treatment center and leave his "rabbinic teaching capacities."
Gafni left the country last week before Jewish and Israeli news media broke the story. Sources close to Gafni said he stayed first in Boston and then in Boulder, Colorado, with New Age philosopher Ken Wilber.
Wilber issued a statement on his Internet site that "after long conversations with many of the concerned parties," he had concluded "there is substantial truth to some of these allegations." And that there was "grave wrongdoing on Marc's part, and I believe this wrongdoing is due not just to bad judgment on Marc's part, but to a pathology or dysfunction affecting Marc."
The Jewish Week's which began reporting Gafni's misconduct in 2004, said that Rabbi Saul Berman, the founder and director of the modern Orthodox Edah organization, who had been an outspoken defender of Gafni, backtracked.
Berman said he was "deeply regretful" of his prior support for Gafni, and worried that his past defense may have prolonged his "predatory behavior against women."
Ner-David said that he and Leader were notifying all possible teaching venues frequented by Gafni to prevent this from happening again.
A rabbi familiar with Gafni and his teachings said that "re-eroticizing" Judaism was a major theme. "He talked a lot about ecstatic worship that could be equated with sexual union. There is plenty of symbolism in the Zohar and other Jewish sources to support this idea.
"He knew how to draw a crowd. He was a really good speaker. A lot of people could not stand him, but people who did like him were entranced."