Snap Judgment: When a rabbi does wrong

Wearing a yarmulke is no guarantee of moral superiority.

calevbendavid88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
A few years ago, while I was still a senior editor at The Jerusalem Post, someone at the paper suggested we do a profile of American-born "New Age rabbi" Mordechai Gafni. At the time, his television appearances and some mentions in the Hebrew media were beginning to gain him widespread notice in Israel. Well before that, though, I had attended a few of his Torah lectures in Jerusalem for the Anglo-Israeli community, and saw firsthand that he was a compelling speaker and charismatic personality. Unfortunately, I also knew there were some disturbing rumors about him in the Orthodox community concerning inappropriate sexual behavior while he was still a rabbinical student in the US - including an alleged relationship with the underage daughter of one of his patrons. I asked around the paper and one of the reporters said she knew a woman who had been more recently involved in an inappropriate (though in this case not illegal) relationship with Gafni. Though I pressed the reporter to get more solid information, in the end she was unable to come up with anything that could be put on record. Under these circumstances, especially in dealing with a figure much admired by several people I knew personally, I decided not to go ahead with any sort of profile of Gafni for the time being. Although I thought that would be the end of it, a few days later I received a call from Gafni. He had heard we had been mulling over a profile of him, and wanted to know why it had been dropped. I didn't want to discuss charges for which I had no proof, so I basically hinted at the reason by saying that any article would have to deal with all aspects of his life, and he would have to be completely candid in any interview. To my surprise this didn't put him off, and he kept pressing for an article to be done. When I spoke more frankly about my concerns, he responded by saying there were people who were trying to stifle his career by spreading false rumors about him. He pressed me to name my sources and proceeded to try and coax me into going ahead with the profile. Despite Gafni's impressively persuasive manner, in the end I didn't - but in retrospect perhaps I should have, especially by pressing my reporter to dig deeper into the allegations against him. ONE EDITOR who didn't give up so easily was Gary Rosenblatt of The Jewish Wee in New York City, which in 2004 ran a piece about Gafni that included testimony from a woman who alleged that two decades earlier she had been sexually abused by him when just 14. Gafni admitted to that relationship, claiming it had been consensual, and contended that he had long since turned over a new leaf. Unfortunately, because Rosenblatt had not found any contemporaneous accounts of sexual misbehavior to put on the record, several prominent rabbinical figures defended Gafni's current character, and his career survived that episode. All that ended two weeks ago, when four women belonging to the Bayit Chadash spiritual community in Jaffa, of which Gafni was a leader, filed a complaint with the police charging him with utilizing his rabbinical position to sexually exploit them. The 46-year-old Gafni quickly fled Israel for America after submitting a letter in which he admitted "mistakes" and said he would seek "treatment." GAFNI'S DOWNFALL has spurred some concern that his actions would tarnish the progressive "Jewish renewal" spiritual movement, of which he had in recent years become a leading figure. This issue, though, is beside the point: In fact, during his career Gafni seems to have moved through a variety of religious circles, serving at various times as a congregational rabbi in Boca Raton, Florida; as the spiritual leader of a West Bank settlement; as a popular teacher in Jerusalem's modern Orthodox Anglo community; and, finally, as a near guru-like figure in Bayit Chadash. Like one of those old-time preacher-hucksters, he seemed to move on from one community to the next just as rumors about his misbehavior reached the point of threatening his position. Gafni's odyssey is a reminder that at least when it comes to rabbinical sexual misbehavior, Jewish denominational and religious boundaries can be overcome. Reform, Conservative and all varieties of Orthodox rabbis have been exposed in recent years as having transgressed ethical, moral and in some cases legal limits regarding interpersonal propriety. Not just rabbis, of course; one only has to look at the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church and various evangelical congregations over the past few decades to know this isn't a particularly Jewish problem. And not just religious officials; if one takes a close look at the various headlines spurred by the misbehavior in both Israel and the US of teachers in the secular educational system, military officers, politicians, and prominent business figures. Individuals in positions of authority, especially those who work with younger people and deal with personal issues, will be more exposed and susceptible to the temptation of exploiting this influence for their own desires. In this regard, religious figures such as rabbis are perhaps more guilty than other authority figures only in the realm of hypocrisy, given the higher standards by which they are supposed to conduct themselves. EACH SCANDAL such as the Gafni affair is just another reminder that wearing a yarmulke or a clerical collar is by itself no guarantee of moral superiority. If anything, given the burdens of exemplary conduct which religious leaders assume for themselves, far greater scrutiny should be placed on their personal behavior than on that of other public figures. Far too often the admirers of such personalities are quick to offer knee-jerk defenses and excuses for spiritual leaders, as if the inspiration they provide compensates for their wrong-doing. An opposite approach is more appropriate in such instances: When suspicions and charges arise that challenge these leaders' moral standing, we would perhaps be wise to place a greater burden of proof on the accused, rather than on the alleged victims, than would normally be the case. To my regret, I didn't quite rise to that challenge as a journalist when it came to the case of Mordechai Gafni. It's a lesson that I - and many other people - would do well not to forget next time. The writer is former managing editor of The Jerusalem Post.