This week's portion: rest for the land.
Report from rab school, nine months in.


2015: Edited to add - here is ALEPH's formal statement on the resurgence of Marc Gafni.

Once upon a time there was a restaurant where we loved to eat. The proprietor/chef was a big, burly fellow with a brilliant smile who clearly loved to cook and to share his food with people who enjoyed it. He always greeted us with a smile and a hearty handshake or arm clasp. Sometimes he brought us little treats at the table. He made specials for us that weren't on the menu -- I can still taste that wide, flat pasta with wild mushrooms and truffle oil! We didn't really know the guy, but he made beautiful food with generosity of spirit, and we were fond of him.

One day we read in the paper that the guy was in jail for beating his wife. We were horrified -- first to think that something so terrible had happened to the pleasant blond hostess who seated us, and then to realize that we had been so wrong about the man. His cooking was so sublime, and his air of geniality so palpable, that we thought we knew him. Realizing the enormity of what we had not known was painful.

The liberal Jewish blogosphere is abuzz this week with the news that a noted teacher, Marc/Mordechai Gafni, has been ousted from the congregation he helped to found -- and has fled Israel for the United States -- on account of three charges of sexual and psychological abuse. 

The news has prompted a flurry of letters, announcements, pronouncements. "Once again we face the news that a position of spiritual leadership has been turned into a platform for sexual abuse," writes Rabbi Arthur Waskow. "I hardly need to say how sad, how angry, and how betrayed Gafni's behavior makes me feel..." Gafni has responded to the allegations, saying, "I take full responsibility for all the pain I have inflicted. Clearly all of this and more indicates that in these regards I am sick. I need to acknowledge that sickness and to get help for it..." There are at least half a dozen posts about this at Jewschool (find them by scrolling to the bottom of this initial post), and it's starting to appear in the mainstream Jewish media, too.

The whole thing makes me heartsick. My empathy is first for the women who were coerced and abused. I can't imagine the psychological trauma of being abused by a trusted spiritual leader. I am thankful that these women found the strength to speak out. I pray for their healing and recovery from what they have endured.

I have never encountered Gafni, either via his books or in person. (It now looks likely that I never will; Aleph has established firmly that he will not be permitted to teach in any venue associated with Aleph, and he has also been barred from Elat Chayyim.) But the Renewal world isn't large; surely some of my friends have studied with him. Certainly some of my teachers know him, and trusted him, and presumably cared for him. I feel empathy for them, too. I remember what it was like to discover that the restaurateur whose food we so gratefully savored had done a terrible thing -- the sense of betrayal, the pit-of-the-stomach misery of knowing that we had misjudged someone in a profound way. People I know and love in my religious community are feeling that now.

I said at Danya's blog yesterday that I wasn't going to write about this. I wasn't sure I had anything to add to the debate, which is flying fast and furious: should the Renewal world have known he was an abuser sooner? Is his apology genuine? Are other Renewal rabbis doing enough to distance themselves from him? What does the Jewish world's discomfort with this subject and this story say about our unwillingness to listen to the stories of the disempowered, female victims of sexual violence among them, and how does this story illustrate the awful consequences of excessive veneration of our leaders? And so on.

But the poet Jason Shinder, one of my advisors in graduate school, used to say "whatever gets in the way of the work is the work." This week, this story is getting in the way of the work I want and need to be doing. This story is like a lump in my throat that keeps me from swallowing or speaking. So this morning I'm writing about it.

I still don't think I have anything to add to the conversation, except my deep sorrow and anger. (And my frustration with the reality that some people are using this incident as pretext to declare Jewish Renewal beyond the pale -- not surprising, but saddening, and inappropriate.) May the Source of peace bring healing to the women who have been wronged, and to everyone who trusted this man and now feels betrayed -- and to Gafni himself, who is surely sick. May this story open our eyes to dark places which need light. And may we, the greater Jewish community, find a way to deal with this which doesn't split us further.

 2015: Edited to add - here is ALEPH's formal statement on the resurgence of Marc Gafni.