Spiritual Leaders Must Reaffirm Integrity after Gafni

By Rabbi Steven Fisdel
The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California
June 8, 2006

As a rabbi and a spiritual counselor by profession, I was both shocked and saddened to hear of the recent dismissal of Rabbi Mordechai Gafni from Bayit Chadash, the spiritual institute he founded, as a result of charges of sexual misconduct filed with the Israeli police by students and staff members.

Here was a brilliant scholar, who was heralded by many as one of the leading lights in the field of Jewish spirituality, as well as the director and chief teacher of an institute that was successfully introducing the essence of Jewish Renewal into Israeli society.

Tragically, here too was a man who violated a sacred trust and used his charisma and his influence as a spiritual leader to seduce a number of young women and exploit them sexually. A rabbi who then further transgressed Jewish law by imposing a vow of eternal silence on his victims in order to cover up these abuses and sins.

This is not the first of such cases to shock the Jewish world or touch the Bay Area. But it is important we learn from this tragic episode to help ensure it is the last.

Spiritual leaders and teachers hold a sacred responsibility by reason of their position of authority. Because of the stature which teachers and leaders are accorded, their words carry great weight and credibility. People accept what they say, take it to heart and act on it.

As Rabbi Jill Jacobs eloquently put it on "A certain amount of transference happens between an emotionally distressed congregant or a student newly immersed in Torah study and his/her seemingly omnipotent and omniscient rabbi. The vast majority of rabbis respond to this power differential by establishing and maintaining appropriate professional boundaries. Some, however, actively use their charisma to attract people to themselves, and to bring disciples past appropriate emotional, and sometimes sexual, boundaries."

It should be clear that anyone in a spiritual leadership position bears an enormous responsibility to adhere to the truth and must be held to the highest moral and ethical standards. People learn and follow from example and from instruction. In Judaism, if words of instruction mislead people into sin or create harm, the teacher is to be held responsible for all of the damage done as a result. How much more so in the case of immoral action!

In the case of a spiritual leader such as Rabbi Gafni, the level of damage is extensive. As a respected teacher, people placed their trust in the doctrines being taught and their faith in the hands of one who was speaking in the name of God. To violate that trust, either through personal agenda, manipulation, or exploitation, amounts to psychological, emotional and spiritual abuse.

Immoral behavior by clergy — be it physical or verbal in form — disturbs and disrupts the faith of the victims as well as bringing their belief in the truth of the Torah's teachings into question. This type of betrayal is mortifying and can interfere directly with a person's very relationship to God, since psychological injury caused by a spiritual leader is frequently experienced as betrayal by the Divine.

In the resulting cascade of shock, pain and anger, one does not know what to believe. The victim is at a loss as to where to place his or her faith. The sense of violation is enormous. If you cannot trust the messenger, how can you trust the message?

What ensues is a widening circle of destruction on the emotional and spiritual planes. If a rabbi or spiritual leader acts corruptly, the actions themselves discredit not only the perpetrator, but also cast aspersions on Torah itself. This is one of the most insidious forms of Hillul HaShem, the profanation of God's name.

I believe that the central lesson we must all take from the Gafni tragedy is that, in the world of Jewish spirituality, there is great danger in promoting unchecked charismatic leadership, and we need to be wary. Charismatic rabbis tend to attract disciples, and the power they have over them creates the opportunity for serious emotional and psychological abuse.

This type of leadership also places far too much importance on the "holy rebbe," and far too much emphasis on the views, the intellectual prowess, the emotional energy and the unique personality of a given individual without a full accounting of that person's strengths and weaknesses, or a system of checks and balances in place to ensure he or she is operating from a position of spiritual and emotional integrity.

Rabbis, spiritual leaders and teachers need to be crystal clear that the work we do — to promote peace, bring comfort, teach Torah and empower others to develop spiritually — must not be "about us" or "getting our needs met." It should have nothing to do with our egos, our wants, our desires or even our aspirations. And if we lose sight of that truth, like Rabbi Gafni, we open ourselves up to the corruptive influence of self-importance.

The Holy One enjoined us in the Torah not to stray after what our eyes see or be seduced by what our hearts lust for. Those are the paths that lead away from the Divine.

Our visions, our intentions, our hopes and our dreams are less than meaningless if they are not focused on being vessels for the light of the Divine will. That light is true spirituality and is based on complete moral integrity. None of us are larger than life. None of us ever will be. The danger sets in when we begin to believe we are or when others convince us that we are.

Authentic spiritual leadership is born out of humility. This is a core lesson we must take away from Rabbi Gafni's tragic story.

Rabbi Steven Fisdel is the co-founder of the Center for the Healing Process in Palo Alto. He lives in Berkeley.


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