Marc Gafni Scandals Are Only the Tip of a Melting Iceberg

Sex and the Spiritual Teacher author speaks out on the continuing abuse by spiritual teachers.

​Sex and the Spiritual Teacher author speaks out on the continuing abuse by spiritual teachers.

The December 26 New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer on controversial spiritual teacher Marc Gafni has generated intense and widespread reaction—from rabbis, other spiritual teachers, the media, and the blogosphere. Oppenheimer published a longer follow-up piece on Gafni three days later in Tablet Magazine, which has also garnered much attention. On December 30, a Change.org petition, initiated by Rabbi David​ Ingber, began circulating. The petition, signed by many prominent rabbis and other spiritual figures, highlights​ Gafni’s decades-long history of abuse, stands with his victims, and calls on those with institutional and financial connections with him to cut all ties. In under 24 hours, the petition generated over 1000 signatures and hundreds of responses from witnesses of Gafni’s abuse.

People find this hard to believe, but the percentage of spiritual teachers who are sociopaths or narcissists is higher than among bank tellers or gardeners or cooks.

Scott Edelstein, author of Sex and the Spiritual Teacher

But according to Scott Edelstein, author of the book Sex and the Spiritual Teacher (Wisdom Publications, 2011), Gafni’s misconduct has been visible—yet under the general public’s radar—for many years. “I’ve been observing Gafni’s activities for a long time. When he fled Israel, he was wanted by the police. He’s been barred from the Jewish meditation organization Elat Chayyim. His former publisher, Sounds True, removed his work from its catalog. The rabbi who ordained him rescinded the ordination. Some of his former supporters now take a firm stand against him. He’s not the kind of guy I’d want as my neighbor—let alone my spiritual teacher.”

Yet, Edelstein explains, Gafni is only one of many widely-known spiritual teachers who have multiple skeletons in their closets.

“I regularly get reports of spiritual teachers who have victimized their followers—especially sexually, but also financially and emotionally,” Edelstein says. “It’s an ongoing problem, and more and more people are coming forward to tell their stories.”

He adds, “People find this hard to believe, but the percentage of spiritual teachers who are sociopaths or narcissists is higher than among bank tellers or gardeners or cooks. The very role of spiritual teacher is profoundly attractive to many people with personality disorders—and those disorders often make them charming, charismatic, predatory, and abusive. It also makes some of them very good liars, who are able to cover up their abuses and fool intelligent people into believing them.”

As Edelstein explains, spiritual teachers aren’t like ordinary spiritual leaders. “Spiritual teachers don’t just marry, bury, and hold leadership roles. They work very closely, one-to-one, with their students or followers, and get to know their minds and hearts quite intimately. These relationships are similar to one between a psychotherapist and their clients—one involving a deep and abiding trust. That’s why so much more harm can be done when abuse occurs. The student doesn’t just think, ‘I’ll go find a safer church or synagogue or spiritual group.’ Instead, they often question the legitimacy of spirituality—or their own capacity for spiritual inquiry.”​ 

Edelstein stresses that the key to reducing spiritual teachers’ misconduct is changing our own attitudes and expectations toward them. “We need to understand in our guts that no matter how insightful a spiritual teacher may be, they are a human being, with human failings and limitations and vulnerabilities. If we imagine otherwise, we give them permission—and the power—to take advantage of us. First we become their enablers, then we become their victims. We need to hold spiritual teachers to the same standards of behavior as we do doctors and therapists. We also need to understand that a significant percentage of spiritual teachers—including some of the most famous and revered ones—are mentally ill. While the great majority of spiritual teachers are sane, honorable, and compassionate, we need to protect ourselves from the ones who are not.”

He adds, “When Catholic priests were first accused of sexually abusing children, especially boys, for years the world said, ‘No way. That can’t be.’ For years, people said the same thing about Bill Cosby’s behavior with women. Let’s not make the same mistake with spiritual teachers.”

Edelstein’s book, Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, examines spiritual teachers’ misconduct in detail. A sequel, Help on the Path: Down-to-Earth Wisdom for Anyone Who Wants (or Has) a Spiritual Teacher, will be published in 2016 by Wisdom Publications. He explains, “The upcoming book will help people be proactive—to spot potentially abusive or exploitive spiritual teachers early on—and to recognize our emotions and beliefs that can make us vulnerable to exploitation.” Edelstein’s website, sexandthespiritualteacher.com, also addresses issues of spiritual teachers’ misconduct.

Sex and the Spiritual Teacher is available wherever books are sold.

Sex and the Spiritual Teacher: Why It Happens, When It’s a Problem, and What We All Can Do is published by Wisdom Publications and distributed by Simon and Schuster. Cost is $16.95 and the ISBN is 9780861715961. 264 pages. 6x9”.

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Contact: Lydia Anderson, Wisdom Publications, landerson@wisdompubs.org, 617-776-7416 x27

Contact: Scott Edelstein, scott@scottedelstein.com, 952-928-1922

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