Controversial Marc Gafni is “a bold visionary,” says Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey, a proponent of “conscious capitalism.”
PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. — In his home office overlooking Monterey Bay, Marc Gafni is trying to remake American spirituality. He reads, he writes and he works to bring a little-known philosophy called “integral theory” into the mainstream of New Age.
Integral theory “is based on the understanding that evolution itself is an expression of a spiritual universal force of creation embodied in each one of us as us, as unique selves,” said futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard, who described Gafni as a leader of the movement.
The members of Gafni’s think tank, the Center for Integral Wisdom, and their projects are drawn from the worlds of medicine, yoga, meditation and the business-ethics movement known as “conscious capitalism.”
“We take the best of all the major disciplines of wisdom from the premodern period, the modern period and postmodern period,” Gafni said. “And we integrate them in a kind of renaissance project.”
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A co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, a proponent of conscious capitalism, calls Gafni “a bold visionary.” Mackey is a chairman of the executive board of Gafni’s center, and he hosts board meetings at his Texas ranch. The Whole Foods website shows a seven-part video series of conversations between the two men.
New-media pioneer Arianna Huffington spoke, via teleconference, at Gafni’s invitation-only conference last year. Author John Gray has asked Gafni to help write a sequel to “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”
But the growing prominence of Gafni, 55, and his think tank has alarmed many Jewish leaders who know him as a former rabbi who was accused of sexually exploiting a high-school freshman and who then moved to Israel to start a mystical community, only to lose it after having affairs with followers.
Gafni, who talked about his past during several interviews, and his supporters say he has put all of that behind him. He said old claims against him were all exaggerated, the result of professional resentment, and he had been the victim of pseudofeminist witch hunts.
Ken Wilber, considered the modern founder of integral theory, started the think tank with Gafni. Wilber said that before forming a partnership with Gafni, he researched the reports about Gafni and commissioned an employee to investigate. In the end, Wilber concluded Gafni was, at worst, “insensitive as a boyfriend.”
“Marc has a lot of Shakti,” Wilber said, using a Sanskrit word for energy. “I don’t think he understood the impact it had on people.”
Gafni was born Mordechai Winiarz to an Orthodox Jewish family in Pittsfield, Mass., in 1960. His family moved to Ohio, and he attended an Orthodox Jewish high school in New York City.
“He was one of the most brilliant students I have ever taught,” said Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who ordained Gafni but later rescinded the ordination.
After high school, Gafni stayed in New York to study. In a 2004 article in The Jewish Week about Gafni, a woman said he repeatedly forced her to have sex over a nine-month period beginning in 1980, when she was 13.
“He told me that if I told anyone, I would be shamed in the community,” The Jewish Week quoted the woman as saying.
Gafni was quoted as saying that they had been in love. He added: “She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.”
In a recent interview, the woman, who asked not to be identified, said she stood by her account from 2004 and that the encounters were not consensual.
In 1986, when Gafni was working for Jewish Public School Youth, an outreach program, a 16-year-old girl accused him of climbing into bed with her naked while she was staying with him and his wife.
“He stalked me for years afterward,” said the woman, Judy Mitzner, who recently wrote about the episode.
Gafni said recently it was “a one-time event” and that Mitzner, who was “highly initiatory,” came on to him.
Mitzner said that was not true. “I never initiated anything with him,” she said.
No charges were filed in either case.
Gafni moved to Israel in 1988 and changed his name from Winiarz to Gafni — from a Polish cognate for vine, or wine, to a Hebrew one. He became a popular teacher and briefly had an Israeli television show.
About 2000, with two other rabbis, Gafni started Bayit Chadash, or New Home, a community that held classes and weekend retreats focused on mysticism and creative worship.
“I had known some of the stuff around him,” said Jacob Ner-David, one of his co-founders, adding that, when asked, Gafni admitted “a monogamy problem.”
In 2006, while Gafni was in the United States, Bayit Chadash held a meeting at which several women claimed he had been sleeping with each of them and that he had insisted each keep the affairs secret. Bayit Chadash soon folded.
Several former friends said dishonesty and manipulation, not promiscuity, upset them most.
“He swore to me that he never would sleep with students,” said Ebn Leader, a friend of Gafni’s in Israel and now a professor at Hebrew College, near Boston. “And when the Bayit Chadash thing exploded, he claimed, ‘I was doing this, yes, but it was consensual.’ ”
Gafni disputed Leader’s comment. “I did not,” he said, “represent myself as someone who didn’t sleep with students.” He said he had asked lovers not for “secrecy” but for “privacy.”
Gafni published an online apology after leaving Israel and moving to Utah.
“Clearly all of this and more indicates that in these regards I am sick,” Gafni wrote. More recently, Gafni wrote that he regretted the apology and wrote it only to avoid “sensationalist conflict.”
In Utah, Gafni expanded his interests in non-Jewish mystical movements. He made an eclectic group of friends, including Rocky Anderson, the former mayor of Salt Lake City, who wrote a magazine article defending Gafni. Anderson said he now regretted the article and that Gafni had plagiarized material from High Road for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization Anderson founded.
Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi, who teaches in Tel Aviv, said a version of one of his Hebrew-language articles turned up as a chapter in one of Gafni’s English books, “The Mystery of Love,” without proper attribution. Gafni said he did not commit plagiarism.
Whole Foods’ Mackey and Gray, the author, declined interview requests. Huffington said Mackey introduced her to Gafni, whom she said she had “only met once.”
Adam Bellow, who is on the Center for Integral Wisdom’s board, agrees with co-founder Wilber, saying Gafni did not understand the charisma he has been given. He said Gafni’s past had been exaggerated.
But one Gafni supporter, yoga instructor Sally Kempton, who is a member of the think tank, said Gafni was not someone “who young, susceptible women should take as their teacher.”
Gafni, divorced three times, said any mistakes might have occurred because he was in denial about his polyamorous nature.
“It’s kind of like being a gay guy in the ’50s,” he said. He now lives with his partner, Lori Galperin, a psychotherapist who is on the board of Gafni’s center.
“I think that one of the things that I’ve learned a lot about over the years,” he said, “is to take more and more responsibility for my impact on people.”