Monday, June 26, 2006

Still No Apology From ALEPH and Others Who Supported Marc Gafni

Jewish Renewal and Tikkun Magazine on the Case of Mordechai Gafni
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Tikkun of Sexual Misconduct Issues in Jewish Renewal
L’shem yichud: For the Sake of Divine Unity

by Sarah Stein and Raachel Nathan Jurovics
Tikkun, CA

In response to recent revelations of sexual misconduct and deceit by a rabbi [
Rabbi Mordechai Gafni] who in recent years has been a highly visible personality within the Jewish Renewal community, much has been spoken about the need within Jewish communities generally to safeguard students and congregants from predatory teachers. A clear demand has been voiced for open channels through which women who have experienced sexual harassment can register the abuse without fear of dismissal or recrimination. Renewal organizations have cut their ties to the admitted offender and engaged in a painful bout of soul-searching, some even raising concerns about the possibility that ecstatic Renewal spiritual practices contribute to the risk of interpersonal exploitation and abuse. Considerable discussion has also been generated about the illness of sexual predators, effective treatment, and the prognosis for rehabilitation.

In the current situation, as in previous instances when a trusted spiritual teacher betrayed that trust through sexual misconduct, the initial shock provoked us to confirm our understanding that when we talk of sexual abuse, we are always talking about violent expressions of power, not sexual desire or pleasure. We next turned to discussing the importance of insuring open channels of communication, first to acknowledge that, at a minimum, we must open our hearts to the painful stories of the victims, and second, to express our commitment to protect and rescue women from any future risks of predation. We even questioned, with an eye for complicity, the nature of interpersonal practices encouraged by our well-intentioned but deeply intimate study and prayer gatherings.

Our compassion also encompassed the perpetrator, as we know our own capacity for sinful behavior and our own struggles with mental disorders. We take to heart our tradition’s emphasis on confession as communal, and so we refused to pretend that the perpetrator-of-the-moment is the only one among us capable of exploitative behavior. Couching this phase of our discussion in terms of
sex addiction and illness represents a generous and necessary step in recognizing the possibility of treatment—however intractable such an addiction may prove to be.

Our discussion may not end here, however, if we seek a long-term tikkun. If we circumscribe our responses to the bounds of female protection and individual pathology—even while insistently excluding the perpetrator from any ongoing connection to Renewal—we reject the opportunity to ask how his acts can reveal structures of thought in Jewish teaching that enable and sustain inequitable power between men and women. The failure to address these aspects of Judaism makes us accomplices in any such future acts.

Jewish Renewal has, to its credit, done much to honor and to integrate the Jewish vocabulary of the Feminine Divine and of female spirituality into our ritual practices and theological teachings. Unfortunately, much of the deep mythical structure we refer to reflects the inherent patriarchy of our culture. Until we recognize in the core of our beings, in the core of our theology and practice, that She is integral to Divinity, that She cannot be separated from nor subordinate to any other element of the divine nature, that "meloh kol ha-aretz k'vodo" alludes to a unitary Divine Presence imbedded throughout all Four Worlds, we will continue to support a spiritual-intellectual-emotional-political system that subordinates the feminine and, in significant measure, lays the groundwork for the pathology we have seen acted out in our midst.

When we depict the Feminine Divine, the Shechinah, as exiled, we contribute to abuses of power such as those we have of late been deploring. How? By depicting her as other, as metaphorically apart from the masculine Godhead, as “weaker than,” as in need of rescue. We may not do this with the intention of modeling the subordination of the feminine, but the narrative explicitly draws from a cultural context we all recognize as disadvantaging the feminine in relationship to the normative masculine. We may think we retell this narrative in full awareness of our commitment to male-female equality, but the storyline betrays our progressive impulses. We image the Shechinah as separated from Ha Kadosh Boruch Hu. We take comfort in contemplating Her voluntary exile from the wholeness of God, undertaken out of compassion for our own exiles of geography and spirit. In grateful response, we seek to be agents of divine tikkun and reunification. As She collects klippot all week long, She depends on our Shabbat preparations to be made pure for her spouse, to be suitable for reunification. We accept our responsibility, for we recognize the klippot as the detritus left by human blindness to the radiance of divine will, leading us to act against our own wellbeing and that of all creation. Shomrei Shabbat make possible the Shechinah’s union and integration with her spouse each week; as the Feminine Divine is purified and made welcome, the klippot of the previous week disperse and, in a foretaste of redeemed time, space, and being, we celebrate the opportunity for human consciousness to continue its ascent.

Jews have for hundreds of years offered l’shem l’yichud kudsha brich hu u’sh’chinteh [for the sake of the unification of the Holy One and His Shechinah] as a kavannah for prayer and other mitzvot. It is now time, for the sake of our own spiritual expansion, to seek out the narrative, interpretive, mythical elements that will permit us to experience this profound kavannah as if fulfilled. It is time to taste the reality of a fully present divine Wholeness. At this moment of crisis, we are called by our increasing awareness of unjust inequalities to confront our complacency within the limitations of the inherited paradigm.

We cannot deny the power of previous theological paradigms, but we need to uncover a new one for the unfolding age. We recognize the healing truth in our sacred stories of divine separation and exile, yearning and return. We honor the spiritual solace and inspiration arising from imagining Divinity Itself as shattered by the obvious fragmentation of our world, as responding to dislocation as we do, with the soul-deep experience of existential division and the longing for reunification. As Reb Goldie Milgrom notes, the comfort derived from imagining such a manifestation of divine alienation, weeping and walking in exile along with us, does not depend on the manifestation’s representation as a female figure. Alenu: in our day, it is upon us to envision a more inclusive model, in the same way our predecessors repeatedly reinterpreted Scripture to sustain the integrity of Jewish teaching throughout history.

The more inclusive model we are on the verge of discerning does not preclude continued study, meditation, interpretation, or prayer based on any of the older models. For example, the erotic devotional imagery of Shir ha-Shirim will still inspire some of us, will still reflect some aspects of the limitless range of potential spiritual experience. Our individual encounters with Mystery will not yield to logic or restraint, any more than those of our ancestors did. How any one of us relates to the countless ways Divinity may manifest will remain personal and experiential, but we would be spiritually, intellectually, and politically naïve to pretend the social structures of our culture do not sometimes constrain our understanding within familiar, yet no longer accurate, patterns.

What happens when we contend that the Shechinah is not in exile, can never separate or split from the wholeness of God? First, we address a long-noted problem with the separation and return model—the challenge this model poses to the foundational assertion of divine Oneness:
The kabbalists . . . recognized the theological danger comprised in it [the problem of the unity of the Shekhinah with the other Sefirot], and in their considerations of mystical sin they gave first place—as “the root of rebellion” and as the heretical denial of the principle of the unity of God—to the view that the Shekhinah was a separate power, unconnected with the system of the Sefirot; but they did not deny the possibility of her separation from the system. The mystery of the mystical union is the mystery of the copulation of the Shekhinah with her husband Tif’eret, that is, of her integration into the system of the Sefirot without separation (see Zohar 1:12a, etc.), and the religious mission of man is to maintain this union with the kavvana of the prayer and the commandments.1

That is, it’s the unification, not the separation that we are to focus on, as so many of our holy teachers have insisted. “Ko’ach ha-Po’el benifal,” the power of the Creator resides within each created thing, says Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl: “God is the fullness of the world; there is no place empty of the divine. There is nothing besides God and everything that exists comes from God. And, for this reason, the power of the Creator resides within each created thing.” “Hu ha-Elohim ein od milvado,” God is God and there is nothing else (Deut. 4:35): says Shneur Zalman of Liady, “because all [the heavens and the earth] are within the dimension of space which is nullified within the being of the Light of Ayn Sof which clothes itself in God’s lowest level of manifestation, the sefirah of Malkhut, which is united in God.”2 Along with the myth of separation, we have inherited the insistent teaching that Divinity is found in the unity of its manifestations.
Second, in emphasizing unification over separation, we promote a new paradigm necessitated precisely by our commitment to male-female equality and we advance one of Jewish Renewal’s most powerful chidushim, innovations—the conscious pulling forward into our own day of spiritual insights and practices that remain vital and that hold the potential to invigorate Judaism’s evolving reality. The reality map that traced the cosmology of our ancestors drew comfort from the analogy of their exile to the exile of the Shechinah (identified often as a manifestation of the Household of Israel). Our new reality map must reflect our determination to reframe Jewish teaching so as to make real the truth that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim to the same degree, whether male or female—each form of human being created in the image of unified Divinity. As ezer k’negdo one human being to the other, we stand on level ground, panim el panim, heart to heart, at one in the One.

We can no longer avoid noticing that the myth of separation provides a convenient justification for the ongoing silencing and subjugation of women by reinforcing notions of male superiority and with it the potential for abuse. A diminished Shechinah explains the persistence of women in caretaking roles that leave them easy prey to exploitation at every level: physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. If we fail to engage this holy question seriously, we will abort the opportunity to look at the way that contemporary Judaism—despite the greater inclusion of women as clergy and teachers—does not adequately manifest the true integration and union of the Divine, and instead, maintains the conceptual split of the sacred into masculine and feminine metaphors that sustain inequity and hierarchy.

We propose exploring a new conceptual model, in which the Feminine Divine is always present, indwelling and never separate from the Whole. We can begin to ask, how does that change what is either sanctioned or tolerated in terms of the oppression of women’s lives? How does that change what can be rationalized to mandate the silencing of women as full spiritual authorities, equal to male voices? What shifts when we redefine “feminine” as anything a female does, as proposed by Prof. Carolyn Heilbrun (z”l) many years ago in her landmark book, Reinventing Womanhood? What happens when we look beyond physiology as a reality map, if we see beyond gender to a Place of respect for all its complex potentialities? What happens if we no longer postpone divine yichud to mashiachzeit, to the time of ultimate redemption, but experience it as a present spiritual reality?

We invite our beloved chevre to explore an emerging paradigm of the simultaneous divine masculine and feminine: let us consider what it might mean to understand the Feminine as so intertwined with the nature of creation that it—as do all the elements of Divinity—absorbs and transmits holy illumination in a process that transforms our lives, not only intellectually but in a far more integrated, organic, holistic way that we do not yet fully grasp. Our tradition transmits to us ample resources for shifting our theology and practices, and we have already begun to open up to the questions we need to ask. In Renewal circles, we hear constant expression of the yearning for reintegrating male and female, but unfortunately, we have already seen some men teach about integration of the Feminine Divine without simultaneously allowing the truth of those teachings to enter into their own body or surrendering to the radical upheaval that can follow. By not allowing the teaching to work in their own lives, such teachers fail to transform themselves, their students have no model for living into the meaning of what they have glimpsed, and nothing changes—although a surface ripple, a frisson of revelation, slides across our consciousness. Unless the Feminine Divine is embraced and integrated in a transformative way, the project of Jewish Renewal will share in the failure to welcome the Whole of the Unified, Fulfilled and Fulfilling Divinity we assert is clothed in the reality we inhabit.

In one of her more recent books, Karen Armstrong reminds us of perhaps the most brilliant element of our tradition, its respect for the holiness and power of interpretation. We know, more than many, that “there is never a single, orthodox version of a myth. As our circumstances change, we need to tell our stories differently in order to bring out their timeless truth.”3 One of the blessings of traditional wisdom, even when it may be temporarily suppressed, is that it carries forward the potential for its own reinterpretation, at such time as a need arises. We find ourselves in such a time. To address the most recent shocking predations only in terms of pathology and treatment (or even in terms of sin and t’shuvah) means that the opportunity for the Jewish Renewal community to look at embedded structural inequities is lost. An untrustworthy and abusive rabbi may well be ill; he has also been enabled to prey on his students as he has because he is male, in a power structure based on male privilege.

To derive healing from sorrow, we must remind ourselves of the wisdom of Job: “shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10) Our tradition and our commitment to its evolving vitality give us reason to take heart: in the past, moments of shattering have birthed us into times of re-creation, of renewed understanding, of revelation uncovered. At this time, conscious of our capacity to reinterpret our tradition into previously unrevealed forms—and aware that this effort may be more than the work of a single life-time—may we begin to raise the questions and seek the insights to re-imagine the “inside of the inside,” the spiritual reality we share with Divinity. May this difficult moment usher in a time of spiritual creativity and new growth, a time of wholeness and reconciliation rooted in a clearer vision of the One before us.

Sarah Stein, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Communication
Assistant Vice Provost Information Technology
North Carolina State University

Raachel Nathan Jurovics, Ph.D., Assistant Rabbi
Temple Beth Or, Raleigh, NC


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