Friday, January 9, 2009

Choose a Mentor Carefully

In the mid ‘90’s, the shining star on the Jerusalem spiritual scene was Moredechai Gafni, an Orthodox Rabbi from America. His weekly lectures on the Biblical portion of the week attracted hundreds of devotees, who crowded into the Hildesheimer synagogue in the German Colony. His approach to the Bible text was innovative, literary, psychological, mystical, personal. His lectures were well-organized, and his delivery was almost theatrical, as he paced about the podium, his voice rising to a shout or lowering to a whisper to convey his message.

I was one of those devotees, making it a point to attend every lecture. Today, more than a decade later, it's hard to find people who will admit to this. Over time, Rabbi Gafni's lectures became more and more idiosyncratic, focusing on erotic themes that made most of his audience uncomfortable, and preaching a philosophy of self-fulfillment that bordered on hedonism. Eventually, he left the fold of Orthodox Judaism, and became a sort of Jewish Revival spiritual leader, with his own best-selling self-help book, a pop spirituality television series, and a cult-like community in Jaffa. A few years ago, it all came apart, as Gafni was accused of sexual impropriety with some of his female followers. He published a hasty apology letter and left Israel overnight, disappearing from sight, seeking refuge with New Age friends in Utah. Recently he has re-surfaced as Dr. Marc Gafni, a guru of "evolutionary spirituality" for the masses, complete with a sincere defense of his right as a spiritual leader to seduce his followers.

My purpose in writing this is not to skewer Marc Gafni - there are many other bloggers, such as Luke Ford, who fill this role admirably. It's a free country, and anyone who chose to subscribe to his teachings did so from their own free will. Instead, I’d like to describe my own process of leaving Marc Gafni behind, of rejecting him as an influence on my life.

One evening, I came home from a Gafni lecture visibly disturbed. “What’s bothering you?” my wife asked. “Well,” I responded, “I just heard a brilliant lecture that turned everything I ever thought about Esau upside down.” My wife was puzzled. “Sounds exciting. So what’s bothering you?” “Rabbi Gafni never mentions a single source,” I replied. “He must be basing himself on some other commentaries or teachers. But he never quotes anyone else. He always makes it sound like it’s all his original ideas, and that just can’t be. What do the Sages say in Ethics of the Fathers? ‘One who quotes a teaching in the name of the person who said it, brings redemption to the world.’ That’s the style of teaching I’m used to, where people quote their sources. Look, if I was eating a cookie, I’d check to see where it came from, what the ingredients are. I need to be at least that careful when I ingest ideas – where do they come from?” (Note: As it turns out, according to Luke Ford, Gafni was paying a student to transcribe tapes of lectures from other great teachers in Jerusalem, so that Gafni could present the ideas as his own.)

Several months later, I attended a small afternoon class given by Rabbi Gafni, at his Mila Institute. Before we got started, he went around the room, asking each person to introduce himself. When it was my turn, I said “My name is Moshe Kranc, and I am Vice President of Product Development at Accent Software.”

Rabbi Gafni interjected, “I see that it’s very important to you that you’re a Vice President.” I had to admit that his insight was spot-on – the title was indeed important to me.

Gafni continued, “You know, I also used to work in hi-tech, but I decided it wasn’t my calling. Let me tell you how it happened. I used to be in charge of marketing at a hi-tech company in Har Hotzvim, and I’d walk home every night. One evening, I passed by the Great Synagogue just as a class was finishing. There were thousands of people streaming out of the building, all talking about the lecturer's brilliant talk. I said to myself, ‘I could give a class like that! I could draw a crowd like that!’ At that moment, I decided to leave hi-tech and become a teacher.”

My jaw dropped. That was his motivation for teaching? Not a desire to enlighten or help people, just self-aggrandizement. I felt like an object, being used to further Gafni’s ego. I left the class, and never went back.

Subsequent events have proven that decision to be correct. (I’ve made lots of bad decisions as well, but I’ll save those for next week’s blog entry. :-) ) I tell this story because I think it has applications beyond choosing which classes to attend. In life, we all choose our mentors, those people who we allow to shape our opinions and decisions. It might be a spiritual leader, a professor, a manager at work. Before you “hand the keys” over to a mentor, be sure to ask some hard questions: Where do his insights come from? What is his motivation for wanting to be my mentor? If you don’t have clear answers that resonate with you, walk away, and look for a better mentor.

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