To watch Marc Gafni teaching is like watching a spiritual juggler working with fireballs. He’s an electrifying speaker, larger than life teacher, made for the big stage, yet able, in a small room, to draw a group into a shared experience of community and insight. One-on-one, his students attest, he can be a catalyst for life-changing transformation. By turns challenging and tender, Marc ranges comfortably through a forest of references–quoting Aramaic texts and Jung, drawing on films and popular songs, throwing out insights like sparklers. When you come away from spending an hour with him, you’ll often find yourself looking at an old subject in an entirely new way.
In the world of Jewish scholarship, Marc was long regarded as one of the most brilliant text scholars and teachers of his generation. His re-readings of Hebrew wisdom texts influenced thousands of students of Judaism; many of his former students continue to reflect his teachings and style. As a rabbi, he focused on connecting young, secular Israelis to the mysticism of their own tradition. He succeeded in creating a popular mystical movement in Israel, where Sabbath gatherings included cutting edge insight along with powerful song and dance. His own inner identity and teaching gradually evolved from a traditional Orthodox Judaism to a far wider and more integral form of spirituality. His recent work centers upon a think tank called the Center for Integral Wisdom, which aims at creating a framework for integrating the wisdom of the religious traditions with cutting edge psychological, scientific and political insights. He’s written ten books, and maintains an intense schedule of private students, family commitments, retreat teaching and movement building.
On a deeper level, Marc is a man committed to an evolutionary journey grounded in radical love for the world. The journey has taken him, by stages, from Modern Orthodox Judaism into a leadership role with Ken Wilber in articulating an Integral Evolutionary Spirituality.
I write as a friend. My perspective on Marc Gafni, and everything I have to say in this essay, comes from having known and worked with him closely for more than eight years. I’ve seen Marc’s natural gifts as a teacher deepened by the profound inner work he has done during the years I’ve known him. More than that, I’ve seen his commitment to keeping his heart open and his spirit buoyant. And, over and over again, I’ve enjoyed his capacity to tenderize hearts, and put people in touch with their own love.
In a recent retreat talk, he said, “We live in world of outrageous pain. The only response to outrageous pain is outrageous love. What is the path of the outrageous lover? To commit acts of outrageous love. And what is the first act of outrageous love that you might commit. Write an outrageous love letter… And then awaken to realize that you are an outrageous love letter.”
Marc’s life calls all who meet him, to love outrageously.
This, in fact, is the path he walks himself. Marc’s life is very much an outrageous love letter.
Let’s begin with Marc’s teaching. Along with his work on classical Hebrew texts, Marc is best known to date for six sets of insights.
First is his teaching on Unique Self enlightenment, most fully developed in his award-winning 2012 book, Your Unique Self: The Radical Path to Personal Enlightenment, (Integral Publishers 2011) and in a special issue of Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, peer reviewed Journal, 2011).The root of this teaching is first articulated by Marc in his two volume magisterial work, Radical Kabbalah. Marc first put this teaching into the world, against the conventional wisdom of virtually all other teachers in the late nineties. He taught it all over the world time and again. Today it is held by many teachers and students as a core evolution of enlightenment teaching. The gist of it is this: Marc intuits that after full impersonal enlightenment, a trans-egoic yet irreducibly unique personal essence quality emerges in us. He describes this unique self as an expression of the evolving divine, which “wakes up in you, as you, and through you,” — a radically personal self that emerges from the enlightened state and is a unique expression of enlightenment. He often says that this self never was, is or will be ever again, and that it has its own unique gifts and obligations. Marc in a key work called Self, Two Models of Evolutionary Mysticism challenges the impersonal teachings which have dominated evolutionary spirituality and points to the personal quality of essence that lives beyond the impersonal, what he calls the personal face of the evolutionary impulse. The earliest version of this teaching was published by Marc in SoulPrints (Simon and Schuster, 2001).
His second major teaching–emerging as an evolution of western and eastern esotericsm — is that Eros is an essential component of the sacred. Marc describes ten qualities of Eros which emerge in an awakened life. Marc charts in great depth the relationship between all dimensions of life and intimacy, describing eros as the animating energy in every arena of life. Essential to Marc’s teaching is that God is Eros. Eros means full and radical aliveness. He teaches that every single moment is either open or closed. Every moment is either loved open to God or remains closed. To be awake means to receive the unique quality and gifts in every moment, to let the new moment love you open, and to love every new moment open and give your unique gifts into that moment. That is what it means he says “to align with the evolutionary impulse and live an eros drenched life”. The first version of this teaching was published in his seminal work, Mystery of Love (2003) and in a cover article in Tikkun Magazine, On the Erotic and the Ethical (2004).
His third major teaching and latest work explores a set of principles for what he and Ken Wilber call a “World Spirituality based on Integral principles”–that is, a spirituality that includes the essential principles of the religious traditions, but that also integrates the understandings of contemporary science and psychology, as well as the enduring insights of modernism and post-modernism. A World Spirituality Practice book is forthcoming (2015) as well as a book with Ken Wilber on Wake Up, Grow Up, Show Up: A Users Guide to the Universe. (2015).
His fourth set of teachings focus on emotions,Integral Religion and the reclaiming of Ritual. The first book published in this vein is a major work on the nature of crying and Integral Religion. It is entitled, Tears: Integral Religion, Ritual and Rosh Hashanna.
His most recent teachings, the fifth set of teachings, which animate all the others, I have already referred to above, the teaching of Outrageous Love as a response to Outrageous Pain and the practice of writing of Outrageous Love Letters to awaken to the way of the Outrageous Lover. These will be the subject of a set of books on Outrageous Love.
The final and sixth set of teachings to date, articulated together with Ken Wilber, John Mackey, Kate Maloney and others is a re-visioning of the core cultural category of Success. The core principles are Wake Up, Grow, and Show Up. Wake Up to the larger context of life, Grow Up in psychological maturity and higher levels of consciousness and Show Up by living your Unique Self and giving Your Unique Gifts.
An outstanding teacher is outstanding because s/he teaches what s/he most deeply lives. Marc can teach about the uniqueness of the self, the centrality of Eros, Outrageous Love, Tears, Success, and the need for a global spirituality because he lives them.
In this piece, I’ll explain what some of this means in practice.
There’s little question in my mind that part of Marc’s teaching on unique self was inspired by his personal experience. A piece of Marc Gafni’s uniqueness is his ability to function simultaneously through the intellect and the heart. He reads widely, thinks systematically and debates masterfully. (A colleague jokes, “Give Marc a topic and he’ll give you 12 numbered insights about it.”) But unlike many other intellectually brilliant people, he is fluent in the language of feeling. He connects to people through the heart. In the years since I’ve known Marc, I’ve consistently seen him reach out to befriend people. He has a genuine concern for people who are hurting, and seems to have the ability to see the beauty in almost anyone. To use Malcolm Gladwell’s word, Marc is a connector. He brings people together, and he can show them how to appreciate each other’s unique qualities. He is also radically generous to everyone in his circle and beyond with both his time, heart and money.
All this is part of Marc’s commitment to expressing Eros.
The word “Eros,” in its original meaning, refers to the life-force itself, the quality in reality that the Hindus call “Shakti”–that dazzling, effervescent sparkle that connects all beings as the force that cosmologist Brian Swimme calls “allurement”. Eros expresses itself in language, in art, in a fully alive body. People with strong Eros often have a strong sexual drive. But they are just as likely to express their Eros through conversation, or other forms of personal communion. Marc often says that though the sexual models the erotic, it doesn’t even begin to exhaust the erotic.
Eros can be present in any encounter, if the people involved are willing to bring enough presence to it. Futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard recently defined such encounters as ‘supra-sexual,’ meaning that there is a deep, merging of minds and energies between people that can take place over ideas, conversation, or working together, or in a teacher-student contact. Marc’s teaching as well as his personal encounters often have that particular quality of presence.
And, he is audacious. Here’s a story that is typically Gafni. When Marc was 24, he ran a youth movement that aimed at reconnecting alienated Jewish kids to their spiritual roots in dozens of public and private schools in New York. It became, according to one newspaper article, one the most successful Jewish outreach initiatives of its time. Once, Marc went to ask a famous Wall Street financier for a large donation to support the group.
Gafni walked into the trading floor of this man’s powerful Wall Street firm. The CEO, seated on the larger chair in the middle of the trading floor, was himself known for his provocative audacity. He told Marc he had two minutes to make his case. Marc did so and the man responded, loudly, “I don’t believe in God. I think God is a crock of … So why should I give money to your religious program?”
Everyone on the trading floor laughed. Marc responded “Are you willing to make a bet with me? Ten thousand dollars on the line?” As the financier later told the story, he agreed. Marc continued, “Give me an hour to convince you that God exists. If I can convince you, you give me $10,000. If I can’t, I’ll give you $10,000.” The financier assented, and ended by giving Marc the donation. Marc had convinced him that God exists–a good thing, because if he had lost the bet, there was no way he could have paid it off!
That incident might give you a sense both of Marc’s audacity and of the scope of his gifts. Perhaps the financier was touched by Marc’s boldness. But there was a bit more to it. The financier and Marc became friends. What began as a business encounter became something more intimate.
You could write off Marc’s capacity to make friends with people to charm, or charisma. But the deeper truth is that Marc connects with people because in some sense, he falls in love with people. Marc has the rare gift of being able to see through people’s masks, into their secret yearnings, and to discern their special gifts and their unique wounds. Marc naturally connects with powerful people because they recognize him as a peer, they sense his integrity, and are correctly moved by his vision and goodness.
Here’s another story.
In 2006, Marc was in Salt Lake. After suffering a set of false attacks during a difficult time he was in almost continual emotional pain and heartbreak. One day, late for an important appointment upon which his future safety and teaching seemed to depend, he was waiting for a bus in 104-degree desert weather. He had just realized that the bus wasn’t coming and that he was not going to be able to make the appointment. It felt like the last straw.
Just as he was about to trudge away, a car pulled up. A middle aged woman leaned out and said, ‘That bus doesn’t run anymore. Where are you going?” He told her. “Ok,” she said. “Get in. Something just told me I should stop for you.”
Gratefully, he got in the car, and she drove him into the city. As they drove, she began telling him about her life. It was a painful life, full of heartbreak, and a recent separation from her husband. He listened quietly, as he does with many people, He forgot about his own predicament as he entered in world and her story. As they drove up to Marc’s destination, the woman said, with tears in her eyes, ‘I’ve never felt quite like this with anyone. Who are you, the high priest?” She was referring to the priest in the Mormon temple, one of whose functions is to be the witness to others, and to hold their pain.
This woman’s experience is not uncommon for people who spend time with Marc. I have seen him enter someone’s story in this way many times. Friends know that even when Marc is distracted, wildly busy or even fearful, he is nearly always willing and able to drop into a space of deep listening. He does this with friends and strangers, and as a result, people often feel heard by him in a way that is not common in their lives. Women talk to him like a girlfriend. Men bond with him over ideas. Strangers tell him their life-stories. Marc can hold others’ vulnerability because he is willing to be vulnerable himself. His intellectual precision is aligned with an unusual capacity for empathy.
Shortly after I first met Marc, I sat next to him on a panel of teachers. In contrast to the other teachers, who were all somewhat stiff in their dignity, Marc was openly friendly, as if we’d known each other for years. Having known many kind but impersonal spiritual teachers (and being that sort of impersonal teacher myself!) I was struck by how personal Marc’s kindness felt. I remember actually reminding myself that his friendliness should not be regarded as ‘special’ to me, that it was clearly a quality of his realization, this sincere ability to make a near-stranger feel like a friend.
What I didn’t see then, but have come to know since, is that his feeling towards me was ‘special.’ He’s one of those rare human beings who can have intimate, loving relationships with many people. They are rarely sexual in any physical sense. But they are often erotically tinged, and can have a romantic flavor. When he says “I love you,” (which he says often, and to many of the people in his circle), he means it. However–and this, for many people, is the rub— when he says ‘I love you’, he doesn’t mean “I love only you.” This can be disconcerting to someone who is looking for an exclusive relationship, and it’s been a major source of conflict in Marc’s life. Yet the boundless quality of his lovingness is actually one of the clues as to his particular uniqueness of spirit.
Over the years, I’ve come to see Marc Gafni as an expression of the archetypal energy that in the Indian tradition is associated with Krishna. According to master depth psychologist CG Jung, many people have a natural affinity with a divine archetype. He himself described archetypes like the Divine Child, the Old Man, and others. Other Jungians, along with mythologists like Jean Houston, have taken this idea farther, writing about the Greek deity figures like Athena and Mars as archetypes in the unconscious.
In Indian religious myth, Krishna is considered a human ‘avatar’ of the god Vishnu, who incarnates the love-energy that sustains the cosmos. Best known in the west as the teacher who imparts to his disciple Arjuna the secrets of yoga in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna was also a king, a master strategist, a skilled warrior, and above all, a lover. He had many lovers–some texts say thousands— each of whom felt uniquely loved by Krishna. He was also highly controversial. Sages and other wise people of his time recognized Krishna as a great statesman and teacher. But he had many bitter enemies, especially rival kings. Other leaders did everything they could to bring him down, blacken his name, and even destroy him.
One of the subtle secrets revealed by the Krishna archetype is that love trumps convention. Krishna’s relationships crossed boundaries of custom and class, and in every case, drew these people into a deeper relationship with the divine within themselves and also in the world. St Augustine’s teaching “Love God and do as you will,” is a radical position, which can certainly be misunderstood and used for unfortunate ends. But it is also a truth that is essential for an alive religious practice. Ecstatic ritual, dance, chanting, and profoundly heart-centered relationships between devotees and god, between members of a community, and between participants in communal singing and discussion–all these are a crucial component of religious expression, and they are all powered by Eros as well as Spirit. An individual who is able to transmit love as a force for sacred awakening can have a profoundly positive effect on the lives of people who can receive and practice with it–the more so when he is a public teacher. But there are inherent risks attendant on that gift. People who carry it often don’t recognize their own power, and usually have to go through a maturation process before they learn to modulate it. And people who receive that awakening can often have the awakened love hijacked by their own emotional wounds. So awakeners are often misunderstood, especially when others don’t fully understand the process that is going on.
One of the best descriptions of the transpersonal aspect of the lover/beloved phenomenon was written by the writer and wilderness guide, Trebbe Johnson. In her book The World is a Waiting Lover, she speaks eloquently about her own experience of falling in love with an unavailable lover, and realizing that he had come into her life as a pointer to the inner Beloved. Using myth and Jungian psychology as well as her own experience, she points out that when we fall in love with another person, they often come into our lives not because we’re meant to marry them or even have a traditional love-affair, but to reveal to us that we actually carry love within ourselves. However, to recognize that an external beloved is guiding us towards the inner Beloved, requires that we face into our own illusions and expectations. And often, to come to that realization requires that we move through heartbreak.
A person who carries the Krishna archetype can serve for many people as the one who awakens them to the inner Beloved–some with whom he is personally intimate, but many others with whom he is not.
But the capacity to kindle love can be risky–both to the person who offers the awakening, and to the person who experiences it. When the heart opens, whatever is inside it is revealed. Because so many of us are wounded, and because our wounded hearts often carry unspoken but deeply seated feelings of resentment, shame and betrayal, those shadow feelings can turn on the very person who has awakened our love. This often happens to spiritual teachers, even when they are not personally involved with their students. Most people don’t understand that someone who kindles love in their heart may be serving a transpersonal rather than a purely personal function. Even the person who holds that power may not fully understand it, as I believe was Marc’s case for many years.
When we don’t realize that our feelings of love may be pointing us towards our interior love-source rather than a romantic engagement, or a hyper-personal involvement with a teacher or mentor, we can feel angry or betrayed by a relationship that doesn’t meet our expectations. Our childhood wounds will then constellate around the person who has kindled our love. Especially when that person makes us feel ‘seen’ for our unique self, we may want to possess that person, to have a more or less exclusive relationship. If that person is unavailable, or only partially available, or when we see that there are other people in his life who have the same type of relationship, those childhood feelings of heartbreak surface, and we feel resentful, hurt.
This is especially true when that person is a human being with the usual human flaws and personal wounds. Krishna was a god, who was essentially invulnerable to anything his adversaries could throw at him. But a human being who carries the Krishna archetype also has all the frailty and fragility of the human heart. He has his own shadow, his own immature qualities and broken places. If that person is a public figure, he is particularly vulnerable to projection. What this means of course, is that a teacher or public figure has to be especially discerning in his or her relationships. Marc’s situation is complicated by the fact that personal affection and love is at the core of the healing he offers to students. He has had to learn, often the hard way, to work only with students who are able to hold the paradox of an encounter that is both personal and transpersonal in nature. Even in his friendships, he has had to learn that same discernment.
And he learned these lessons in a hard school. One price he paid for his out-of-the-box lifestyle been a level of character assassination that is shocking even in this age of casual media slander. The most glaring happened in Israel in 2006, when two people in his inner circle falsely claimed that they had been sexually harassed by him.
They were supported by competitors who had long wanted him off the scene. The complaints were taken as true by leaders in his community, who backed his accusers without ever having talked to Marc. There was no investigation then or later, nor was there any attempt to check the facts. Instead, sensational stories appeared in the press and were then spread by internet commentators and bloggers. The result was that Marc lost contact with the spiritual community he had founded, as well as his home in Israel, his girlfriend, and his ability to write and teach in key sectors of his Jewish community. Yet, when the email correspondence between Marc and these women is examined, they show that each relationship was mutual and loving and described as such by both people at the time of the engagement. And this is only one piece of evidence that, if looked at objectively, makes it clear that though there were relationships, there was no basis for the complaints.
Mariana Caplan has written a full and nuanced account of the situation and the cocktail of variables that came together to cause this injustice. Her essay is on the phenomenon of false complaints, and the hidden shadow motives and players that often underlie them, and uses Marc’s story as its core example. It is important reading for anyone interested in the dynamic of a story based tragically on false complaints. Even Mariana’s excellent account doesn’t reveal the key people and some of the ulterior hidden motives behind those close to Marc who initiated, encouraged or supported the original complaints. Why not? Because Marc had refused to attack any of his former friends–neither the women, the usual disaffected former colleagues and students who egged them on, nor the friends who refused to check the facts. It is not unusual for a charismatic teacher to have disaffected colleagues and students.
However, a few special ingredients were required to mix this particular brew.
Long before the events in Israel, Marc’s intensity, his postconventional lifestyle, and the radical and aflame quality of his teaching were often the subject of gossip, both positive and negative. Even now, his relationships and motivations are dissected by others–both in public and in private—with voyeuristic intensity. Marc, like Bill Clinton, is gregarious, highly verbal, and very public. He is the kind of person whom others like to talk about. Many times, I’ve walked in on groups of people discussing Marc, the why’s of him, the reasons his life has gone in a certain direction. What I’ve very often heard in these discussions is a barely disguised schadenfreude, a desire to categorize him so that he can be dismissed. Here is a person, after all, who writes popular books, scholarly books, teaches brilliantly and movingly, loves beyond the reasonable, appears on TV, builds movements–and all of it from outside the normal social structures. He is gifted way beyond most of his generation. He is openly ambitious. Women fall in love with him. Powerful men enjoy his company. He falls in love with his friends. For him love is not romantic or sexual per se. It is much deeper and wider. And he doesn’t seem to accept the limits that other people hide behind. The question is, is his life a triumph, or a tragedy? For years, his friends and enemies have been discussing these questions.
Here are some of the positive points that even Marc’s detractors agree about:
- Marc is brilliant.
- Marc is a gifted and original scholar of Hebrew texts, a brilliant integral thinker.
- Marc is great fun.
- Marc is a good friend.
- Marc is a force of nature.
- Marc is an electrifying teacher.
- Marc radically loves people.
- Marc deeply cares for people.
- Marc is funny, charming, and attractive.
- Marc has a gift for creating structures and drawing people together.
- Marc is a builder of community.
- Marc is a gifted leader and strategic thinker.
Here are some of the “negative” things his detractors have said:
- Marc is ambitious.
- Marc is post-conventional.
- He has had several partners””both personally and professionally, including three wives.
- In some of these relationships, the women have claimed to feel hurt.
- Marc has built communities that subsequently dissolved.
- Marc is so charming and brilliant and such a good networker that he can often influence people to do things his way.
- Marc is manipulative.
- Marc takes large risks.
- Marc has been unfaithful to some of his partners, and has sometimes refused to be transparent about these relationships.
- Marc has written publicly that he believes that romantic relationships between teachers and students can be ethically allowable.
- He has had several such relationships.
- In some cases, he held them privately, and sometimes denied their existence.
As Warren Farrell pointed out in a letter in support of Marc, this list sounds suspiciously similar to characterizations, for and against Bill Clinton, Bobby Kennedy, or Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa.
Some of what is said about Marc is factually true, though almost always distorted in the way it has been spread on the internet. Marc himself has often said that he has made mistakes in judgment. Perhaps his biggest mistake was the fact that during some periods of his life he had several lovers, and kept these relationships private, and sometimes denying the involvement. Like so many people whose way of loving is unconventional, he feared being misunderstood. Ironically, his very attempt to maintain privacy probably created more difficulty than if he had been open about the relationships.
To understand Marc’s position here, you might consider the situation of a gay man in public life before the 1980s. A gay teacher, politician, or clergyman would hide his way of loving for fear that it would get in the way of his work. He might even marry and have a family, dissembling about his gay relationships even with his wife. Nowadays, politicians and even Episcopal priests can be openly gay and still do significant work in their communities. Yet for a spiritual teacher to have non-monogamous relationships is often still painted as transgressive.
That said, there is another crucial component of Marc’s story that needs to be understood. The way people react to Marc Gafni is often a measure of how secure they are with their own Eros. People who feel wounded in expressing their Eros, whether sexually, creatively or spiritually, will often project their own wounds, fears, or feelings of lack onto Marc. They then move to put him outside their circle of what is allowable in a spiritual teacher.
For example, Marc’s Eros is expressed in a bold willingness to cross boundaries in his work and his relationships. This is one reason he can create transformative breakthroughs for the people around him, as so many of his students can attest. It’s also why he can create dynamic organizations, write books that change people’s understanding, run a national talk show on Israeli TV, and rebuild his circle even after being publicly attacked. But his boldness, like any truly experimental behavior, involves big risks. It can trigger massive projections from others–projections of sexual shadow, of power dynamics, and of the complex feelings about the relationship between sexuality and spirit that plague our societies.
One of Marc’s former teaching partners once told me that she has never known anyone so good at exposing the shadow in other people. According to depth psychologists, there is an aspect of the masculine that can help the feminine move through unknown psychic territory, leap past her own fears, and fulfill her gifts. This is one of the functions that the masculine holds for the feminine, just as the feminine classically helps the masculine tune into his own soul. But in both cases, this process often involves holding up a ‘mirror’ for the negative as well as the positive shadow, the disowned qualities in someone else. As we know from depth psychology, a person whose shadow is exposed will often try to get him or herself off the hook of recognizing his or her disowned ‘darkness’ by projecting itself directly onto the person who holds up the mirror.
One of the key persons involved in the dissemination of this 2006 controversy was a former beloved of Marc’s. She, supported by others, has been a major force behind the scenes, attempting to do anything she can to attack or undermine Marc’s teaching. I have had personal experience of the level of tragic malice and distortion that are at play here through this person and the people supporting her. The analogy to the extreme right wing’s hatred of Clinton or Obama or the extreme left wings demonization of Bush may not fully out of line here. In spring 2011, when Mariana Caplan’s article about the false complaints against Marc was published, this person launched a full on campaign with Marc’s publisher whose intention was to discredit Marc. The method was to show that Marc was somehow “again” violating boundaries in his relationships with women. The thinking apparently was to try and show a “pattern” and to interpret the pattern as evidence of gross and unusual ethical lapse and thereby discredit Marc.
I was closely tracking Marc’s relationships at that time and in the years before. They were classically Marc. They were audacious, out of the box, post conventional and held by Marc with a level of care, love and integrity that was rigorous and profoundly ethical. Although no complaint was ever made, the combination of internal Integral politics, fear, and gross web distortion led to the suggestion on the web that there were “new sexual complaints against Gafni” in 2011. Nothing could have been further from the truth. There were no complaints and no misdeeds. I spoke at length to all of the parties involved. Marc behaved with integrity and enormous kindness and love towards each of the parties. Sadly some of these parties were contacted by some of the perpetrators of the original Israel false attacks and an internet maelstrom resulted. A host of behind the scenes political and personal issues within the Integral World and with Marc’s publisher, played themselves out on the internet. This was an internet manufactured maelstrom with no grounding in the world of facts. As Ken Wilber wrote about it, “so much flame with so little fact”. In fact, both myself and all the board of the Center for Integral Wisdom that looked into these issues stood firmly behind Marc and affirmed his integrity and leadership.
In his late teens an entanglement began in Marc’s life that has fundamentally reshaped his story. At age 17, when Marc was a student in a New York yeshiva high-school, he made an enemy of a prominent older rabbi, whom I’ll call Rabbi X, and his wife. The couple began describing teenaged Marc as ‘dangerous.’ There were underlying political reasons for this: Marc at the time was the premier student of a teacher with whom this rabbi and his wife were bitterly angry at the time. At the same time, the rabbi’s wife may have been disturbed by the young man’s brashness; perhaps (as older men sometimes will) the Rabbi himself felt threatened by the intensity of Marc’s opinions and charisma. Perhaps the personal pathologies of the rabbi and his wife played a role.
The situation persisted for years, until, when Marc was twenty-four, it broke into a face-to-face argument during which Marc made an ill-advised, close-to-the-bone remark about the pathology he observed in the rabbi’s and his wife’s own household. Rabbi X took a swing at Marc and promised menacingly to end his career in the rabbinate. From then on, Rabbi X used his considerable influence over the years to do massive damage to Marc’s career. In the closed world of Orthodox Judaism, that rabbi had great sway. His narrative cast Marc as a brilliant but dangerous threat to the norms of orthodox religion, and he went out of his way to intervene in Marc’s relationships and professional life. His opposition was a powerful catalyst in closing doors in the orthodox world to Marc. This rabbi initiated the first set of Internet attacks against Marc, which became part of the justification that political rivals would later use to discredit Marc.
Marc’s post-conventional approach to relationships, his relatively radical reading of Jewish texts, his natural audacity combined with the largeness of the vision he held for his own work were natural fodder for this couple, and for others who disliked Marc or found him a threat to their own position or beliefs.
But what gave the older Rabbi his ‘excuse’ was that, in his early twenties, Marc had made a classic young man’s mistake. He had, on one occasion, spent a few minutes of limited physical contact with a 16 year old from his youth group, who was staying in his house. The girl had a crush on Marc, and the encounter lasted for only a brief time before Marc stopped it. The girl told her counselor about it and the rabbi used it in his campaign to ‘bring down’ Marc. This subsequently helped engineer the hermeneutic which created the soil necessary for false complaints to take root.
The way the story was told by the girl was according to Marc, highly exaggerated and distorted. Marc’s claim about this event is supported by expert polygraph. At the time Marc, after consulting with trusted women, who were feminist leaders in his community, decided not to share the full story about this incident with his supporters for a series of reasons that seemed to make good sense at the time. In hindsight, this decision compounded the problem.
That grossly distorted story pursued him for years, and became the basis for a grossly false hermeneutic about him, actively encouraged by Rabbi X, that ended up being featured on a highly dubious Internet scandal site which was supported and funded through Rabbi X. Many people today judge Marc through the lens that this rabbi first put in place nearly 30 years ago.
Events in his later life that might otherwise have been dismissed, or recognized as part of the experimental path of a former yeshiva boy trying to understand sexuality in a context of mutual love, have been cast as evidence of pathology. Because it has been viewed through the prism of this narrative, Marc’s natural flirtatiousness and audacity has been characterized as ”Ëœpredatory.’ His assertiveness has been called ‘abusive.’ His willingness to openly state his positions and ask for what he wants has been called ‘manipulative.’ His capacity for assimilating ideas from different sources (which he credits) and stringing them together in the way of meta-theorists, has been called ‘appropriation.’ One hate website, run by a woman who claims to expose clerical abuse, has featured false and unsubstantiated claims that he is a ‘serial rapist,’ ‘a predator’ and ‘an abuser of young girls.’ All these epithets are gross fabrications, as anyone who knows Marc would attest. This same person, shockingly supported by Rabbi X, has written a missive to her list claiming that Marc was “dangerous to prepubescent boys and girls.”
This disinformation has been repeated over and over on the web, and in many quarters are assumed to be true–simply because they have been repeated.
A second story surfaced when Marc was in his late thirties. The writer of the above-mentioned disreputable website wrote that Marc had had a relationship with a fourteen year girl. Marc was asked about the relationship and acknowledged that it had taken place–when he himself was a 19-year old high school student. He was then described by this same disreputable as a confessed child molester. One of the major details left out in this gross distortion was that not only was Marc in his teens, when the relationship took place, but that it was felt by both parties at the time as profoundly loving, and that it did not involve any sort of genital contact. In fact, the loving nature of the relationship at the time is also supported by a long letter written by the young woman to Marc after the relationship was over.
There is a great deal of evidence that Marc has never had a sexual relationship that wasn’t conceived in mutuality. Nor, since his early mistakes, has he ever had a relationship with a woman who was not a mature and powerful adult. Paradoxically, some of the women who say that they have been ‘hurt’ by him, have done far, far more to hurt him–intentionally–then he has ever done–unintentionally–to anyone else. One woman in particular, a former lover and colleague, continues to write anonymous website posts, and to encourage others to post against him. She has attempted to rally associates of his by convincing them that he ‘hurts women,’ and has done everything within her power to make it uncomfortable for institutions or other teachers to work with him. Yet, upon examination, the hurt that she speaks of turns out to be the emotional pain that often occurs between a man and a woman. It’s the kind of hurt that is, unfortunately, a common aspect of romantic love. Romantic pain can be processed in several different ways. If we choose to use it as a spur to recognizing our own wounds and illusions, it can become a path to opening the heart, a way of growth. If we choose to feel victimized, and resentful, our very reactivity can cause great destruction, both to ourselves and to the people around us. Moreover, as Bell Hooks, Warren Farrell, Christina Hoff Sommers and others have written, power in any relationship between a man and a woman is never one-way. Power is distributed in many complex and nuanced ways.
I point this out not to deny that Marc’s natural audacity and propensity for experimenting in relationship have led him to mistakes–mistakes for which he has publically apologized. Marc breaks boundaries, takes down walls, and introduces himself into communities and situations that most people wouldn’t dare to enter. He is post-conventional in his lifestyle. He comes on strong, and his unabashed directness and claiming of authority can come across as self-promoting.
These very qualities are also what has allowed Marc to stand for the force of evolutionary love in human society. Anyone as dedicated as Marc is to helping people express their uniqueness, and move through self-imposed limits, will inevitably push boundaries. It is Marc’s gift that he does this with genuine, deep kindness.
Perhaps the clearest exposition of what I mean is conveyed in a letter from a successful professional woman–a lawyer–who studied with Marc, both privately and in group settings, for six months in 2009. She writes:
“The experience of this weekly phone call was terrifying and life-changing. I am still assimilating what I grasped, and am grateful that I have the recorded conversations to go back to. His gift is amazing. He can find the natural frequency of an individual, one that the person may well not know herself, and set it vibrating so that knowing enters in, past a life-time of barriers, even generations of barriers.
“In the course of our talks, and several online courses, plus three workshop format encounters, I knew, without having the words and concepts, that Marc’s energy is formidable, and maybe even extreme at times. In knowing and working with him, I felt the risk, as it were, and gladly accepted it. I can’t imagine how anyone can encounter him without knowing this at some level. This is a Being that ordinary definitions cannot account for, and we benefit immensely, and know this, as we engage with Marc. So, to find that he eludes and bends and counters our boxes about pretty much everything is absolutely no surprise to one who has worked with him. That’s why we signed on, in my view, whether or not we fully acknowledged this. All is possible in outrageous love, is Marc’s big teaching, and of course, this is precisely what we come to him to learn.”
Groundbreaking teachers are often controversial. It goes with the territory–witness Wilhelm Reich, Sufi Sam (the San Francisco teacher of spirit who flourished in the 1970s), Chogyam Trungpa, Rabbi Schlomo Carlbach, Alan Watts, C.G. Jung. It’s dangerous to live experimentally. People do get hurt. And so does the teacher who chooses the path of revolutionary Eros. However, if visionary teachers and leaders did not take risks, there would be no possibility of transformation in culture, especially in the areas of spirit and psychology. By going out on a limb, such teachers often experience radically negative personal consequences. Yet, these are the teachers whose work is later seen as important and seriously transformative not only to individuals but to the field. Like Milton Erickson and C.G. Jung himself, Marc has the capacity not only to help individuals transform themselves, but to expand the ways enlightenment is understood in the West.
Groundbreaking teachers are desperately necessary. The Unique Self and Outrageous Love teaching has the potential to transform key dimensions in psychology, education, business and the recovery movement and as of this writing significant work is being done in this direction in all of those fields. More than that, a genuine trans-lineage spirituality, based on Integral principles, may well emerge out of the Center for Integral Wisdom which he founded. Anyone who has seen him working with students, notices the capacity–shared with the most gifted teachers and therapists—to sense exactly when and how a person can let go of something, or tune more deeply into his or her own essence. Much of what he offers to his students is simply a radical, and nearly continuous, transmission of outrageous love. Many of this students, inspired by his teaching sign their letters OLATT, Outrageous Love All the Time.
H., a professor of literature and long-time student of Marc’s, expressed this in a letter, written in 2012:
“Thank you for the way that you live from your truly good, deep, audacious, radical, courageous, resilient, beautiful heart. Thank you for living so fully erotically in every moment, and leading me by my hand and heart to the same place. Deeper yet, thank you for offering yourself so vulnerably to so many of us… to me. Thank you for being that person in this world who can perceive the truth and name of beauty (and pronounce it as my name) where others can’t. Thank you for the depth of selflessness of your service, a depth that I perceive to be so full that you are always in God’s hands, and I don’t believe this is recognized enough about you. It is something I trust about you. And I trust the way your full offering becomes more than personal… guided by your unique vulnerabilities, gifting, outrageousness, humility, and audacity. Thank you for everything you do for me personally… For holding me in my deepest good and most broken hallelujah… and for having the vision for that.”
Marc’s unique combination of audacity and integrity allows him to help people break through their own self-imposed limitations. He has been of unquantifiable help to many people, both in their spiritual and their psychological growth. The ideas he shares in his writings, and as the convener of the Center for Integral Wisdom, have been taken up and explored by many other teachers, and have changed the discourse in every community he’s moved through. He’s a person who enlarges our understanding of the human. And, for a person who has the capacity to engage with him in his full depth, and in their own, he has enormous gifts to give. For communities and for the evolution of love and consciousness he is a powerful catalyst whose leading edge voice and energy are pivotal to the next stage what Marc would call, “the evolution of love”.
Sally Kempton is an internationally known spiritual teacher, who was also a early second wave feminist and thinker. She spent 20 years as a swami in an Indian tradition. She writes a monthly column, Wisdom, for Yoga Journal, and is the author of The Heart of Meditation: Pathways to a Deeper Experience.