[Dear Readers: This is a long essay. The narrative is not linear, it contains at least one four letter word, references to sexual scandal (not mine), and cars! It’s not the usual fare. Happy New Year!].
When I lived in Colorado, my Subaru Forrester’s check engine light went on intermittently, for days or weeks, before switching off. I brought the car to a dealership. The technician told me I needed a new catalytic converter, an expensive repair that was not urgent from a safety perspective. I let it be, although the bright yellow letters against the black console seemed to shout at me:
CHECK the ENGINE.
CHECK the damn ENGINE.
* * *
I purchased the pre-owned car in September 2003, five months after my father’s unexpected passing. At the time I lived in Massachusetts and designed jewelry; I needed a large vehicle to transport my wares to craft shows. That December I drove to Elat Chayyim, the Center for Jewish Spirituality, then located in New York, to attend a silent retreat. I found the center while searching online for Jewish meditation, something I, an unaffiliated and lapsed Jew, wasn’t sure even existed. I hoped seven days of silence would help me grieve my father’s death. That retreat was the first of several visits to Elat Chayyim in New York and then Connecticut (its current home).
I liked reconnecting with my tradition in a contemplative environment rather than in a schmoozy synagogue. The more I attended programs at Elat Chayyim, the odder it felt that I didn’t belong to a Jewish community in regular life. I visited a shul in the Boston area, one that professed to be “unorthodox” and “post denominational”. Its unconventional flavor allowed me to consider joining, something I believed I’d never do. That its charismatic rabbi, ordained by the founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, the late Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi (z”l), was also the child of Holocaust survivors, made me feel I’d be more likely to connect with him and his teachings. This rabbi had a gift for scholarship and humor. Although married with daughters, he routinely told colorful jokes or made off color allusions.
Around then, I learned of Marc Gafni. I never met him, but heard he was a charismatic, brilliant Orthodox-trained rabbi and spiritual teacher whose sexual indiscretions, with unconsenting minors and adult women, had scandalized and traumatized Jewish communities in the United States and Israel. It took many tears and many years before he was stripped of his rabbinic certification and forbidden from teaching in Jewish contexts. I remember feeling glad I had not crossed paths with him. I wondered why, despite warning signs, the Jewish world had been so slow to condemn him.
* * *
Colorado didn’t have auto safety inspections, just air quality tests every two years. My car passed those tests. Was the check engine light an issue? I kept deciding not to fix it until absolutely necessary.
* * *
The rabbi’s colorful jokes didn’t bother me at first. They reminded me of my late father’s sense of humor, often focused on adult topics. Sometimes I laughed, other times I cringed. I could consider the jokes heimish (homey). That sex swirled in the synagogue’s air distinguished it from the stultifying conservative temple of my childhood.
The more I attended Friday evening services, the more I considered deepening my Jewish observance. A few years after I joined, I decided to visit Israel and resurrect my Hebrew. Maybe immersing myself would inspire me to embrace Judaism more fully? Before leaving, I scheduled a meeting with the rabbi for advice on a language school and synagogues to visit. During our conversation, and our only private meeting, he answered my questions and said something like:
“Go have a fling.”
The gratuitous advice landed like a stone in my heart. It suggested he either believed that casual sex was a good idea or that I needed a rabbi’s encouragement to do so.
CHECK ENGINE: Was he just a smart schmuck with a shtick? Could I trust him for actual spiritual guidance should the need arise?
When I returned from Israel, “unflung” despite two opportunities, this rabbi’s jokes began to grate. His once charismatic personality now landed as wearying narcissism. Attending services felt like being in an audience, rather than participating in a collective spiritual undertaking. By then, I’d made friends in the congregation. Seeing the same people most Friday evenings offered community I otherwise lacked as a single, self-employed person. Was I willing to give up that hard won sense of belonging and start anew in another synagogue, which likely had other issues? If what I really wanted was to talk to God in Hebrew, I could do that by joining a lay-led minyan (prayer circle). No rabbi, no mishegas.
As I pondered leaving the synagogue, which had been an anchor of sorts, I considered rearranging other aspects of my life, including moving my art studio. I realized that if I were going to start over, I could begin anew completely. After a process of soul searching, I relocated to sunny Colorado.
Not long after, a synagogue friend told me the rabbi had been suspended for sexual improprieties. The jokes and comments had been lava bubbling from the depths of a troubled volcano that, eventually, erupted in scandal. Too far away to feel the heat and the burn, I wondered who would leave, who would forgive, and who would live with it because to extricate themselves (with spouses and/or children) from the community would be too wrenching.
* * *
The check engine light in my car is sensitive. Failing to thoroughly tighten the gas cap can trigger it. Once the cap is tightened, it takes a few days to reset. It can be hard to tell if the yellow letters are signaling an urgent problem or a nuisance. It can be hard to tell when what had once been a nuisance becomes an urgent problem.
* * *
In Colorado I periodically attended religious services, also led by a charismatic leader. That this rabbi was female made it less likely that the community would be rocked by a sex scandal. Still, charisma in any gender has its shadow side. Attendance dropped significantly when someone other than this rabbi led events. Were members mostly interested in her, or in each other? While she didn’t tell off color jokes, enough of what she said landed as “off” to my ears that I couldn’t bring myself to become a member, to call her “my rabbi”. Still, I valued the friendly and warm community, which made it possible for me to stay connected with Judaism. I paid a la carte for high holiday services and other events. Periodically I wondered if, by not joining, I was missing out on forming deeper connections. Why couldn’t I shrug off my misgivings and just belong, like others?
I didn’t have an answer.
* * *
A Jewish friend I’d met in Boston, who later moved away, introduced me to the Integral Center in Boulder. During one of her visits to Colorado, I joined her at the Center for a practice called Circling. It develops awareness of how we impact each other by our presence, body language, tone of voice and emotional state. Much of these subtleties go unnoticed in daily life, when people are focused on the content or even the goal of a conversation. Circling changes that dynamic and slows the pace of interactions to help people uncover interpersonal blind spots. At its best, Circling is a powerful spiritual practice that allows people to share deep, moment-to-moment connection, something I craved.
Fascinated, moved and inspired by my first Circling experiences, I kept returning. I attended often enough, paying each time, that it made sense financially to become a member.
* * *
Perhaps I should have become a mechanic, because before I declare myself a “member” of anything I want to look under the hood and make sure a sleek and shiny exterior or a plush interior is not concealing frayed cables, a rusting chassis, or a leaky gas tank. While there are never guarantees, I’d rather not hop aboard a jalopy or whiz down a highway without a seatbelt.
If I were a mechanic, I’d learn to run the computers that spit out codes that tell us why a check engine light is on. How handy to look at the code, review the manual, run a test, solve the problem.
* * *
Many people at the Integral Center were disciples of Ken Wilber, who developed Integral Theory. They talked about him as if he were a guru and spoke of his ideas as if they were gospel for a new age.
CHECK ENGINE: Who is this dude? Why the worshipful attitude?
When I learned Wilber would be speaking at a free event in Denver, I attended to get a feel for him. At this gathering, audience members asked questions. Wilber seemed unable or unwilling to connect with the questioner in the moment: he looked away and responded as if each inquiry offered an excuse to run a longwinded advertisement for his ideas.
Gasbag. I thought. Can’t trust him. At the very least, he failed to exemplify the practices offered by the Integral Center.
At that same event, I learned he’d been seriously ill and this was a rare public appearance. Perhaps his health had impacted his ability to be present.
Had my reaction been harsh?
Heading home, I wondered if I could enjoy Circling while building a firewall in my mind to keep that activity distinct from Wilber, his theories and his followers. Could I become a member of the Integral Center without being a MEMBER? Could I join even if I didn’t love or trust it 100%? Was 80% good enough? What about 51%?
I lacked clarity, but joined.
* * *
Folks raved about a periodic workshop the Integral Center offered that centered on Circling. I decided to sign up. The online link didn’t work, so I e-mailed the center. I never received a response. There was no phone number listed.
CHECK ENGINE: What kind of operation doesn’t respond to e-mails?
CHECK ENGINE: How could an “Integral” organization, one that helps people understand their impact on others, not be aware of the impact of its own failure to respond?
Frustrated, I mentioned this to folks at Circling. Since their e-mails had also vanished into a black hole, they suggested contacting the center’s director via Facebook. That worked. He sent me a link and I paid online. Except my payment was not confirmed. I tried again, successfully. At the workshop itself, a facilitator referenced an e-mail he had sent. Neither I nor a friend had received it, although everyone else (the cool kids?) had. Mistakes happen, but the leader didn’t apologize for the oversight or acknowledge its impact.
CHECK ENGINE: Could I trust this guy? Did I still want to be there?
I stuck around. The workshop proved to be powerful. In the afterglow of having experienced a breakthrough, I wondered if my misgivings had been true red flags or a form of resistance to personal growth. Sometimes it’s hard to discern. A month later I received my credit card statement. I’d been charged twice for the workshop. The center corrected the error but hadn’t detected it.
I wondered: if the Integral Center were a vehicle, supposedly driving towards a better future, was anyone behind the wheel or was it on autopilot, the leadership (mostly men in their 30s) circling each other in the back seat while hoping everything would turn out for the best?
* * *
And yet. I kept returning to develop myself and be in community. I tried focusing on the positive. I attended some fundraising meetings to offer input and try to get my head around their operations (I couldn’t). Other people my age commiserated about the leadership. At best it was inexperienced and amateurish, at worst irresponsible and dismissive of those not in the inner circle. As one woman described it, walking into the center felt like “holding her nose while stepping over piles of shit.” That summarized the paradox if not the tragedy of the place: its unique personal growth offerings were potent and possibly helpful to thousands, but to access them one had to jump through crappy hoops.
I held my nose long enough to learn that the Integral Center would host Feldenkrais lessons. Shortly after I attended that first class, floods hit Boulder, filling the center’s basement with sewage. The deluge forced a cleanup from bottom to top. Dedicated volunteers waded through and cleared the crap, knocked down walls, carted away furniture and transformed the space. Possibility began to emerge from the stench. Still, something didn’t sit right. Eventually, my Feldenkrais teacher moved his class elsewhere. I happily followed.
* * *
I’m in Massachusetts again, a state whose regulatory hurdles tower higher than the Rocky Mountains. My Colorado plates expired so I registered my car here. Not surprisingly, my Subaru failed the emissions test. I brought the car back to the garage to diagnose the check engine light. They ran a smoke test. The car needed a catalytic converter, plus a new gas cap. By law, I had 60 days to complete the repairs. Meanwhile, the shop stuck an “R” on my windshield:
On day 41, after considering various options, I had that same garage fix it. The technician told me to drive 150 miles before bringing it back for inspection.
I traveled to Vermont where I spent several days, including Christmas, in a family member’s vacant ski condo. On December 25, The New York Times published an article about Marc Gafni: “A Spiritual Leader Gains Stature, Trailed by a Troubled Past.”
My inner check engine light flickered. I read the article in which Ken Wilber, who now works with Gafni, said he hired someone to look into the allegations against the former rabbi. Wilber’s conclusion? At worst, Gafni had been “insensitive as a boyfriend.”
Reading that made me want to gag, as if someone had stuck my nose in a nasty outhouse. It reminded me of many moments I thought I’d forgotten, of the unease I’d felt around Wilber himself, of my misgivings about the integrity of the Integral Center. The New York Times article made others gag, too, including many rabbis, several of whom I’d met at Elat Chayyim. One created a petition asking Whole Foods, the Esalen Institute, and other organizations affiliated with Gafni to withdraw their support.
* * *
Returning from Vermont, I stopped for fuel. Later, the check engine light flared. My heart sank. The next day, the garage told me I hadn’t tightened the new gas cap properly: three turns, three clicks.
I had forgotten how sensitive it was. Sometimes I forget how sensitive I am, how it takes my own warning light time to extinguish after it’s been triggered. Hurts, disappointment and rage can lie dormant in my system until something sets them off. I can’t reset myself instantly.
The repair shop zeroed the computer. I had to drive another 150 miles before retesting. As I circled around the Boston area, I tried not to drive myself insane with regret for not fixing the car sooner or selling it; I no longer needed a large vehicle. It had outlived its purpose, didn’t bring me joy, and seemed to require more and more maintenance.
The Gafni scandal, and the rehabilitation of his reputation at the hands of new age “leaders”, drove me crazy, too. How many times had Gafni supposedly “repaired” himself, only to resurface and create more harm? How was it possible that he still passed anyone’s emissions test when the Jewish community had affixed the “R” of REJECTION to his forehead?
* * *
On January 1, three days before the reinspection deadline, and after driving half of the 150 miles, yellow letters again appeared on my otherwise dark dashboard. The gas cap was tight. My eyes popped.
What could be amiss?
On January 2, I returned to the repair shop for the fifth time. Was I starring in my own version of “Groundhog Day”? I made an effort to smile and remain calm, even though I was revving with frustration. The technician ran another smoke test to identify the problem. The fuel filler neck had rusted, allowing fumes to escape from tiny holes. The shop offered to waive the labor cost of the repair. That seemed fair.
* * *
In the late 1700s, people blew smoke up the arses of people who were presumed dead in order to revive them. We don’t do that anymore, nor do we have reliable smoke tests for people and organizations. Even Gafni passed a polygraph. We have to trust our own warning systems when we encounter pundits, gurus, politicos, clergy, teachers and leaders who hide behind smoke and mirrors or are otherwise toxic. When people around us don’t perceive the same dangers, doubt can set in. We might rationalize that those who set off our alarm bells are nuisances, merely a loose gas cap. The risk is that, unchecked, such folks will pollute the lives of more and more people.
* * *
My car now has a new fuel neck. I still need to drive another 150 miles. Return to the garage a sixth time. Eventually, my Subaru will pass the emissions test and receive a proper sticker.
If there is a silver lining to this episode, I’ve been reminded my instincts are often correct. My inner check engine light isn’t broken. If I’m patient and aware, I can decipher its codes, discern the problem, and respond quickly, rather than circling in doubt.