PARIS — In France, where women rabbis are far from the norm, one can see today’s troubling climate as an opportunity to awaken Jewish creativity.
One of the direct effects of anti-Semitism and threats, suggests Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, is an increasing insularity and traditionalism of the Jewish community.
“I’m not denying there are emergent issues we need to deal with. But Jewish commitment needs to reach beyond. And we need Jewish creativity. That’s what I’m trying to do,” says Horvilleur.
Horvilleur, 41, is one of her native country’s three women rabbis. As the head of a liberal community of 1,500 families, she must not only grapple with external threats of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism in the French capitol — home to the world’s second largest Jewish community outside of Israel — she must also forge new ground within the French rabbinic patriarchal legacy.
Raised in the Orthodox world, Horvilleur grew into her rabbinic role out of a love of learning Talmud. Today, she serves as a leader for a new generation facing complex circumstances, including maintaining ties with diverse colleagues and publishing a progressive quarterly journal. With Jewish institutions facing potential terror attacks, she must also respond to what many consider an increasingly threatening environment.
France is paying attention. This summer, France’s first woman Minister of Education, Najat Vallaud Belkacem, awarded Horvilleur a special commendation. The award especially intrigued her three children, ages three through 10.
“It is called ‘Ordre du Merite.’ It is a special national recognition of a work or a talent that gives you a title of ‘knight.’ I received it together with the Muslim philosopher, my friend, Abdennour Bidar,” she says. “My children are so excited because of what sounds to them as a legendary, medieval title and they think I will get, how do you say, a sword?”
Despite the delight of the award, Horvilleur’s every day responsibilities demand a compelling response.
“French Jewry is going through a very challenging time now so as Jewish leaders we need to find the right language [for] the very specific needs of our congregations today,” she says. “For me, the core point is resilience. Some say we have no future. Others have another discourse and claim the perception of the threat is exaggerated. I’m very aware of the objective threat but at the same time often feel confident.”
The impact of those threats extends beyond the immediate horrors.
“Suddenly, Jewish identity becomes monolithic and seems less porous to otherness and diversity,” she says. “Fighting anti-Semitism and developing advocacy for Israel, when it takes so much energy, tends to anesthetize Jewish creativity and the Jewish possibility of taking part in the national narrative.”
And so, Horvilleur looks precisely to tradition to cope with an uncertain future.
“We have very specific Jewish tools we can awake and use in this context,” she says. “For example, an ability to reinvent yourself anew and an ability to live between worlds. Jews have an ability to live in ‘liminal’ worlds in between universes in a way that should teach us. Our society struggles with frontiers; the Brexit is a good example. We are obsessed with re-establishing frontiers and these frontiers generally have something to do with the fear of others. We must enrich our world, considering the way the other influenced you. I think Judaism knows very well you cannot exist without recognition of what you owe the otherness.”
Her perspective is colored by her time in New York, 2002 to 2008, where she met her husband as she began her journey toward the rabbinate. “I took many turning paths on the way,” she says.
A former model and medical student, Horvilleur also lived in Israel from 1992 to 1996. When she began studying Talmud in France, she couldn’t find an appropriate class.
‘Jews have an ability to live in “liminal” worlds in between universes in a way that should teach us’
“There were Gemara (Talmud) classes but not for women,” she recalls. “Someone told me to contact Drisha [Institute for Jewish Education in NYC]. And, I did.”
She stayed three months and then enrolled in classes at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Jewish Theological Seminary. From there, she headed, eventually deciding on HUC’s rabbinical program.
“I grew up in the Orthodox movement. I didn’t know about the Masorti or Reform movements,” she says. “When it was time for me to join the rabbinic path, all the people I met who were dear teachers for me were in the Reform movement: David Ellenson, Larry Hoffman, Norman Cohen… And now I am a rabbi in Paris and of Reform Liberal Judaism in France.”
Though it may read odd in English, her Parisian shul maintains the title of a movement — the “Mouvement Juif Libéral de France.”
“I can feel comfortable in many Jewish places except when I feel [human] dignity is not respected. I often say, ‘I can definitely daven in a shul where there is a mehitza (partition between females and males) as long as that section is not in the back, hidden where no one can hear or see or pray because they do not have siddurim.”
The role of women in Judaism in France has been limited by a lack of opportunity, says Madame Le Rabbin, as Horvilleur is also known. The phrase serves as an eponymous title for a film from director Elisabeth Lechener.
French Jewish women are “pushed into that situation because they have no knowledge and understanding because they are not given any option,” Horvilleur says. “At a recent bar mitzvah the only role expected of women was to throw candies, meaning being women feeding the other.”
Despite her aspirations for the Jewish men and women alike, recent attacks in Paris remain alive in the public consciousness. In the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the magazine staff lost a well known Jewish columnist, psychoanalyst Elsa Cayat. Family members subsequently asked Horvilleur to eulogize her.
“She was the shrink of Charlie Hebdo,” Horvilleur says. “Her family turned to me because they wanted a progressive voice.”
Since Cayat’s passing, Horvilleur has remained in close contact with the magazine’s staff.
‘At a recent bar mitzvah the only role expected of women was to throw candies, meaning being women feeding the other’
“They even attended Friday night services at my congregation this year — quite a surprising scene, I admit, for the most anti-religious voices of France,” she says.
Horvilleur assumed her post at the Mouvement Juif Liberal de France, a shul established in the 1970s located in the 15th Arrondisement, back in 2008.
“It is a very thriving community with a large Hebrew school, children’s services, musical creativity and an important commitment to interfaith dialogue,” she says.
Her husband of 10 years, Ariel Weil, is an elected official working in the mayor’s office as a representative of the historic Jewish neighborhood, Le Marais, where he grew up and where the couple still resides. His family was sheltered by non-Jews during the Holocaust.
On Shabbat, Horvilleur travels via metro to her congregation near the Eiffel Tower to avoid using cash.
“I find some arrangements to lead services on Shabbat,” she says.
Horvilleur has also transformed Tenou’a, Hebrew for movement, the journal her shul published for some 30 years. Under her guidance as editor-in-chief, it has evolved into a pluralistic, unaffiliated Jewish magazine of art and Jewish thought.
“They asked me to rethink it,” she says. “We decided to make it autonomous from a synagogue or movement affiliation.”
Tenou’a dedicated recent issues to the political and moral question of migrants and LGBT rights and Jewish perspectives. The publication’s contributors represent the entire denominational spectrum as well as the unaffiliated.
“I have a wonderful team working around me, a ‘lab of Jewish thought,’” she says of her group of contributors: psychoanalysts, rabbis, writers, scientists, chefs and educators. “We want it to be as open as possible. Liberal, Conservative and Orthodox voices take part in that dialogue, which is unique in the French Jewish landscape. For a reader, you can feel a progressive voice. Even the Chief Rabbi [Haim Korsia] sometimes writes in it.”
The Parisian Jewish establishment that Korsia leads dates back to the early 19th century; the Consistoire, which has traditionally represented most of French Jewry, is Orthodox.
Horvilleur has a long history with the more conventional establishment. In fact, when she was teenager in her parents’ congregation in Reims, Korsia was her childhood rabbi.
“We became very good friends,” Horveilleur says. “When I was 13, he was 23.”
In addition to her work at the pulpit and in the journal, Horvilleur has also published numerous articles as well as two books, “En Tenue d’Eve, Feminin Pudeur et Judaisme” about modesty, and “Comment Les Rabbins Font Les Enfants: Sexe, Transmission, Identite Danse le Judaisme” (2013 and 2015, respectively, from Grasset), about the transmission of identity in Jewish thought.
“When I speak about community, I always speak in quotes. In America, I know it’s a positive word. In France, it’s a negative,” she says.
Working as a woman rabbi in France has certain advantages and disadvantages.
“It’s both easier and more difficult to be in this position. I feel many in France today are interested in hearing progressive religious voices, and are particularly curious about what feminine voices could bring to the debate,” says Horveilleur. “At the same time, undoubtedly, one of the consequences of the situation, and what we call ‘Communautarism’ in French, the trend of each community to lock up around itself, often leaves progressive voices in the periphery. It somehow expands the territory of conservatism. I feel somehow my voice is easier to be heard.”
This double-edged sword, she says, has nothing to do with knighthood.
“But it’s hard,” she says, “because it’s harder to hear a more progressive voice.”