PARIS – Though France has some 600,000 Jews, non-Orthodox synagogues and congregations are hard to find — let alone female religious leaders. And even though Delphine Horvilleur heads one of the largest Parisian progressive congregations, she is still marginalized as a rabbi in the French Jewish community.
“To many people here, being a woman rabbi is like being an exotic animal,” Horvilleur tells The Times of Israel in the Beaugrenelle Reform synagogue, close to the River Seine. “The problem with French Judaism is there is no dialogue between its various movements, and thus the liberal line is pushed to the margins of the community.”
“French Jews know very little about the Reform movement, but they certainly have a lot of preconceived ideas about it,” she continues.
“They couldn’t be more wrong about us: Our priority is promoting an open-minded, intellectually challenging approach to religion, close to academic circles, which is available to both men and women.”
Last month, the 39-year-old got Paris buzzing over the publication of her book, “En tenue d’Eve. Féminin, Pudeur et Judaïsme” (“In a Birthday Suit: Feminism, Modesty and Judaism”), which discusses the representation of nudity and modesty in the Bible.
Offering a feminist reading of the Jewish canon, she explores the various meanings of tzniut — Jewish laws referring to modesty and humility, in both dress and behavior — a concept she believes to have been “kidnapped by Orthodox Judaism.”
But if Horvilleur suffers from a lack of recognition in the broader French Jewish community, her work has been critically acclaimed and has gained the respect of many intellectuals.
A former journalist, as chief editor of the quarterly Jewish magazine Tenoua (“The Movement”), Horvilleur has succeeded in gathering essays and contributions written by several disparate Jewish personalities — such as historian Alexandre Adler, ex-Israeli ambassador in France Elie Barnavi, and Tobie Nathan, author and psychologist.
“She is an explosive, irresistible religious woman,” wrote the French edition of Elle magazine about her last December.
To renowned economist and writer Jacques Attali, interviewed in the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur on May 23, Horvilleur “offers revolutionary perspectives on the [Jewish] texts. ”
However, despite her work in the Reform community and her recent notoriety, she is still not recognized as a rabbi by the Consistoire, an institution set up by Napoleon in 1808 to administer Jewish worship. This organization, Horvilleur believes, is the main hurdle to religious pluralism.
“The Consistoire epitomizes a monolithic image of Judaism which is far from the reality on the ground,” she says. “Paradoxically, our Jewish religious leadership ended up reproducing the French Catholic clerical model.”
If Horvilleur admits to being on the receiving end of criticism emanating from the Orthodox community, she says the most virulent attacks come — surprisingly — from women.
‘Orthodox men don’t criticize me so much because they simply consider my religious approach as irrelevant and completely devoid of any raison d’être, but some women perceive it as a crime’
“Orthodox men don’t criticize me so much because they simply consider my religious approach as irrelevant and completely devoid of any raison d’être,” she explains. “But some women perceive it as a crime — a crime against my femininity, against my position as a woman, a wife, and a mother. It’s simply unacceptable to some of them.”
Born and raised in Paris in a Jewish, moderately religious family, Horvilleur moved to Jerusalem at the age of 17 and studied life sciences at the Hebrew University.
Five years later, she came back to Paris and worked as a journalist for French television.
Increasingly interested in Jewish classical texts, she studied with well-known Jewish scholars, such as French philosopher Marc-Alain Ouaknin and ex-Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim.
But when she felt like studying Talmud, Horvilleur hit a wall.
“I got very frustrated, because there were no classes for women at all,” she says. “In France, Jewish institutions make you think that Judaism is a man’s world where women have no active role to play, and I couldn’t stand it.”
Therefore, she decided to move to New York and studied at Drisha Yeshiva. She was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in 2008.
“American Judaism was a revelation to me,” she recalls. “It made me feel like I could finally identify with my Jewish roots and my faith.”
Upon her return from the United States three years ago, Horvilleur became the youngest of only two women rabbis in France. The other is Pauline Bebe, who was ordained in the UK in the early ’90s, and who also took over a Reform congregation.
“Now that I’m walking in Pauline’s footsteps, I realize how hard it must have been for her at the time,” she says. “I’ve had my share of criticism, but I’m sure she went through much worse than I did.”
“Judaism has always been evolving, it shouldn’t be so static,” she concludes. “Our strength has always been our capacity to constantly question our texts, interpret them and evolve with them. That’s what I believe in.”