News / Europe

French Jews Search for New Grand Rabbi

Chief Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim leaves after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris December 16, 2011.
Chief Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim leaves after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris December 16, 2011.
Lisa Bryant
The search is on for a new chief rabbi to lead Europe's largest Jewish community, after Grand Rabbi Gilles Bernheim of France took leave from his post following a plagiarism scandal.  The issue is dividing France's 600,000-member Jewish community.

At his Paris apartment, Rabbi Yeshaya Dalsace showed a visitor mementos from his ancestors: Jews from eastern France. Dalsace comes from a long line of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe who traditionally led French Judaism. France's top rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, shares those same ethnic origins.

But that's where the similarities end. Dalsace belongs to the more centrist Conservative branch of Judaism. Bernheim is an Orthodox Jew, the branch that now dominates French synagogues and leadership structure.

That structure was shaken earlier this month, when Bernheim took leave from his post as grand rabbi of France, after admitting to plagiarizing certain texts and not being truthful about his academic credentials.

Disappointment

Dalsace said Bernheim's departure has disappointed many practicing Jews. They had high hopes that Bernheim would change many things, including the Central Consistory, the chief religious authority that gathers hundreds of synagogues in France and its overseas territories. Critics say the consistory is slow to reform and to respond to practical issues facing Jews today, like mixed marriages.

A bookish intellectual, Bernheim is viewed as embracing a more "modern" strain of Orthodox Judaism. He has spoken out often against anti-Semitism in France and has been a leader in inter-faith dialogue.

Martine Cohen, a specialist on Judaism at the Group on Society, Religion and Secularity, a Paris-based research organization said that despite his strong Orthodoxy, Bernheim attracted a certain consensus among intellectuals, and even among some non-practicing and non-believing Jews.  Cohen added that he advocated the need to be open to current issues facing society.

Change

Judaism in France has changed dramatically over the last few decades. During the 1950s and '60s, tens of thousands of Sephardic Jews from North Africa immigrated here. They were more traditional than many of France's Ashkenazi Jews. France's previous grand rabbi, Tunisian-born Joseph Sitruk, personified this change.

But in 2008, Bernheim took over the top post from Sitruk, after a hard-fought campaign.

According to Cohen, that campaign underscored the two currents of Orthodox Judaism in France. The one embraced by Bernheim, she said, is open to inter-religious dialogue, social issues and women's place in the religion. The other, an "ultra-Orthodox" current embraced by Sitruk, is more inward looking.

Cohen believes these competing visions will again come to the fore as French Jews search for a new top rabbi.

Support

One of Bernheim's supporters is Nathalie Cohen-Beizermann, who holds senior posts in several Jewish organizations.

Cohen-Beizermann said Bernheim has done enormous things for the Jewish community. He advanced the status of Jewish women, in terms of religious divorce and other matters. He also helped organize a women's study center and supported a campaign to fight violence against women within the community.

France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk speaks to the French Jewish community in Paris March 13, 2008.France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk speaks to the French Jewish community in Paris March 13, 2008.
x
France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk speaks to the French Jewish community in Paris March 13, 2008.
France's Grand Rabbi Joseph Sitruk speaks to the French Jewish community in Paris March 13, 2008.
Ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch Rabbi Mendel Azimov praised both Bernheim and his predecessor, Sitruk.

"Both were great. Both had advantages," he said. "One [Sitruk] was closer to the nation. The other [Bernheim] was a little further, but gave very strong statements."

Azimov said he would be happy if either type of personality became the next grand rabbi.

But Dalsace is disappointed in Bernheim. He opposes the grand rabbi's strong and public opposition to the French government's plans to legalize gay marriage.  He believes the Jewish leadership should not take a stance on political issues.

Dalsace said Bernheim's views are all the more surprising since the grand rabbi initially reached out to gays within the Jewish community. Dalsace believes this kind of reaching out is necessary, if France is to build a more open and inclusive brand of Judaism. But he does not think this will happen.

The Central Consistory said elections for the next grand rabbi will not be held for at least six months. It is also unclear whether Benheim can or will return to his post, as some Jews hope will happen.

You May Like

VOA Exclusive: Interview With Myanmar President Thein Sein

Thein Sein calls allegations that minority Muslim Rohingya are fleeing alleged torture in Rakhine state a media fabrication More

New Yellow Fever Research May Lead to Improved Treatment

Researchers identify features of disease that may lead to more effective treatment More

UN Rights Commission Investigates Eritrea

Three-member commission will start collecting first-hand information from victims and other witnesses in Switzerland and Italy next week More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concernsi
X
November 19, 2014 11:39 PM
The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.
Video

Video What Jon Stewart Learned About Iran From 'Rosewater'

Jon Stewart, host of the satirical news program "The Daily Show" talks with Saman Arbabi of Voice of America's Persian service about Stewart's directorial debut, "Rosewater."
Video

Video Lebanese Winemakers Thrive Despite War Next Door

In some of the most volatile parts of Lebanon, where a constant flow of refugees crosses the border from Syria, one industry continues to flourish against the odds. Lebanese winemakers say after surviving a brutal civil war in the 1970s and 80s, they can survive anything. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
Video

Video China's Rise Closely Watched

China’s role as APEC host this week allowed a rare opportunity for Beijing to showcase its vision for the global economy and the region. But as China’s stature grows, so have tensions with other countries, including the United States. VOA’s Bill Ide in Beijing reports on how China’s rise as a global power is seen among Chinese and Americans.

All About America

AppleAndroid