The synagogue is hidden in a parking garage.
Outside, a police guard. Inside, a woman rabbi — one of only three in France — and a growing liberal congregation.
In a country where official Jewish life is overwhelmingly Orthodox, Delphine Horvilleur is something of a scandal.
- She’s a married mother of three who defies centuries of gender norms in a manicured corner of French public life.
- A cause celebre, she remains unrecognized by France’s central Jewish authority.
- Extremists regularly threaten her on social media.
But what is perhaps most scandalous about “Madame le Rabbin,” as she is often called, transcends Jewish politics.
In violation of that long-standing separation, Horvilleur is insisting that religion should play a role in this Western society, which is struggling with religious fundamentalism, both foreign and homegrown.
This month, Horvilleur published a book — “1,001 Ways of Being Jewish or Muslim” — with Rachid Benzine, one of France’s most prominent advocates for a liberal, progressive Islam. The book is a defense of the plurality of religious identity, and a call to reclaim religions from leaders who “favor the return of obscurantisms, an isolation from the rest of the world and a rejection — sometimes deadly — of ‘others.’ ”
- Home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, a group that, since the age of Napoleon, has been represented by the centralized, state-sanctioned authority of a “grand rabbi.”
- That authority, known as the Central Consistory, is deeply rooted in the Orthodox tradition and what Horvilleur calls “an obsession with rites and exclusive rituals.”
- Although in recent years the Consistory has shown signs of changing, it still mainly adheres to Orthodox definitions of who belongs: those with Jewish mothers, or those who have formally converted to Orthodox Judaism.
There is also the perception among liberals such as Horvilleur that the Consistory follows Israel’s religious right too closely. In September, for instance, the Consistory invited Shlomo Amar, Jerusalem’s controversial Sephardic chief rabbi, to speak in one of the most prominent Paris synagogues. Amar had previously argued that Reform Jews “deny more than Holocaust deniers” and called homosexuality an “abomination."
Consistory officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Horvilleur grew up in France in the Orthodox tradition and entered the rabbinate after stints in medicine and journalism. Although she had long been interested in Judaism and its philosophy, the idea came only after she arrived in New York in the early 2000s to study at Hebrew Union College. “I met people there who told me that the rabbinate was an option for me,” she said. “At the time it seemed like a joke.” To date, French Jewish authorities will not ordain women rabbis.
To American Jews, the majority of whom belong to the more liberal Reform or Conservative movements, little about her synagogue would seem surprising, Horvilleur said.
- She welcomes those with Jewish fathers and those who identify as LGBT, and she encourages community service in the name of Jewish values.
- Hers is also one of the few synagogues in France where girls are allowed to have bat mitzvahs, a coming-of-age ceremony after which a young person can fully participate in all aspects of communal life.
Horvilleur’s congregation, the western Paris branch of what is officially called the Liberal Jewish Movement of France (MLJF), has about 1,200 members, she said. The movement has another synagogue of comparable size on the western side of the city. During the autumn Jewish High Holidays, the organization in recent years has had to rent massive concert halls in central Paris to accommodate all of the worshipers who register.
“The [liberal Jewish movement] has grown exponentially,” said Martine Cohen, a Paris-based sociologist and expert on the history of Franco-Judaism. “There is clearly a public that doesn’t march in the streets, and that isn’t even visibly public. They seem to see these more liberal synagogues as the place to renew Jewish life in an intellectual and philosophical way.”