At first glance, Delphine Horvilleur looks like the quintessential up-and-coming French intellectual. Slickly dressed in a black business suit and wearing round, dark-rimmed glasses, she looks ready to begin arguing the contemporary relevance of existentialism or decrying the malaise of the proletariat in the post-modern era. Instead, the younger of France's two women rabbis turns to a topic she holds dear: the promotion of Reform Judaism in her country.
Horvilleur's gender is just one hurdle in her ongoing campaign to advocate a religious stream that has gained significant ground in Jewish communities worldwide, but remains strikingly rare in France. A French Jew has to look hard to find a non-Orthodox religious framework: Only a handful of rabbis from progressive movements are currently active in the country, which boasts more than half a million Jews.
"It's hard to define how many people identify with the progressive Jewish movement in France," says Horvilleur, 38, who recently participated in the Religion and Democracy Forum, held in Tel Aviv under the auspices of the French Embassy. “There simply aren’t that many rabbis and synagogues available to them."
Jewish life in France has been traditionally dominated by the Consistoire Central, the top administrative body in charge of all matters pertaining to the Jewish faith. It was set up by Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century, so that he could have a single interlocutor representing the country's Jews, who had just become fully emancipated citizens.
But the body imposes paralyzing limitations on today’s French Jews who regard the plurality of voices as essential to their faith and wish to break with the Consistoire's authoritative, uniform line. Horvilleur and eight other non-Orthodox rabbis and congregations stand in the shadow of this institutional juggernaut.
"This centralized model is diametrically opposed to pluralism," says Horvilleur. "As Liberal, Reform or Conservative rabbis, there are a number of acts that we perform, or officiate at, that are not recognized by the Consistoire or the Orthodox movement.”
It’s true that the overwhelming majority of French Jews are Sephardim, many of North African origin, and they are not nearly as familiar with Reform Judaism as are Ashkenazi Jews. But that is not the main reason for the movement’s low profile in France, Horvilleur insists, again blaming the centralized Consistoire which discourages pluralism.
"The historic impediment to the growth of the movement predates the immigration of Sephardi Jews to France," she says, referring to the influx of hundreds of thousands of Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian Jews in the latter half of the 20th century, after the former French colonies gained their independence. "In my congregation, at least, we have as many Sephardi Jews as Ashkenazi ones,” she notes.
Born in France, Horvilleur moved to Israel at 17 to study life sciences at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After graduating, she worked as a journalist for French TV, living in Israel and Europe. After growing up in a moderately religious home, she became increasingly interested in the Jewish canon. But in France, she found very little scope for studying Jewish texts in earnest. "Wanting to study Talmud and Gemara more seriously, I knocked on many doors and got the same answer: Yes, we have Talmud classes, but not for you because you're a woman," she recalls.
That led her to New York, where being a woman and rabbinical studies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. She enrolled in the Reform movement’s rabbinical program and was ordained at the city's Hebrew Union College in 2008. She settled in Paris, where she heads one of the city's largest progressive congregations, belonging to the Liberal Jewish Movement of France (MJLF - Mouvement Juif Libéral de France).
Founded in 1977, MJLF is the most liberal, but not the oldest non-Orthodox denomination in France. It was preceded by the Union Libérale Israélite de France (ULIF), famous for its synagogue dating back to 1907 on Paris' rue Copernic.
ULIF, however, does not accept women rabbis. So upon her return from the United States, Horvilleur joined MJLF, following in the footsteps of France's first woman rabbi, Pauline Bebe, who took over an MJLF congregation after her ordination in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s.
Trying to instill American-style approaches into French Judaism has proven to be an uphill battle. Sometimes the challenges are taxing, and other times they are simply trivial.
"Going back to France, I had to explain everything," Horvilleur says. "People ask me, for example, what they should call me, because there is no feminine form or even neutral form for the word 'rabbi' in French. It’s complicated. Quite often, when people come to meet me they call me 'Monsieur le rabbin' – it's a matter of habit."