About two weeks ago, the chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, sent a 25-page letter to the president of France, Francois Hollande, expressing his firm opposition to new laws that would give gays and lesbians more rights in marriage, adoption and fertility treatments.
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He was expressing his opinion as a rabbi, specifically as chief rabbi of France, Bernheim wrote. He described himself as the point of contact, and spokesman, for religious French Jewry.
In his letter, Rabbi Bernheim defends his position with a series of oft-used conservative assertions against same-sex marriage: the protection of children (according to Bernheim, only a traditional family can ensure a child’s moral and emotional health); the normal, proper behavior of human society (for which the heterosexual family constitutes the foundation), and so on. All of this is wrapped in a theological framework based on the first two chapters of Genesis, which – according to Rabbi Bernheim – put forth the Bible's vision of ideal partnership between men and women.
A bit more than a year ago, on May 17, 2011, the chief rabbi signed a joint declaration with the IDAHO organization (the International Day Against Homophobia). As his website states, Rabbi Bernheim took what he describes as a clear stance against any sort of homophobic violence and showed his desire for a world of tolerance and respect for all.
Even as we appreciate the rabbi’s gesture in 2011, we must ask why his tolerance stops at the demand for recognition of same-sex marriage and parental legitimacy.
It is only on rare occasions that the chief rabbi intervenes so explicitly in social issues, particularly when the question has nothing to do with Judaism or the State of Israel. That being the case, why did the chief rabbi choose to express an opinion on this matter?
Judaism has no equivalent to the Catholic Church. Anyone who sets himself up as a “spokesman” or “supreme authority” does so thanks to external structures that are not derived from the internal logic of rabbinical discourse.
The chief rabbinate of France is a political institution that, despite its pretensions, does not represent all Jewish movements or individuals in France. The role exists because of a historical coincidence where religion meets state. Nevertheless, it presents itself as the head of a religion that has always been suspicious of hierarchies. If we look at the seminal works of rabbinic literature, both Talmuds and the midrashic commentaries, we see that they describe the rabbi as being no closer to the truth than anyone else. Even if the rabbi is sometimes perceived as a “spiritual leader,” he derives his authority solely from his knowledge of the Torah, and his students are always free to disagree with him.
As the well-known Talmudic story of Akhnai’s oven illustrates, halacha – Jewish religious law – is not made in heaven. It is created by human beings. This freedom when it comes to the law is not merely legal. The earlier rabbis developed an ideological and legal system that allowed them to construct a religion that would adapt to a changing situation and take an active role in improving it. For all practical purposes, rabbinical discourse offers us a radical reading of the very idea of “law.” The law does not present an objective situation that exists in the world. Rather, it shapes and organizes a new state of affairs that allows spiritual work to be done better.
It is exactly this trait of rabbinic Judaism that allows human beings to live fully religious lives while existing in the world. The Talmud criticizes the ascetic Nazirite who cuts himself off from the world in order to realize his relationship with God in perfection and purity. Human beings are supposed to realize this connection in the social and economic activities of their day-to-day lives. This is what gives us the freedom to interpret the law and adapt it to social, interpersonal, and environmental developments. It is no accident that when Freud spoke of Rabbi Yohanan’s departure from Jerusalem under siege – in other words, the beginning of rabbinic Judaism – he described the incident as a decisive moment in the progress of spiritual life.
It is no surprise, then, that the chief rabbi of France has joined society’s conservative elements. These elements ensure the continued institutional infrastructure that allows him to be the point of contact and the spokesman for the religious French Jewry, as he put it.
By deciding to oppose this bill, the chief rabbi is distancing himself from Jews and non-Jews who cannot share his position. So even as he tries to protect Judaism and its values, he weakens it and deprives it of its unique voice. He turns it into a graveyard of outdated laws and moral conservatism. This sort of Judaism is not relevant; it lacks the power to deal with the questions that modern society places before us.
Ron Naiweld is a faculty member at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and Yaara Alon is an attorney. Both are based in Paris.