PARIS – Nothing annoys Delphine Horvilleur more than mentioning her brief stint as a model. “I worked as a model for only a few months in Tel Aviv to pay for my medical studies at Hadassah in Jerusalem,” says Horvilleur, one of only three women ordained as a rabbi in France. Her latest book, “Réflexions sur la question antisémite” (Reflections on the Question of anti-Semitism), published by Grasset in February, is now starring on the best-seller lists in France.
“I worked a lot more waitressing and selling clothes, but the tendency to return to the appearance of a woman’s body is typical and limits feminine identity. To my regret, there are many who find it difficult to accept a woman with a degree of higher authority and so they return her to her appearance, her ability to entice. The interest in my past is obsessive. Someone even bothered to write ‘model’ on my Wikipedia page even though I always remove it.”
French-born Horvilleur, 44, is married to Ariel Weil, mayor of Paris’ 4th Arrondissement, and they have three children. The road from medical school at the Hebrew University to rabbinic ordination is not an obvious one.
“I’m from a traditional family where Judaism had central importance,” Horvilleur explains during an interview earlier this month. “My father is the leader of a congregation and my grandfather on my father’s side belongs to the Judaism of the Alsace-Lorraine region whose roots are planted deep in French history. He enrolled in religious studies in the 1930s in Paris but chose not to be a rabbi, so as far as I’m concerned there was something unfinished there. My grandparents on my mother’s side were Holocaust survivors from Transylvania, each of whom lost their spouses and their children, and they married after the war. During my childhood I heard two Jewish narratives: on the Alsatian side, the story of the rescue of Jews by the Righteous Among the Nations; on the Transylvanian side, the murderous side of the ‘Other.’
“I needed to search for my identity between two approaches – one that sees Judaism as a ‘blessing,’ because of my Alsatian grandfather who trusted the Other, or the one that sees Judaism as a ‘curse’ – because of the experience of my mother’s family. The Talmud and the Gemara interested me even when I was young, and I thought I would find the right way to live as a Jew in Israel. In the 1990s, I came to Israel at age 17 and began to study medicine. Those were the days of [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin, a period of great hope. I was active in the [left-wing] Meretz party and was also present in the square on the night he was murdered. After that there were buses blowing up. I stopped my medical studies after a year but continued for another two years to conduct research at Hadassah. Then I returned to France and at the same time I was working at the France 2 public television, I went back to reading Talmudic texts.
“I was looking for an organized place to study. I was told there were courses on Gemara but the relevant institutions closed their doors to me because I’m a woman, of course. Someone advised me to try New York because in that modern Tower of Babel, there are mixed yeshivas of men and women – and yeshivas for women only. In 2002 I went to Manhattan for three months and stayed for eight. I was exposed to a new world: American Judaism that was mostly liberal. The Judaism I was exposed to in France as a girl, and later in Israel, is there.”
You speak of a constant search. What exactly were you looking for in Judaism?
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“I wanted to find a Judaism that suited itself to the path of history. It’s inconceivable to me that every time I tried to live according to the values of justice I believe in – values of dignity, justice and equality suited for our times – I was rejected. There are after all hundreds of places in the Torah that justify adjusting religion to conform to our times: When the rabbis say that you need to read the Torah ‘on Mondays and Thursdays’ – they meant on market days – meaning, one should ‘go find people wherever they are.’ That was true for that era. If today the market doesn’t take place on those days, we shouldn’t read Torah? The woman’s place today is not the same place as 2,000 years ago and she must be included in the discourse.
“In New York I found the Judaism that suited me. When a Reform rabbi there said to me, ‘You know, with the path you’ve taken so far you should be a rabbi’ – I burst out laughing. But the man sitting opposite me wasn’t joking, and I realized it was possible.”
“For the last 10 years I’ve been the rabbi of the largest synagogue in the 15th Arrondissement, where both men and women serve as rabbis. We have a congregation of about 1,000 families; there are many Reform Jews in France. I also created a course on Jewish thought and Talmud, called Tnuah [movement] and I also publish a monthly magazine by that name. Hundreds of people come to my classes, not all of them are traditional but they’re interested in Talmud. I teach in many places and so far I’ve written four books.”
‘Like a detective’
Her new book – which she will be speaking about at the French Institute in Tel Aviv on May 5 – has been successful not only because of the author’s reputation, but mainly because of the rise of anti-Semitism in France. “As someone who researches Jewish thought, I couldn’t not relate to anti-Semitism as an inseparable part of that,” Horvilleur says. “I’m trying like a detective to find out, in the writings of the ancient sages, how Judaism responded to the anti-Semitic hatred that it always aroused and how it was built around this hatred. Hundreds of books have been written to date that discuss anti-Semitism from various perspectives, psychological, social, historical. I decided specifically to research the interpretations of anti-Semitism in the Talmud and the Midrash. I examined how, at certain historic junctures, this hatred breaks out. Anti-Semitism is revealed every time some crack appears in society – social, economic or related to identity – and then people always point at the Jews as being ‘to blame.’ It’s chilling to see how their [the ancient sages’] explanations resonate in our time, too.”
Does your book correspond with Sartre’s 1946 book “Anti-Semite and Jew”?
“Yes and no. Sartre thought that Judaism was created as a reaction to anti-Semitism and according to him if anti-Semitism did not exist, neither would Judaism. In my book I quote from the sages who speak of Judaism as being built around anti-Semitism but Jewish identity is also there, it exists. I like Amos Oz’s statement: ‘We Jews don’t even agree on the sentence that begins ‘We Jews.’”
What does hatred of Jews come from?
“Anti-Semitism sees the Jew as ‘like me but different from me.’ This can be found in many places in the Torah, beginning with the Book of Esther. That is a story about Jewish identity that arouses rejection as well as jealousy at the same time. The Jew is the Other, he has what I don’t, he is in the place that I should be. The Jews also represent an identity that’s ‘in movement,’ which can’t be defined. Anti-Semitism considers as arrogant the fact that Judaism is a ‘closed’ religion that doesn’t accept non-Jews as members, unlike other religions that aspire to take in new believers.”
How does anti-Semitism differ from racism?
“Racism expresses itself mainly in contempt for the one who is different, in a feeling of superiority vis-a-vis a person of a different skin color or facial appearance, a lower being – while the anti-Semite feels a sense of inferiority toward the Jew and blames him for everything he thinks was taken from him: economic and political power, control and strength. The jealousy and feeling of inferiority become hatred and rejection.”
In your book you also write about the connection between anti-Semitism and hatred of women.
“It’s quite amazing to realize that over the years Jews and women were accused of the same ‘sins’: They’re hysterical, they love power and money. Since the Middle Ages witches or educated women are described in the same clichés as are Jews, when they are represented in the cruelest caricatures: a long nose, curling fingers, sly looks. In every historical era feminine traits were attributed to Jews as an insult: When the socialist Jewish Leon Blum first became prime minister of France in 1936, they claimed that he had the shrieking voice of a girl. During the so-called Yellow Vest protests of the past few months, there have been signs reading ‘[President Emmanuel] Macron – the Jews’ whore.’ Femininity as a negative, humiliating characteristic. The Jewish man is also not perceived as masculine. There is a ‘dirty’ femininity about him.”
Horvilleur dedicated her new book “to the memory of Simone and Marceline, daughters of Birkenau who taught us to live.” Simone Veil, who, as health minister in the French government in 1974 led the battle to legalize abortions and became the first president of the European Council, died in June 2017. Marceline Loridan-Ivens, a writer and film director, died in September. The two met in their youth in Auschwitz and “despite their differences, they were united by a strong friendship that continued until the end of their lives.”
What did you learn from these two wonderful women who died over the past two years?
“I learned a lot about my history, because in my family the Holocaust was not talked about; [there was] the same silence that plagues the survivors. Simone and Marceline swore that they would bear witness their whole lives to the horror, and each of them conveyed the message in her own way; they did not let it become submerged. Simone Veil worked a great deal for the unification of Europe. From both of them I learned how it is possible to grow from pain and build a rich and full life, and about friendship between women as well. They both were pained by the new anti-Semitism that has begun to emerge in recent years – since the murder of Ilan Halimi, the murder of the Jewish children in Toulouse, the murders in the Hyper Kasher market. I had the honor of saying Kaddish at the funeral services of each of them. Marceline, the stormy redhead, was my friend too. I never met Simone.”