France’s philosopher rabbi steps down

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BernheimIt is easy not to feel sympathy for Gilles Bernheim, who resigned as France’s chief rabbi yesterday after admitting to plagiarizing passages in his books and to misrepresenting himself as holding a degree from the Sorbonne that he never earned.

His explanations did him little credit. His research assistant was responsible. He was injured and couldn’t take the exam. When he tried to avoid stepping down, it was on the grounds that that would be “an act of pride” while staying on the job would be “a show of humility.” When he said au revoir, it was because it was “no longer possible to fulfill (my) duties with the necessary serenity and tranquility.” Right.

All in all, Bernheim comes away looking like a hypocrite, an intellectual grifter, a shonda far di goyim. Still, it’s worth bearing in mind that he sought to tread a difficult and honorable path. An orthodox rabbi in a world where orthodox Judaism has become increasingly rigid and right-wing, he is a genuine pluralist who has been ready and able to engage intellectually with such leading religious thinkers as the Catholic theologian Jean-Luc Marion.

In this regard, Bernheim resembled Lord Jonathan Sacks, the recently retired chief rabbi of England. As my old friend Guy Stroumsa, first professor of the study of the Abrahamic religions at Oxford, points out, their openness to interfaith dialogue made them an object of suspicion to their hard-line base. Each had to watch his back.

Under the circumstances, one can afford to be a little charitable towards  Bernheim’s  celebrated (by Pope Benedict) pamphlet  Mariage homosexuel, homoparentalité et adoption: ce que l’on oublie souvent de dire (Homosexual Marriage, Parenting and Adoption: What We Often Forget to Say). While the arguments he offers are, to me, utterly unpersuasive–and while some of his language is, well, purloined–Bernheim does try to address the full range of secular and religious issues raised by SSM.

The “philosopher rabbi,” as he was called, cut the kind of highbrow moral figure that the French like to see in their religious leaders. His successor will in all likelihood be more limited and insular, perhaps a rabbi from North Africa spiritually and politically linked to Israel’s Shas party.

In short, while Bernheim’s departure was a necessary thing, in a country where Jews are a shrinking and increasingly beleaguered minority, it is no occasion for rejoicing.