Forty years ago, “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob” had French audiences doubled over in laughter. Gerard Oury’s frantic comedy of an anti-Semitic businessman who finds himself mistaken for a famous rabbi — don’t ask — smashed box office records. The timing was important: Oury’s anarchic comedy reflected the end of a 30-year run of dramatic economic growth, the end of Charles de Gaulle’s authoritarian rule and the end of the republican belief that in order to be French, one must not publicize one’s religion.
A remake has just been made — with the difference that it is not a film, but real life. In early April, “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Gilles” came to a close when officials from the French Jewish community forced the nation’s chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, to resign from his position. Bernheim, it turned out, was not the rabbi everyone thought he was. Moreover, the context of his fall resembles the events of 1973. Once again, most people are doubled over — not in laughter, but instead in disbelief.
In 2008, when Bernheim became France’s “grand rabbin,” liberal French Jews sighed with relief. Bernheim is Ashkenazi, a significant detail for a community that has grown increasingly Sephardic. Moreover, though Orthodox, Bernheim presented himself as an advocate of a more “open” Judaism. He pushed for greater involvement by women in religious matters, spoke forcefully on behalf of the laique or secular values of the Republic, and dialogued with Muslim and especially Catholic religious leaders — so much so that some conservative Jews dismissed him as “the chief rabbi of the goys.”
Bernheim thus surprised many observers when he veered sharply to the right on the question of the government’s controversial law that would allow same-sex couples to marry and adopt. Throwing himself in front of the media’s klieg lights, Bernheim published a 40-page pamphlet titled What Is Often Left Unsaid” in which the rabbi, who also claimed to possess a doctorate in philosophy, offered a secular critique of the proposed law. The thrust of Bernheim’s argument was that marriage and child rearing were structured by nature and that the effort to change this through laws based on abstract reasoning would have unpredictable consequences.
While Bernheim’s unexpected stance thrilled conservative and largely Sephardic Jews, the rabbi alienated his liberal constituency. Many found his argument less philosophical than religious: One critic, Yeshaya D’alsace, found the pamphlet fueled by “the fear of an ancient and deeply anchored taboo concerning homosexuality.” Liberal French Jews were equally uneasy with the way Bernheim’s essay aligned their community with reactionary forces protesting the law, as well as with Pope Benedict XVI’s glowing citation of the pamphlet in one of his own texts — the sort of blurb few rabbis ever dream of, much less receive.