Paris — (JTA) — A month ago, Michel Gugenheim seemed to have succeeded in helping France’s rabbinate recover from the scandal that ended the tenure of its previous chief rabbi.
One of France’s two interim chief rabbis and the president of the Paris rabbinic court, Gugenheim had helped advance an ambitious restructuring plan to address redundancies within French Orthodox institutions.
He also kept his office mostly out of the news — a reprieve much needed after the resignation last year of a former chief rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, amid revelations that he had committed plagiarism and used a false academic title.
The sense was that Gugenheim had paved the way for the smooth election of a successor.
But then a video emerged that reportedly shows Gugenheim ordering the family of a woman seeking a divorce to write a $120,000 check to a religious charity in exchange for securing a Jewish divorce certificate, or get, from her husband.
Dubbed by French media as “L’affaire du Guet,” the scandal broke just weeks before the June 22 election for chief rabbi — a vote that many hoped would help salvage the rabbinate’s reputation following the Bernheim debacle.
Now the rabbinate and its parent organization, the Consistoire — an Orthodox body established as the representative of French Jewry by Napoleon in 1808 — are mired again in controversy and facing emboldened critics demanding reforms.
“While Bernheim’s plagiarisms exposed his own personal shortcomings and failures, the get affair undermines the credibility of the French rabbinate much more profoundly because it flags a systemic failure that touches the lives of ordinary French Jews,” said Jean-Claude Lalou, who heads a group, Future of Judaism, that is pushing for reform of the Consistoire and knew in advance of the family’s plan to record the divorce discussion.
The get affair comes amid a continuing erosion in the prestige of chief rabbis across the Jewish world.
In Israel, a former Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, was the subject of several fraud investigations while in office, while a former Sephardic chief rabbi, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, was indicted in 2012 for allegedly issuing fake rabbinical ordination certificates.
It’s unclear how the latest scandal will affect the race for chief rabbi in France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community. Ten candidates are vying for the votes of the 300 Consistoire delegates charged with electing the chief rabbi.
Gugenheim is not among the candidates, but the man with whom he was sharing interim chief rabbi duties, Olivier Kaufmann, was considered a leading contender before the get affair exploded.
The current scandal concerns a 28-year-old woman named Anaelle whose family left a check for $120,000 made out to a French Jewish charity with Gugenheim’s Paris beit din, or rabbinic court, on March 18.