Gilles Bernheim, the chief rabbi of France, refused to quit on Tuesday despite admitting to several counts of plagiarism and deception about his academic credentials.
The revelations have shocked France’s 600,000-strong Jewish community and Bernheim has come under pressure to quit, but he said resigning would be a “desertion” as he came clean on one of the faithful’s main radio stations in the country.
“It would be an act of pride and against the collegial structure that presides over decisions. I assume my functions fully,” Bernheim, 60, a modern Orthodox Jew who was elected grand rabbi in 2008, told Radio Shalom.
“I ask for forgiveness from all those close to me, my family and the community as a whole that I have disappointed,” he said.
Bernheim has seemed to be at the height of his career in recent months after his booklet against same-sex marriage laid out the intellectual argument for France’s multi-faith movement against the government’s plan to legalise it later this year.
The disclosures also come when France’s political elite is under intense scrutiny following the resignation of the country’s budget minister over a secret foreign account that has created the biggest sleaze scandal of President Francois Hollande’s 11-month-old Socialist government.
Bernheim’s troubles began last month when a blogger accused him of copying a 1996 text by the late French post-modernist philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard to use in his 2011 book “Forty Jewish Meditations”.
Bernheim responded by saying he was a victim of Lyotard’s plagiarism of notes from lectures he had delivered in the 1980s when he was Jewish student chaplain in Paris.
Two weeks later, he admitted Lyotard had authored the disputed passage and blamed a student researcher he hired to help write the book because he was too busy with other duties.
His philosophical and historical defence of traditional marriage had attracted the attention of former Pope Benedict, who unexpectedly praised it in his annual speech to the Vatican Curia last December, calling it “profoundly moving”.
But even that has been called into question.
Jean-Noel Darde, a French academic who fights against plagiarism and has been one of the sources of the accusations, said on Tuesday that Bernheim had also plagiarised in that leaflet, prompting France’s largest Jewish association to demand an explanation of the rabbi’s behaviour.
Last week, another blogger accused Bernheim of plagiarism in a 2002 book and L’Express magazine revealed he had not earned the prestigious rank of philosophy professor that was often attached to his name.
Although his official biography did not mention him passing the “agregation”. the highly selective examination needed to qualify as a professor, Bernheim never disputed the title when it appeared in newspaper articles and publicity for his books.
Bernheim was rabbi of the largest synagogue in Paris and was a leading Jewish intellectual when he challenged predecessor, Joseph Sitruk, in a hard-fought campaign to become chief rabbi in 2008 that revealed deep divisions in French Judaism.
“When you’re successful a lot of people consider you as some sort of hero … so you don’t want to disappoint them so you propagate the image they have of you,” Bernheim told the station, sounding calm as admitted and explained each allegation in turn.
The scandal follows similar ones in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s defence and education ministers had to quit after parts of their doctoral theses were found to be plagiarised, and the resignation of an Italian anti-corruption campaigner who claimed academic degrees he did not have.
Hungary’s president also had to resign a year ago after a plagiarism scandal over his doctorate.