Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur leads a congregation belonging to the Mouvement Juif Liberal de France (Liberal Jewish Movement of France). As France’s third female rabbi, she has long believed in the need for Jews to constantly re-evaluate what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. In a November 17 email exchange with the Forward deputy digital editor Anne Cohen, Horvilleur described the tense mood in Paris’s Jewish community and spoke out about the need for continued interfaith dialogue.
How is your congregation dealing with the attacks?
The last couple of days have been tense. Since last January, our community has gotten “used to” — if that’s even possible — having a police or military presence guarding our religious buildings, schools and community centers, but everyone realizes that we need to be all the more vigilant now. The morning after these terrible attacks, our congregation celebrated two b’nei mitzvot. What a strange date to tell a child, “You are now responsible — from a Jewish perspective — for the world, charged with repairing it alongside us.”
It was almost as if we wanted to ask their forgiveness for handing them such a broken and obscure world. Those b’nei mitzvot guided us through that day. I think they represented a source of comfort for our members, a spark of light in the heart of darkness. When we recited the traditional prayer calling for the protection of France, words we say every Shabbat, the words took on a whole new meaning. “Bless and protect the French Republic and the people of France. Enlighten those who preside over the state’s destinies. Make France, cradle of human rights, strong through union and harmony…”
The whole synagogue was in tears.
Do you think these attacks will push more Jews to leave France?
No. I think that those who were considering making aliyah did not wait for these attacks to push those plans forward. I think that what makes these attacks different from those in January is that they did not target a specific group. The nation as a whole was targeted, by virtue of its youth, its values and its way of life. The Jewish victims were not targeted because they were Jewish. It’s horrible to say, but that makes a difference.
What are your hopes for the future of the Jewish community in France?
A community that feels like it’s under constant threat experiences some negative aftereffects. In the last couple of years, identities have become more rigid, more immovable. Ethnic or religious markers have become one’s whole self, rather than a part of a larger whole. French Jews must realize that their traditions and culture enrich the national debate. They can and must have an impact on the conversation beyond issues like Israel and anti-Semitism. It’s something I am trying to address as editor in chief of Tenou’a, a quarterly magazine that brings a modern Jewish perspective on societal issues. Our latest issue addressed sustainable development. The next will discuss refugees.
What message do you think France will take away from these attacks?
My first hope is that these events will get France out of political denial. Over the last couple of months, some have been quick to find economic and sociological “excuses” for those who perpetrate these kinds of attacks, placing the blame with “The West,” or worse, with the victims themselves. Instead, we should increase our support for those who, within Islam, call for peace and cohabitation.
Is interfaith dialogue still necessary, or even possible, after last week’s events?
It’s more important than ever. Jews and Muslims in France have developed an extensive interfaith network over the years, but this can only continue if each tradition accepts that fanatics can use its words for extreme and violent acts. It’s impossible to engage in dialogue if we don’t accept that these fundamentalists are also our “children” and not strangers.
How does your congregation feel about the thousands of Syrian refugees that France has agreed to take in? Have their views changed since the attacks?
I suppose that my community shares many of the concerns voiced by mainstream French society about refugees, but also the same moral obligations. It’s a challenge that we, as a society — and all societies, for that matter — must address. The question is this: Given the identified risks, will we be able to stay true to the values of acceptance and openness that are at the very heart of our national narrative? Jewish thought has a lot to say about this. We know that the job of defining ourselves as a people is never over. We must always picture ourselves on a path towards something — nothing is more dangerous than believing we have already arrived.
The interview is translated from French and has been edited for clarity.
Anne Cohen was the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. When she’s not looking for the secret Jewish history of Voodoo in New Orleans, or making lists about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she writes for The Assimilator. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism with an M.S. magazine concentration in 2012.