Elsa Cayat had little patience for God. In that respect, she fit well at Charlie Hebdo, for whom she wrote a weekly column as resident psychoanalyst. Still, she had been known for an extravagance of intellect, a contrarian flair that was, in the view of some, her inheritance as a Jew, and her siblings felt her funeral should acknowledge this. Their aged parents, mistrustful of religion in the manner of many on the French Left, were reticent, but said all right.

The ceremony was held on a blustery January morning, just days after the terror killings in and around Paris that left Cayat and 16 others dead. Her siblings introduced their parents to the woman who would be eulogizing their daughter. “This is the secular rabbi,” they said, and presented a kind-spoken, youthful woman in circular glasses named Delphine Horvilleur. This designation was a paradox, but not altogether misleading; Horvilleur, who is indeed a rabbi but is also religious, did not contest it.

She is not what most French expect, in either image or substance, when they think of a rabbi. To begin, she is a Liberal, and thus a member of an all-but-unknown minority among French Jews, nearly all of whom are Orthodox. Horvilleur, who is 40, is also a woman, one of only three to serve as rabbis in France. (Her secular admirers in the French press have been known to marvel, a bit backwardly, that so charming a female should choose a life of the cloth.) The Judaism she practices, far from the worship of ritual that is the French norm, is a doctrine of inquiry, of unraveling dogmas and interrogating traditions, a celebration of the profane thrill of interpreting and reinterpreting the sacred.

Before the hundreds who huddled in the grayness, crowding beneath a tent in the Jewish section of the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Horvilleur, who had fretted over finding a tone of appropriate humility, irreverence and pain, described Cayat’s work as a psychoanalyst. “She was neither Freudian nor Lacanian,” she said. “She was ‘Cayatian,’ a school apart, the school of someone who cherishes freedom to the point of forever teaching it to others, the school of someone who knows how to see into your depths and tell you exactly where it hurts, who knows where to place her words, who knows how to play with them so that the language heals you.”

It would not have escaped the attention of a careful listener that the rabbi was attempting precisely such a feat herself. For all the two women’s differences—which extended even to the realm of the sartorial, with Horvilleur favoring pants and dark turtlenecks, where Cayat was known to pair her jogging outfit with stilettos and fur—their talents and ideals appear to have been quite similar. “This wordplay,” Horvilleur went on, “this passion for language and debate, as you know, is very dear to Judaism and its sages. I think she perhaps could have made a very good rabbi—I hope she won’t be angry with me for telling her this, her, the secular Jew, the practicing atheist.”

Horvilleur then recounted an episode from the Talmud, the story of a Yeshiva debate that she likened, in a moment of playful subversion, to “an editorial meeting at Charlie Hebdo.” God has intervened in a theological argument to declare Rabbi Eliezer the winner; Rabbi Yoshoua rises to his feet, Horvilleur told the mourners, to challenge God, “This discussion is none of your business! You entrusted us with a law, a responsibility, now it’s in our hands. Keep out of our debates.” God laughed and remarked tenderly, “My children have defeated me!” she said.

Horvilleur had chosen the story because it seemed to her “Cayatian,” she said, “the story of a deity who laughs and delights in cheeky humanity,” a “God of freedom” who has delegated to his charges the responsibility of their world and the agency to do with it as they please.

Afterward, the surviving members of Charlie Hebdo wept and took her in their arms, and Elsa Cayat’s reticent parents asked that the eulogy be published.

***

It is tempting to see in Horvilleur a symbol of some détente between religion and a French lay society that, in the presence of a large, post-colonial Muslim minority, has stiffened in its anti-religiousness. For the time being, though, her ease in the idioms of both the sacred and the profane, and her vision of the two realms as gently interwoven, make her more a curiosity than the herald of any trend. “I understand why they come talk to me,” she said of the reporters who have sought her out in recent years, and especially since the January killings. “I know full well that I represent the friendly face of ‘what religions could be,’ ” she said, but “I am not at all representative.” Horvilleur’s relations with the country’s conservative official Jewish instances, led by men who maintain that women cannot be rabbis, are cordial but strained. (She was ordained at Hebrew Union College, in New York.) “Like all religions,” Horvilleur said, Judaism “has problems with women.”

In the French media, where stories about her inevitably run under the headline “Madame Le Rabbin”—an expression that rings a bit odd, as intended, as there is no female word for “rabbi” in French—her existence is often posited as thrilling proof that the country’s intransigent secularism can indeed help cure religion of the backwardness that is understood to define it. Horvilleur “has a cheerful face and bright eyes … the precise speech and the modern look of an active young woman of today,” wrote Anne Fulda, a prominent political and society columnist at Le Figaro, in a lengthy 2013 profile. “On the outside, aside from her curly hair that calls to mind the ringlets of Orthodox Jewish men (‘But mine are natural,’ she laughs), nothing could suggest that Delphine Horvilleur is a rabbi.”

The French tend to view religion not only as inherently other but also as a “destabilizing factor” and a “threat,” Horvilleur said. She is, then, reassuring: “neither aggressive nor subversive,” Fulda wrote, without explanation, in Le Figaro. “Just contemporary.” (However radically vulgar Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures may be, the mix of apprehension and disdain they express toward religion is common in France, where there is a long tradition, especially on the left, of hard, “bouffe-curé” anticlericalism. As a left-leaning Frenchwoman, Horvilleur said, she finds the newspaper’s humor irreverent and “fairly wholesome,” if sometimes unduly stigmatizing or misguided. She is not a regular reader.)

Less than a month after the killings, at a Tu B’Shevat ceremony for about 80 members of the congregation to which she belongs, the Jewish Liberal Movement of France, she led a singing of “Sheleg Al Iri,” a song by the Israeli musician Naomi Shemer; only she and an Israeli Hebrew school teacher seemed to know the words or melody, though the other congregants hummed and mumbled gamely. Shortly afterward, she led the group in the singing of “Auprès de mon arbre,” a minor song by the beloved French outcast-poet and musician Georges Brassens, which she presented jokingly as a “traditional Jewish chant.” Here her congregants participated with far more self-assurance. If, on the dark street four stories down, the two young soldiers assigned to guard the synagogue were able to hear Brassens emanating from this house of worship, they were surely surprised.

While her progressivism has made her a darling of secular society, she is not tender with the French model, in its current form at any rate. The stringent secularism that has spread in the past two decades has sown the very community divisions it allegedly seeks to head off, she says, creating a class of so-called “communitarian” offenders out of what were, previously, innocuously, individual Muslims or Jews. Muslims and Jews have, in turn, come to think of themselves increasingly as communities, with collective interests that may conflict with those of society at large.

In France, Muslims and Jews have come to think of themselves increasingly as communities, with collective interests that may conflict with those of society at large.

The murders in January, perpetrated by men claiming ties to al-Qaida and the Islamic State, of course did little to convince many French of the virtues of religious belief or identification. The French government swiftly announced that the teaching and application of laïcité, the country’s official secularism, would be reinforced in schools. This suggested a conviction that any accommodation of religion might invite religious violence—that in order to prevent any further tragedies, state schools would have to be even more unflinching in their refusal to allow Muslim girls or Jewish boys to enter with their respective head-coverings, for instance, or in their refusal to offer halal or kosher meals.

The current moment is one of intransigence, of “juvenile regression” into intolerance and the “negation of our complexities,” Horvilleur said. Thirty years ago, in her public grade school in Nancy, in eastern France, when tests were scheduled for Saturdays, Jewish students were granted alternate test times to allow them to practice their Sabbath rituals; this seemed to bother no one. There was “a certain flexibility” in the country then, she said.

“I grew up in a France where, when I was a child or even a teenager, at no time did anyone tell me that I belonged to the ‘Jewish community,’ ” she said. She regarded herself “as a Jewish French girl, or as a French Jewish girl, in one order or the other.” Only in the 1990s—as social tensions rose over Muslim girls wearing headscarves, and as religious practice in general was increasingly viewed as incompatible with a full life in society—did the notion of a “Jewish community” enter the public discourse. “This was a term that didn’t exist,” she said. Whether it was first used by French Jews or non-Jews she does not know, but in any case it is not an expression she endorses. “As if all that identified me were my Jewishness, as if this were the only component of my identity,” she said.

Still, despite herself, her Jewishness has lately come to the fore. After the January attack at a kosher market, she no longer brings her children grocery shopping; she has caught herself remarking to friends that men with peyos are “courageous” to ride the Métro in Paris. As much as she detests the “competition for victim-status” in which the French tend to engage, jockeying for recognition from the entitlement state—this is “the great French malady,” she said—she finds herself reassured by the soldiers who have been assigned since the killings to guard synagogues and other Jewish sites throughout the country. And yet she worries that protection will be viewed by some non-Jews as yet another symbol of Jewish privilege, reinforcing notions of a “Jewish community.” “It’s normal that the state protect us,” Horvilleur said, using the first-person-plural in what seemed an unconscious confirmation of her fears. “But at the same time, the more they protect us, the more they weaken us.”

***

Horvilleur was raised by the children of Holocaust survivors, and her grandparents’ sense of terror and gratitude were the poles of her childhood. Her maternal grandparents, deportees from Munkács, in the Carpathian mountains of Czechoslovakia, were “phantoms,” she said, “shut away in their pain,” all but incapable of speech and deeply mistrustful of non-Jews, whom they understood as their killers. Her father’s parents, Jews from French families predating the Revolution, survived in France, hidden and protected by non-Jews.

Her paternal grandfather, a rabbi, was also the principal of a local public school; he removed his kipa every day upon entering. “The school is the temple of the French Republic,” Horvilleur explained, and her grandfather believed “you don’t enter with religious objects.” He treated the Republic, to which he felt he owed his life, “practically as a religion,” she said. Shortly before his death in 1992, when he was 75 and she 15, she fought with him over the Muslim veil, which he felt should be banned from schools so as to help Muslim girls “think beyond their origins.” (France’s law banning the veil and other religious accessories was passed in 2004.) “For me, it was a violation of liberté,” she said, even if she did not care for “what the veil represents.” “And for him, it was a violation of égalité.”

At the time, she believed that her grandfather’s vision of laïcité, in which equality is guaranteed not by the impartial treatment of difference but rather by the imposition of conformity, belonged to a less complex, less diverse era, she said. It has since become the norm. “I think there is, in this pure, secular ideal, something a bit naive,” she said. “In reality, religion can never be a purely private matter, and it can’t be a coat one takes off at the school entrance, either. Religion is not a coat.”

As a child, she was sent to the only local synagogue, an Orthodox congregation whose rhetoric regarding women and Jewish otherness, including the suggestion of “a certain Jewish superiority,” did not sit well with her. Scripture was being manipulated or misinterpreted, she felt; from a young age, she felt “the official reading of the texts was hiding something else, that it was sheltering something else,” she said. “And I think that if I hadn’t believed this, I would have quite simply left the synagogue. But I always thought the text could say, or in fact meant, something other than what they were making it say.”

Scripture offered, too, some knowledge of her impenetrable maternal grandparents. “Their silence really fed my search, my will to find something between the lines,” Horvilleur said. “That is, I realize that my attachment to exegesis, to interpretation, to searching between the lines for all that’s missing in the text, all that’s not said—I think it’s akin to a conversation with a world that’s disappeared, a conversation that I couldn’t have with them.”

After a period in Israel after high school—“All of sudden, Israel seemed to me a response to my identity issues,” she said, a natural reconciliation of her “Jewish particularism” with her “quest for the universal,” but her sense of internal contradiction endured—she returned to France to study with Jewish scholars in Paris. Her interest was purely academic at the start, she said; she was intrigued by Jewish rites and drawn to the “intellectual exercise” of exegesis but did not consider herself a practicing Jew. Wanting to undertake Talmudic studies that, as a woman in France, she could not, she moved to New York. It was only at the suggestion of a Long Island rabbi, her instructor in a course in psychoanalysis and rabbinic thought at the Skirball Center in Manhattan, that she first considered the possibility of the rabbinate. “All of a sudden, it seemed obvious to me,” she said. “But I never could have put it into words myself.”

***

In February, about three weeks after the killings, Horvilleur was told she had been named “Manager of the Year” by Le Nouvel Economiste, an elite independent newspaper. She had “no idea at all” why they had named her, she said. Gérard Biard, the top editor of Charlie Hebdo, would also be receiving a prize, as would an imam from Marseille. The theme of the awards ceremony was to be “free speech.”

“It’s a bit surprising, on the face of it, to name a rabbi, even if she is a woman, manager of the year,” said the woman who introduced Horvilleur, a columnist and political commentator named Michèle Cotta. Cotta, speaking from a lectern to a concrete amphitheater filled with silent men dressed in suits of blue and gray, spoke of “the modernization of religion” and of her surprise in discovering that a woman—and “one who is young and pretty, no less”—should be a rabbi. Horvilleur had been chosen, however, for her conviction that “if one stops at the literal text, be it sacred, be it revealed, one risks locking oneself away in dogmatism and, especially, in a worldview that cannot tolerate an opposing perspective,” Cotta said. “In the times we’re living in, an affirmation such as yours is more than necessary, it is vital for our tolerant and secular society.” Horvilleur’s role, as Cotta understood it, is “to produce confidence, to reassure with confidence.”

Horvilleur silently mounted the steps to the raised lectern and unfolded a short sermon on Jewish humor.

“Recent events suggest that the God of monotheism doesn’t have much humor,” she said. “So, it falls upon the attentive reader of religious texts to reestablish a forgotten truth: In the Bible, God is capable of making very good jokes.” She cited the preposterous pregnancy of 89-year-old Sarah, Moses’ stutter, and God’s choice to “make the Hebrews walk in circles in the desert for 40 years, even though their destination is just a few kilometers away.” Laughter murmured, briefly. Religious texts are to be understood only with a certain “interpretative distance,” she said, and the rabbis of the Talmud, “faithful to this humor” of God, “distance themselves from literal meaning in order to, quite often, make the text say what it doesn’t say at all.” (The theme of the spring issue of Tenou’a, a review of Jewish thought that Horvilleur directs, was, “Does God have a sense of humor?”)

Horvilleur: ‘In the Bible, God is capable of making very good jokes.’

She concluded by suggesting that this interpretative “Jewish humor” and “distanced reading” ought to be taught in schools. They are, she said with a pleasing bit of wordplay, “at once the guarantee of our freedom of expression, and the very expression of our freedom.” The dour audience applauded, and the editor of Le Nouvel Economiste, an exceptionally kempt man of cold, buffed features, thanked her for a “very fine address.”

Next was the imam, Haroun Derbal, who arrived at the lectern smiling, in an open collar and a dark suit coat that was slightly rumpled and slightly too large. He seemed to have assigned himself the impossibly grave task, made all the more difficult by a heavy Algerian accent and his sometimes approximate French, of proving the basic compatibility of Islam and French notions of liberty, though he declined to say a word about the caricatures of Muhammad that had so angered the Charlie Hebdo killers. He cited the preamble to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as three Quranic passages that demonstrate, he said, that “all points of view are possible and audible” within Islam. He ended his address with the third of these, a story of Noah, who declines to force his belief in God upon his people. “Should we compel you to accept it, when you are repulsed by it?” Derbal recited. This was a cryptic conclusion; Derbal offered neither an answer to Noah’s question nor an exegesis of the story, and unfortunately mispronounced the final word of the passage such that the meaning of the whole was impossible to know. “Thank you, Mr. Derbal,” the editor said.

Now Biard, the slight, balding Charlie Hebdo editor, spoke. “This last while, I’ve often said—and I’ll say it again until it becomes obvious to everyone—freedom of speech, freedom of satire, the freedom to laugh, including about the worst things, the freedom to blaspheme, the freedom to contest, to oppose—everything that Charlie embodies, can’t exist without laïcité,” Biard said. “Because only laïcité allows for the exercise of democracy.”

Afterward, as the laureates stood in a line at the base of the amphitheater to pose for a photograph, Biard extended his hand to Horvilleur and they shook hands and laughed as the imam stood silently between the two of them. “That was really great,” Biard told her. He did not offer his hand to the imam.

“She’s an admirable and invaluable woman,” Biard said later, praising Horvilleur’s taste for questioning and interpretation, “this approach of challenging dogmas.” “The function of a religion is to discuss the texts,” and not only to cite and obey them, he said. “Too often we forget this.” He sees this practice honored “only in Judaism,” he said, though he acknowledged that he was familiar with all faiths only “in a pretty distant way.”

At the cocktail reception, a pale and abstemious-looking man in a gray suit approached Horvilleur to shake her hand, which presently held a flute of champagne. She tucked an award diploma, which she had been holding in her left hand, under her arm, transferred the champagne to her left hand and extended her right hand to the man, who did not identify himself but remarked that he had not realized that women could be rabbis. Horvilleur explained that she was a member of a liberal Jewish movement. The man announced that he was a Protestant, and then discreetly retired from the conversation. Horvilleur appeared accustomed.

***

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