The announcement that the Chief Rabbi of France Gilles Bernheim has resigned brings to an end his personal deliberation as to how to respond to the scandal that surrounded the disclosures concerning his having committed plagiarism several times and to having mis-represented his own academic credentials on numerous occasions. The fact that it should not have taken him so long and that he should not have equivocated, unfortunately, likely will remain the central focus of discussion about this embarrassing episode; but in fact this ugly scandal within the French Jewish community exposes several other problems which also need to be reviewed.
Rabbis as leaders within the Jewish community are respected for their piety, their writing, and their scholarship. It is not sermons, speeches, or public style which is the measure of a rabbi’s greatness and authority. By plagiarizing, Rabbi Bernheim has undermined the very essence of what all rabbis are judged on. Publishing the words of someone else and representing them as your own can be considered to be theft and according some rabbinic opinions is actually precisely that. While Rabbi Bernheim’s actions are not as heinous as pedophilia, or sexual harassment for which other clergy have been implicated, they certainly bring great pain and embarrassment to the Jewish community; especially in France. This is so despite France’s long traditional willingness to expect and tolerate all forms of scandal from public figures.
Rabbi Bernheim’s conduct was clearly unconscionable; so much more so because he was a public personality not only within the French Jewish community but in his role representing the community to the French authorities. The shame that he has brought not only to himself but to the entire 600,000 or more Jews in France can only be exceeded by what consequences it might bring to the credibility and effectiveness of those who follow him in being accepted and respected as advocates for Jewish issues. Rabbi Bernheim had been in the lead in trying to fight the growing Muslim anti-Semitism in France. In addition, he had made significant inroads in interfaith dialogue. Now his successor and the leadership of the community will need to re-establish their credibility all over again.
There is another more complicated consequence to Rabbi Bernheim’s embarrassing behavior which relates more to the internal life of French Jewry. French Jews are overwhelmingly Sephardic today although before World War II they were almost totally Ashkenazi. When Rabbi Bernheim, an Ashkenazi scholar, was chosen to be Chief Rabbi, his selection had many implications in many French circles. He was seen as a more modern leader; a secularly educated figure; and considered to be more open, broad-minded, and enlightened than many of the leading French rabbis including the former Chief Rabbi; and his progressive philosophy was contrary to the direction that France’s religious Jewish community was moving. His resignation probably will reverse all of these directions as his successor is likely to be more traditional and less sensitive to a modern consideration of the contemporary agenda facing France’s Jews. At the beginning, he also will have less credibility within the larger French public. Given the fears and threats that many French Jews have about the Jewish situation in France today, the loss—to scandal—of a strong advocate at this moment could be very problematic.