French Feminist Rabbi Captivates Multifaith Crowds With Musings on Mortality

French Feminist Rabbi Captivates Multifaith Crowds With Musings on Mortality

Were it not for the pandemic, Rabbi Horvilleur’s words might well have stayed within her liberal Jewish congregation of 1,200 in Paris. In France, notes Yonathan Arfi, president of a council representing 75 French Jewish institutions, the vast majority of France’s estimated 600,000 Jews identify as Orthodox.

The rabbi is something of a paradox, Olivier Nora, president of Editions Grasset, which published her book on death as well as an earlier work, “Reflections on the Question of Antisemitism,” said. “First you see this charming, extremely intelligent, very good-looking and interesting person. She appears joyful, but she seems to carry a lot of melancholy,” he said. “She’s healing the suffering of a lot of families in France.”

Rabbi Horvilleur describes her own story using the root of the Hebrew word for wisdom, binah, or in between. Her paternal family came to France centuries ago. “They were saved by the righteous during the war and were grateful to the French nation,” she said. Her mother’s parents were Czech Holocaust survivors who told her to stay away from non-Jews for fear they might kill again. “This led to my desperate attempts to create links between irreconcilable universes,” she said.

She understands God the way the Jewish mystics do: as infinite, distant and impossible to describe. “I believe in transcendence, in sacredness. So often I witness fascinating signs or mystical manifestations, and I’m free to interpret them,” she said.

Humor, she believes, is central to interpretation. “What could be more absurd than 89-year-old Sarah, wife of Abraham in the Bible, having a baby?” she pointed out.

And laughter, she said, has a place at funerals. When she presided at the Paris burial of a Frenchman who had lived in Florida, his ornate coffin was too large to fit in the hole in the ground. “We started to laugh about the typical French caricature of Americans. Their cars are too big. Even their caskets are double-sized,” she said.

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