Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Liberal Judaism in France: a theory

So we've been wondering a bit about the state of Judaism in France. On the one hand, this is a liberal state in which freedom of religion is one of the rights of the citoyen. France was the first European state to emancipate and enfranchise its Jews, in 1791. And it certainly has a history, over the last 200 years at least, in which Jews were generally well integrated into public life, despite some incidents of anti-Semitism. Indeed, many prominent French intellectuals, like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Bernard-Henri Lévy, are Jewish. On the other hand, there are apparently fewer than ten liberal synagogues in the entire country, with a population of around 600,000 Jews. We have seen black hats and tichels of every variety around the Marais, along with black velvet kippot, tallit katan with or without tassels hanging out, beards of all lengths, payot or no payot etc. -- suggesting, in other words, a wide variety of the Orthodox flavor of Judaism. Where, then, are the Reform Jews (or even the Conservative ones)?

A solution to this question was proposed by my friend Liz, who's writing a Ph.D. about the history of the Dreyfus affair, read through gender. Dreyfus, of course, was another integrated French Jew. Liz pointed out that there's a general lack of moderate religious practice in France: that to claim to be a faithful Catholic, for example, is often tantamount to claiming right-wing political affiliations. To be liberal and integrated, in France, is usually to be secular. Thus there is little call for institutions to support those who are both liberal and observant (as we are). It's sort of interesting to imagine, but also a little bit sad, not least because it seems to be another nail in the coffin of religious moderation in the Western world.

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