Three weeks before I left Israel, I ventured into a French-language bookstore in Jerusalem to hear a talk by a French rabbi I discovered through podcasts a couple years ago. The small bookstore, Vice Versa, was packed, and I found a place to stand behind the speaker, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur.
Growing up going to a bilingual French school in the states, I’ve long associated French with some of the best learning experiences of my life. I remember in my ninth grade French literature class we analyzed a poem with my teacher Frank Bessone. I was so taken by what we studied that I visualized knowledge as a lake high on a mountain. I imagined that when learning was at its best, you could draw water from that lake.
But more than that, I also associate French with the particular world I come from. Growing up attending a French/international school in San Francisco, I associate French with the best elements of the liberal 1990s/2000s multiculturalism of my youth. Although I don’t mean to present this world uncritically (my access to it certainly speaks to my privilege, and its hold on the world has definitely been challenged recently), this was a values system characterized by pride in the word “cosmopolitan,” an affinity for Manu Chao, optimism about the transition from the Franc to the Euro, and excitement about the achievements of the LGBT-rights movement. I remember in eighth grade one of my history class assignments was to design a campaign poster that supported the European Union. My French history teacher said the best poster was one my classmate made with a rocket blasting off and the slogan “l’union fait la force,” unity makes strength.
But when I walked into that French-language bookstore in Jerusalem, I was rounding out a year in a country that is complicated, but that generally challenges these multicultural values. Where the France-informed San Francisco of my youth celebrates internationalism, speaking multiple languages and liberal values, Israel is diverse, but it tends to celebrate one national/religious group, one language, and values that can be read into ancient text. It’s easy, especially for someone from my background to point out the flaws in how these Israeli values are often being interpreted in today’s Israel. But I do have an appreciation for the rootedness that some forms of Israeli engagement with Judaism can provide and I value how Israel allows for a deep engagement with Judaism and Hebrew.
Still, as I walked into the bookstore, I was weary from the extent to which Israel — and more particularly Jerusalem — felt dominated by a rigid, conservative approach to Jewish identity that leads to a mistreatment of Palestinians, nationalism, sexism and the reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Early in her talk, Horvilleur, who is France’s third woman rabbi, discussed how the story of Jacob and Essau explains how she understands her Jewish identity. In her talk and her book that I later read, Horvilleur draws from rabbinic commentators to point out that Essau, whose name comes from the Hebrew past tense of the word to be, is born completed. In fact, he is covered in hair at birth, symbolizing that he’s already gone through puberty. Horvilleur writes that “Essau is the man whose name is ‘already made.’ He is the anti-embryo par excellence, the man who is already formed and is therefore a non-Hebrew” (my translation of her French). Jacob, in contrast, must become who he is over the course of his life, as is most famously demonstrated by the fact that he receives the name Israel only later in life after wrestling with the angel. Horvilleur argues that Jacob represents Jewish identity, which is always in formation. To be Jewish, Horvilleur argues, means to be becoming.
Horvilleur’s Judaism is also a Judaism of cultural exchange. In her talk, she argued that one of the main reasons Judaism has survived for so long is because of its cultural porousness; Judaism has endured because it borrows from other cultures.
At this point in her talk, I felt a huge sense of relief and excitement. Here was a Judaism that is centered on perpetual self-discovery and cultural exchange. In addition to being compelling, this vision contradicts the rigid approaches I had encountered so much in Israel. Instead, Horvilleur’s approach affirmed positive elements of the values of my upbringing.
And yet at the same time Horvilleur’s conception of Judaism presents useful challenges to these values of my youth. In her talk, Horvilleur discusses the importance of balancing historical progression with traditional custom. Along with an interest in discussing God, this emphasis on respecting esoteric tradition would seem foreign to the world of my upbringing.
Horvilleur also outlines notions of history and text that challenge the culture of my youth and offer decidedly Jewish approaches to life. Like other Jewish thinkers I’ve read, Horvilleur argues that Jewish time is not linear. Horvilleur offers the example of Passover, and the Jewish obligation to reenact the exodus from Egypt every year, as if one is re-experiencing it. By recalling Passover or the revelation at Mount Sinai, Jews are called again and again to fulfill their obligation in the world.
Horvilleur situates the importance of text within this context of a non-linear history — she writes that every generation must learn to read texts anew and writes, “If the rabbis made Jewish children, it’s primarily to make new readers for the book.”
Horvilleur’s Judaism is a Judaism that balances loyalty to tradition with cultural porousness. Her Judaism is feminist and welcoming, while being deeply informed by Jewish understandings of obligation and text. And her Judaism is true to Jewish history, while being progressive.
Walking out of the bookstore in Jerusalem, I was reminded that the worlds opened to me by the French language and the French-San Franciscan environment of my youth are in fact an integral part of what I want to carry forward. I was reminded that being true to Jewish tradition means being both traditional and progressive. Walking out of the bookstore, I felt the excitement that comes with being reminded of why I want to be a rabbi.