I am in Paris once again and making plans to attend Friday night services at the Reform synagogue I discovered two years ago. During the time I spent here in the fall of 2014, I attended Friday and Saturday services, including a bar mitzvah. During that time, I began to understand why Reform Judaism is so popular in France.
In 1791, French Jews were “emancipated” and permitted to be legal citizens of the country where they had lived for hundreds of years. This granting of citizenship rights to French Jews inspired other countries to do the same and it sparked an intellectual debate in Jewish and non-Jewish circles: What was Judaism, if you could also be French and German? Was Judaism a religion, an ethnicity, a race? A national identity? Reform Judaism has its roots in these questions.
Later, Reconstructionist Judaism was founded in the 1930s in America by the Orthodox-trained Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, whose definition of Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people led to the development of what Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz describes as an “approach to Jewish life [that] is deeply immersed in tradition while simultaneously responding to the present and providing a pathway to the future.”
France, today, is a determinedly secular country, where few people attend public worship and marriage is uncommon. If you are Jewish, you are usually either totally secular, or Reform, or Orthodox. There is very little in the middle, no matter if you are Sephardi, Ashkenazi, or Mizrahi. If you are Reform, it means you are secular in your non-shul life but involved in your synagogue, where your prayer book is mostly in French and includes several prayers for the Republic of France. You are proud of your Judaism but, often, you are the only one in your family to pursue the faith of your grandparents. However, you don’t necessarily wear any Judaica or talk too much about it. Being openly Jewish in France is an active choice that people make, not something they take for granted.
At the Paris synagogue, Communauté juive libérale d’Île-de-France, I made friends with several members of Rabbi Pauline Bebe’s conversion class. They were deeply committed. Since, for various reasons, they had not been raised Jewish – most of them had a Jewish parent or a Jewish grandparent, but were raised secular or Catholic – they were now, as part of their process, deciding how they were going to integrate Jewish customs and laws into their lives, including whether or not to keep kosher totally or perhaps be vegetarian in a country devoted to meat, including ham. They were making choices about how to be observant and to what degree, which is something most people born Jewish do not even consider. These friends of mine, who were deciding to keep kosher at home after a lifetime of quiche Lorraine and baguette jambon-beurre, nevertheless get together after services on Friday evening or Saturday afternoon and troop over to the nearest café or brasserie to have a drink or non-kosher meal together.
My own paradox is particular, too. I travelled to Paris by plane on Shabbat, but, when I return home, I need to begin practising my Torah portion for the service I am leading on Yom Kippur.
I am not Reform, but I can understand the need to build your own ritual framework depending on your context. Is that kind of practice one that is typical of Reform? It also seems to be a natural practice for the ever-questioning Reconstructionists I know. As far as I can understand, Reconstructionist Judaism privileges living Jewishly in the contemporary world and finding, with integrity and care, a balance between the spirit of our tradition and the demands of modernity. Rabbi Lester Bronstein describes it “as a serious modern attempt to understand Judaism as a discipline, as a life path and as a response to the holiness that fills our world.”
I often think about whether I should translate Rabbi Kaplan’s 1934 book Judaism as a Civilization into French to see if Reconstructionism can take off in France. While that would be interesting for me, it might not impact the French Jews I know – those friends of mine I will be meeting for wine and frites at the brasserie after Friday night services – who already negotiate quite ably between their various civilizations.