THE DIFFICULT HAPPINESS OF BEING JEWISH. Pauline Bebe is the rabbi of Communauté Juive Libérale (CJL), a Progressive Jewish congregation in Paris, where she was the first female rabbi to lead a synagogue.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Pauline Bebe, is it true that you are the first French female rabbi?

Yes, also the first on continental Europe after Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi in the world. She was ordained in 1938 when there was a seminary in Berlin. Unfortunately she was deported to Theresienstadt and then  Auschwitz.

Does Jewish law say that women cannot be rabbis?  

No, because the question was never asked in a world that did not give women the same status as men.

“The philosophy of Judaism is to maintain hope in times of difficulties, and we have to fight for our ideals of democracy, of humanity, of respect for every living person.”

Pauline Bebe

Pauline Bebe co-founded the Emouna program, the grand gathering of religions where priests, imams, pastors, rabbis and Buddhist monks all meet.

Pauline Bebe, why did you want to be a rabbi?

Service to people is the main part of the rabbinical world, and I learned that from my father who was a pediatrician and my mother who was a lawyer. I had my bat mitzvah in 1977 and was very interested by philosophy and Judaism, and I went on studying. Then it became obvious that my vocation was to be a rabbi.

How many years did it take?

Two years in London at Leo Baeck College, two years in Jerusalem, and then another year back at Leo Baeck before I became a rabbi in 1990. I was ordained in the West London Synagogue by Rabbi Albert Friedlander.

Are you now accepted as a rabbi like any other in France?

It depends who you ask! I have my own community of 600 families, so it has grown a lot and developed a lot. My congregants respect me fully as a rabbi, and I feel well accepted in the French Jewish landscape.

What does it mean to be a Progressive or Liberal Jew?  

Two main principles define Liberal Judaism. The first is that we believe in a progressive revelation, meaning that revelation can happen at any time, even now. The second principle is that we are convinced that Judaism has always changed according to the place and time, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t continue to change.

Liberal Judaism adapts to modernity?

Yes, but not without thinking about it. One of the obvious changes is the equality of men and women, but there are also issues like Jewish identity and how you transmit Judaism. Progressive Judaism says education is the main thing, not birth, which means that today there are Jewish people that have neither a Jewish father nor a Jewish mother. They have a Jewish education, and so they are included in the community when they become Jewish.

Is Progressive Judaism now more popular than the Judaism of more conservative Jewish communities? 

The World Union for Progressive Judaism exists in more than 50 countries with almost 2 million Jews, and the festivals and prayers are the same, except that within the prayers, for example, we don’t pray for the rebuilding of the Temple, because we don’t want to go back to animal sacrifices. Prayers should correspond to our conscience. We can’t say things we don’t agree with.

The Kaddish is a Jewish prayer that the Orthodox say cannot be recited unless there is a “minyan” of ten adult men present. What happens in the Liberal world?  

It was simply ten men because of circumstances and the criteria of a world when women didn’t have the same rights and duties. In Progressive Judaism we include women in the minyan, saying to women as to men: we need your presence, we need you. It feels right to do that.

“A lot of Jews feel that they are not understood; that whatever they say or do will not be understood, but they also think that more than ever they have to reclaim their Judaism.”

Pauline Bebe, what is the role of the rabbi? 

The rabbi is a teacher. Rabbis are supposed to know more about Judaism than others, which is not always true. Teacher means formally in a classroom with adults, adolescents and children, but it also means in an informal way, when you meet someone in the street or supermarket. We try to transmit our love and passion for the texts, philosophy and ethics of Judaism that have survived for all these years.

What is your actual job?

We teach classes. We also accompany people in the main events of their lives: birth, growing up, bar and bat mitzvah, weddings, and illness and death. Pastoral work is very important, and we visit people in hospital and in their homes. The community is also a place for lots of religious events, and cultural events which we help organise. Our job is very varied. Not one day is the same as the next.

Can one convert to Judaism?

People think that Judaism does not proselytize, which is true now, but was not always true. Many texts in Judaism advise not only open to the door but some of them even go after converts. Today, in Progressive Judaism active proselytizing is not on the agenda at all, but we welcome people who would like to become Jewish. We teach them to learn to read and write Hebrew. They have to belong to a community, to come very regularly over time for Shabbat and festivals and to introduce Jewish practice at home. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

Do you eat kosher food like the Orthodox Jews?  

Kashrut, the laws about food, is important to us. We ask people not to eat any forbidden food or animals. We also think about an eco-kashrut, about how animals are being treated, because a very important principle is not to cause pain to animals. We think about not eating eggs that come from industrial production, and to sensitise people to think about how people are treated when they work for the food industry. My synagogue is now vegetarian, which is our way to contribute to the environment.

Is a woman rabbi now normal in Progressive Judaism?

Probably still less than in the Anglo-Saxon world, we are only five here in France so we are still an exception. In my community I feel completely respected, but in general, and not just in the religious world, equality is not yet achieved.

Liberal Judaism is more popular in Anglo-Saxon countries than in Europe?

Progressive Judaism started in Germany before the war, and it was very popular and also popular France. After the war, the centres became England and the United States. But Progressive Judaism has slowly developed in many different countries. We now have 15 different very active communities in France. With modernity people need to find their roots.

It was reported that recently many French Jews moved to Israel because of anti-Semitism. How do you feel about this?

It’s not easy to see anti-Semitism going back up. It is an echo of what’s happening in Israel, and we have to be vigilant.  In my community not many have left. Since the events of 7th October more people need to know what it means to be Jewish in a positive way, and so they come to synagogue to feel solidarity. The situation is very complex and difficult. A lot of Jews feel that they are not understood; that whatever they say or do will not be understood, but they also think that more than ever they have to reclaim their Judaism.

How can you reassure them?

Our role is to re-establish moderation. Things are not black and white. We have to try and make sure that the Jewish community has the right information, because information has become a weapon. The media takes sides and a Jewish principle and rabbinical goal is to find the truth. Often we discover that what has been said is not really the truth. The media is a caricature of Israeli society, because in Israel there are different voices. I recently heard political leaders saying, “We are a Democratic state so Muslims should be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount,” and that’s what’s going to happen. These voices are not heard in France at all, because people only want to hear extremists. Some Palestinians are demonstrating against Hamas, but we don’t see that here at all. The detail of the information and its nuances are so important.

Pauline Bebe

The very first international convention of the World Union for Progressive Judaism took place in 1928 when leaders of the newly formed organization gathered in Berlin – the birthplace of Reform Judaism.

Pauline Bebe

Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi in the world. She was ordained in 1938 when there was a seminary in Berlin. Unfortunately she was deported to Theresienstadt and then Auschwitz.

Pauline Bebe

The Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism was founded in Tel Aviv in 1991 by a group of leaders with a vision for a modern Israel grounded in pluralism and egalitarianism. They recognized the growing need to provide a Jewish home for countless Israelis who were deeply connected to the Jewish tradition yet were not Orthodox in their values or practice.

Pauline Bebe

Pauline Bebe was the first female rabbi in France, and the first female rabbi to lead a synagogue there. Portrait by Laura Stevens.

Pauline Bebe

Pauline Bebe is the rabbi of Communauté Juive Libérale (CJL), a Progressive Jewish congregation in Paris

Pauline Bebe

Brith leda ceremony for a baby girl who enters the covenant of Israel

“I hope for peace. I hope for dialogue with everyone.”

Pauline Bebe, how is it now to be Jewish?

We call it the  “difficult happiness of being Jewish”(Neher). From the time of the Bible to today, unfortunately the Jewish people went through difficult times, and yet we’re still here. Hassidism developed in the Middle Ages, also a time when Jews were persecuted, and the Hasidic rabbi Schneor Zalamn from Lydia said “it’s enough to have one little light to enlighten a whole dark room.” The philosophy of Judaism is to maintain hope in times of difficulties, and we have to fight for our ideals of democracy, of humanity, of respect for every living person. This fight is a good fight.

How do you handle the relationship with other religious faiths?  

I created Emouna, a program of meetings between all the different religions that also exists in Belgium, the Netherlands, and soon in Italy. When you can open a true dialogue with people, then you can talk about everything, including conflicts and controversial questions. It helps when you know that you don’t possess the truth. In one session someone said, “Truth is like a mirror that is broken, and everyone is taking a piece of that mirror.”(Inès Safi) When everyone is trying to do their best and to understand the other, you can have friendship between people of different religions or ethics.

Is there a common point that all Jews agree on, whether Liberal or Orthodox?

There are many. We say that the world is not perfect but we need to make it better, that human beings are born with a good side and a bad side and they have to try and make sure that the good side wins the battle. Study which is central to good practice, and ethical ideas are expressed in acts of everyday life. The idea of Shabbat is that we will gather for a day and stop our work and think about what we are doing. The idea of kashrut mentioned earlier, and how we should welcome foreigners and strangers, acknowledge the equal dignity of every human being and the sanctity of life. Even in the most sombre moments, you can find hope. These are the main ideas of Judaism.

Do Jews feel lonely today?

Yes, they do. When they come to synagogue they feel happier. It’s not that the world and the problems disappear, but my synagogue is called Maayan, meaning wellspring or source. They come to re-source themselves.

How do French Jews, Progressive or Orthodox, feel about the fact that they are French but there is Israel?

In the texts we find that for thousands of years people pray for the return to Jerusalem, and among French Jews many have family in Israel. We have to make sure it’s still a home for Jews and that there is peace in the region, and that people can live together in our ideals of equality and democracy and respect for all religions.

At the end of the day, what do you hope for? 

I hope for peace. I hope for dialogue with everyone. It’s the hope of the prophets of the Bible, and maybe it’s not so realistic but we have to stay optimistic.

Is faith important?  

The word faith doesn’t exist in Hebrew. For Judaism, every day action, whether ethical or ritual, is much more important than faith.  The minimum of faith is to believe that we human beings are not everything. That’s why we wear the kippah, that you put on your head to show that there is something beyond human beings. And to be optimistic. As Ahad Ha’am said: “To be a realist in Israel you have to believe in miracles!”

Is it difficult to be both a mother of four children and a rabbi?

I hope I am a good mother and a good rabbi. Of course you have to share your time, but it’s the same for my husband Tom who is also a rabbi. Being a good mother actually teaches me to be a good rabbi, and vice versa.

Thank you.