A psychological portrait of Gilles Bernheim, France's former Chief Rabbi, disgraced last spring in a scandal of plagiarism, a bogus philosophy degree and deep human denial.
PARIS — His boyhood dream was to be a pro cyclist. Growing up in the southeastern French city of Aix-les-Bains, he used to ride his racing bike non-stop every day after school on the winding roads above the Lac du Bourget.
“Being a bicycle racer is not a job for a Jew, you won’t have time to read!" his parents used to tell him. But little Gilles kept racing.
At the age of 14 when his father died, the whole family moved to Strasbourg. With no mountains in this eastern city, he resigned himself to being a brilliant student.
He was “excellent but dreamy and shy in class,” remembers Armand Abécassis, his former philosophy teacher, who now runs studies at the Jewish organization Alliance Israélite Universelle. Gilles would then move on to Paris, burying himself so deeply in books that he would sometimes miss his metro station. He studied religion at the Vauquelin street rabbinical school and philosophy at the Sorbonne.
His goal was to become a rabbi while obtaining his teaching degree. Such a mix between religion and secular studies suited him well, and would make his orthodox mother — who'd majored in math — quite proud.
Gilles Bernheim puts all his heart into everything he does, and he studied the Talmud and philosophy with the same dedication he used to ride his bike through the roads of the Savoie region.
Presidential accolades, scholarly acclaim
In 2008, at the age of 56, after having led the congregation at the prestigious Victory synagogue in Paris, he became the chief rabbi of France, which follows only Israel and the United States in Jewish population with some 500,000 Jews.
One year later, then French President Nicolas Sarkozy awarded him with the nation's highest civilian medal, the Légion d’Honneur, in front of cabinet ministers and renowned guests. Sarkozy praised his work: “On top of being chief rabbi, you managed to get the highest teaching degree in philosophy…” Bernheim listened, without a blink.
So many times his name was associated with this degree, and Gilles Bernheim never stopped or corrected anyone. He confirmed it when writing his own entry in the Who’s Who directory of famous people. It also appears next to the rabbi’s preface of a book published in 2009 by the French Hebrew Central Consistory, overseeing Judaism in France.
Then, out of nowhere, a bomb was dropped last April among intellectuals, politicians, and of course, the French Jewish community. Jérome Dupuis, a journalist for French weekly L'Express, revealed that the philosopher-rabbi had taken credit for a slew of borrowed literary quotations, and that his name indeed did not appear on the graduate list for the highest French teaching degree in philosophy.
An "unyielding" Ashkenazi
Charged with upholding ancient Jewish law, the man who embodies moral authority was suddenly accused of plagiarism and touting a bogus resume. “We always have to hear him telling us that we don’t follow the 613 mitsvot divine orders in the Torah correctly, and then he tells lies!” says one outraged liberal Jewish woman.
Gilles Bernheim is not a big talker. He is anxious, and tough on himself. He is unyielding, affected, cold, discreet, and does not smile much. Just like his psychoanalyst wife Joëlle.
“If you want to see polar opposites, you take an Alsatian Jew and a "Tune Jew" ( Tunisia Jew)," says one of Bernheim's Tunisian friends. He describes the rabbi’s cozy but dark apartment as something of an ominous planet. “Each corner is filled with books, religious objects and furniture. Not a space left to smile.”
Since the scandal broke, the rabbi has spoken even less than before. His friends find him distraught, with a “broken voice.” But like someone who denies the evidence, he still gives lectures, as if he had apologized. He does not believe that he has failed his religious duty, but rather that he is paying too high a price for what he did.
“For now, I just try to help him not to fall apart,” says his 30-year-old son Eliya.
Damage control, denial
Right after L’Express revealed the truth about him, France’s chief rabbi spent a day at a friend’s house with a public relations specialist in crisis management. Spontaneity is not really part of Gilles Bernheim’s personality. A lot of people have been disturbed by his never-ending silences when asked even the simplest question.
You need to express your regrets, tell them what you’ve done, you have to write about it, his friends urged him. The rabbi listened attentively, but ultimately did not follow their advice.
On April 9, at the Victory synagogue, in front of friends and members of the French Jewish Consistory, and then on Radio Shalom (a Jewish radio station in France), he confessed his wrongdoings and asked for forgiveness.
But the “strong regrets” suggested by his friends and the PR expert never came. He publicly refused to quit, explaining that it “would be out of pride” to do so.
He was, however, forced to resign shortly after. The most difficult part was telling the truth to his wife, facing her regrets and her sadness. Their conversation was long. He cried. A friend of his wife Joëlle was astonished. “She is mortified, but says nothing, and keeps on with her job and her activities.”
Their son Eliya assures that “they are a very close couple, and it has made them stronger.”
Is it for his wife, his mother or himself that Gilles Bernheim concocted this degree that he certainly did not need to become France’s chief rabbi? Was it for them, or someone or something else, that he took credit for these literary pieces, when he was already admired for his mastered lectures, which he gave without notes? The question on everybody's lips is “why?”
Was he so afraid he would not be up to his enormous task that he had to pretend he was somebody else? His relatives are shocked, saddened, furious — and embarrassed. Memories come back awkwardly. One remembers how he used to recite entire book sections from a great thinker and how he “forgot” to mention that it was not from him.
“He used to take credit for those quite naturally, without realizing that his audience could notice it," says one intellectual. He gave several clumsy explanations for the borrowings. He first accused the original author of copying his notes, and then he explained how he had used old notes already written without paying attention to their sources.
When he tried to tell his close friends and relatives the truth about his teaching degree, none of them heard the same explanation. He publicly talked about a “personal tragedy,” a “great unhappiness in his life,” that had made him so confused that he could not do well during the exam. He told a friend that he could not say which tragedy, because “a man loses himself if he reveals his intimacy.”
To another friend, he said that his brother had tried to commit suicide during the test. To a third friend, who had never heard of the suicide attempt story, he assured “without the blink of an eye” that his young fiancée, whom he had just got engaged to, had been killed in a car accident.
Real world problems
To his son Eliya, he said that he remembered “taking a test — without saying which one — but without taking the following oral exam because his fiancée was critically ill and died soon after. So he had to take care of her and took her to the U.S. ”
Gilles Bernheim, now 61, doesn’t feel like talking openly about it yet. As members of religious bodies don’t get pensions, he had to negotiate his departure with the Consistory. “He gets enough to be comfortable until he reaches retirement age: the equivalent of his monthly salary (between 5,000 and 9,000 euros),” according to his lawyer Patrick Klugman.
Meanwhile, his case has left people stunned, with a feeling of endless mystery and complete waste. Gilles Bernheim had conveyed the image of a Jewish community open to the world. He was admired for his funeral sermons and his outstanding commentaries on the Torah, as well as his “care for others,” one of his book titles. He truly confronted ethical questions, so often avoided by religious dignitaries, when he accompanied drug addicts and people with AIDS. He also played an important part in his students' lives, explaining to them how teaching did not mean converting, but giving people ways to think freely.
He was this “rabbi in the society” (another one of his book titles) who stood out from so many other rabbis because of his philosophical strength and his concern about social issues. He was one of the rare students in rabbinical schools to take university classes at the same time. He strongly believed that a dialogue should be maintained between religious and civil society.
He had established himself as a high-ranking intellectual, which was the main reason why he was elected France’s chief rabbi in 2008 after having lost in 1994 against the unmovable and many times reelected Joseph Sitruck. Indeed, he was Bernheim’s opposite: a friendly and joke-cracking Sephardic, who did not care much for the secular world.
The Pope's rabbi
Bernheim's comments on the Bible would bother the most orthodox of Jews: To them, he was a philosopher and not a rabbi, a Catholic and not a Jew. After he wrote a book with Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, the Pope mentioned the rabbi's name when referring to his text on gay marriage. It made his matters even worse, as he was already nicknamed the “Catholics' rabbi” or the “goy rabbi”.
People now talk about him in the past tense. But Gilles Bernheim has held on to his rabbi duties and moved on with his life like nothing had happened. He reads the French sports daily l’Equipe, and followed the Tour de France, calling his son to comment on the race.
He is also still regularly invited to talk on Radio Shalom. For his first lecture after the case emerged, the great Victory synagogue was packed, and he got a standing ovation — and even hugs — afterwards.
Several friends recall the rabbi's comments about another scandal in France that happened just before his own. The nation's budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac had been caught lying about a secret Swiss bank account. “If I were Cahuzac," Bernheim said at the time, "I would leave for third world countries to take care of children.” And the rabbi? What will he do now?