Parité, Politics, and Judaism: The Politics of Equality in Non-Consistorial French Synagogues

BUJS Forum - de Gasquet

How has gender been politicized in French Judaism? Béatrice de Gasquet (Université Paris-Diderot) explored this question in the third BUJS Forum of Fall 2016 on October 6. Modern day France upholds a secular model of French national identity, and most discussion of gender and religion revolves around criticizing Islam for failing to conform to this model. De Gasquet instead examines the intersection of gender, religion, and French identity by focusing on how these ideas operate within synagogues and Jewish ritual.

De Gasquet’s perceptive observations look at both Orthodox and non-Orthodox synagogues in France’s past as well as its present. Under Consistorial pressure to modernize, new Orthodox synagogues took steps towards assimilating to French gender norms in the 19th century, including mixed seating or “mixité” of the sexes. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that Orthodox synagogues began to move back to a more traditional model by re-separating men and women. This “return to the balcony” gained little political notice. De Gasquet notes that the shift marked a change in perspective from looking towards French culture for acceptance to instead drawing legitimacy from non-French Orthodox Jewish institutions.

Around the same time, non-Orthodox French Judaism distinguished itself from the Consistoire by aligning itself with French attitudes. De Gasquet turns to the development of the French ideal of equality or “parité” of gender within a Liberal (Reform) and a Masorti (Conservative) synagogue. In these two synagogues, mixité was a given expectation. Indeed, it seemed to be a particular point of pride for the congregants. However, de Gasquet found that egalitarian approaches to religious participation were more complex than just mixité. For example, the Liberal synagogue, led by France’s first woman rabbi, often had less women called to the Torah each Saturday than at the Masorti synagogue. Another difference was that the Liberal synagogue allowed women to wear the standard prayer shawl or kippa, whereas the Masorti synagogue encouraged a “feminine” version of the prayer shawl. De Gasquet noticed that the effect was that the issue of gender was actually more visible within the Masorti synagogue despite—or because of—remaining gender differences. Yet, despite the varied approaches, both synagogues sought to blend elements of French national ideals with transnational Jewish values.

After de Gasquet concluded her presentation, Susannah Heschel (Dartmouth College) responded by asking a series of questions that expanded on de Gasquet’s observations of internal French Jewish ritual. Heschel considered possible links between French colonialism and de-colonization regarding the disparate treatment between Islam and Judaism, the role of race and ethnicity, and the unspoken assumptions about men that underlie any statement made about women. Both de Gasquet’s lecture and Heschel’s response provided insight into the complicated state of gender politics in contemporary French Judaism and culture.