· A conversation with Delphine Horvilleur, rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Movement of France ·
Delphine Horvilleur has been a rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Movement of France (MJLF) since 2008. Journalist and editor-in-chief of the Jewish magazine Tenou’a on thought and art, she recently published an essay that caused a stir: Comment les rabbins font les enfants (Grasset, 2015). We met her in Paris.
Nationalism, communitarianism, the ghost of not belonging: the symptoms of our epoch all seem to be linked to a disorder of identity and transmission. How do you explain this? “It is fairly obvious that our epoch is highly sensitive to this problem, given that it is omnipresent in political, religious and family discourse. On the one hand there is a hyper-individualistic discourse, which is typical of our societies that claim to be free from rigid ideologies; this discourse makes us believe that we are able to create ourselves outside our origins and invent ourselves far from our heritage. Some parents say: ‘I don’t want to impose anything on my children, I have freed myself from my ancestry and I would like my descendants to become, as it were, blank slates’. This is obviously pure fiction. On the other hand, to this ultra-individualistic world which can be very anxiety-provoking the fundamentalist discourse replies that we are nothing other than what we belong to, which says everything about us and to which, in order to be faithful to it, we should have to give the same answer. Society oscillates between these two extremes. The fact that each one of us is what he or she is, is because he or she has belonged. It is first necessary appartenir [to belong] if one is to be able to à-part-tenir [keep oneself apart]”. (This is a play on words: appartenir is pronounced in exactly the same way as à part tenir, hence to belong in order to keep oneself apart).
“The very birth of a person”, Horvilleur continued, “depends on the fact that ‘we’ was said on his or her behalf, before he or she could say ‘I’ and that the person has been enabled to belong to a group, a culture and a system from which he or she will be able to emerge as an individual”.
How can the exploration of our religious traditions help us to find our way out of this double impasse? “What a religious tradition offers us is a poem, a universe, something that enables us to construct ourselves and to start a process of reinterpretation. People often think that the word ‘religious’ comes from religare (to bind fast), while others say that it comes from religere, which means to revisit or to reinterpret. I must therefore understand religious feeling not only as a way of binding myself to my history but also as an invitation to reread it and to revisit the texts of my tradition”.
Then how is it possible to explain that, in the Bible, the first person to listen to the order to leave his father and mother was Adam, the only man who did not have a father and mother? “It is a real mystery. It can be seen as a powerful warning to humanity from its origins against blending with the world of its origins, a warning which in the Bible is repeated to almost every generation. In the Bible the need to move on expresses the imperative need to leave the world of one’s origins: it is quite different from what happens in Greek mythology, particularly where figures who travel, such as Ulysses, set out in order to return home. The biblical vision is that you leave the world you come from never to return, after the example of Abraham who left Ur of the Chaldees or of the Jews who left Egypt. It is not a return to the sources but rather a setting out in relation to the land of our birth, the matrix of our history. It is interesting for our monotheistic societies to remember that they chose for themselves as model Abraham, a man-father who left his own father because he had been called to do so and had this incredible destiny because he started out. Henceforth we should ask ourselves the question: what does it mean to be faithful to our heritage other than being children of Abraham? Identity is born of an exit from identity. In my book I write that it is in order not to pass this on in an identical manner that Jews have children, so that something might stop reproducing itself”.
It is an exit from identity that does not mean a denial of one’s origins. “We are what we are because we were born of a matrix from which we were cut. The matrix is a source of life but if we do not abandon it, it is a tomb. In our texts there is an obsession with this cut, particularly strong in Judaism, which even makes it the sign of the entry into the Covenant. In Hebrew, one says ‘to cut a covenant’. It is the act of circumcision: entry into the Covenant passes through a cut in the flesh, which is a symbolic language of the separation from and rejection of the fusion with the maternal world”.
A never-ending exodus from Egypt, which you present as Mother of all Jewish mothers. “Poor Jewish mothers, how many things weigh on their shoulders! But in fact the Exodus can be very easily interpreted with obstetrical metaphors: Jacob’s seed populates Egypt which keeps his people prisoner. The people then swell to the point of provoking birth pangs – the ten plagues that afflicted the Egyptian matrix – until the latter lets the Jews perforate the amniotic sac in order to set out on a journey to freedom. This is clearly a matrical relationship with Egypt from which it was necessary to cut themselves off in order to set out towards a promised land”.
What are the theological implications of this obstetrical metaphor? “There is the rejection of the theology of the pas-touche, not touching: not touching my text, my interpretations, my heritage: the nature of a living religion is that it touches past interpretations, stitching up what had been made by others before it. It does not unpick the seams but rather takes up the thread”.
In what way is the cut also a movement of covenant? “Every cut creates an empty space, a flaw in something that was complete. The empty space creates the possibility of the encounter. The condition of the encounter is the encounter with otherness, and the condition of otherness is space. There is no covenant without otherness and without an empty space”.
So are there no monotheisms without a true recognition of female otherness? “In all systems and not only religious systems, the woman is always the bearer of the principal otherness. She is the other. Simone de Beauvoir said that the feminine is always the other, even for women! The feminine, which is not an exclusive attribute of women, is the typical locus of still hidden interiority, of what has yet to be revealed, of vulnerability. Thus it is not surprising that all systems have in common a problem with the feminine as a subversive element.Advancing in the question of the feminine and of women is the main condition for advancing in the question of otherness, of the non-believer, of the different, of what is on the periphery. The woman is the symptom of the place that we are ready – or not ready – to give to the other”.
You establish a link between the suffering of mothers and the violence of sons in the Bible. “In examining the violent figures of the Bible I was struck to notice that there is a recurrence: Cain, Ishmael, Simeon, Levi and Absalon have in common the experience of having had unloved mothers, mothers not listened to and not understood. Hagar, Ishmael’s mother is sent into the desert. Leah is not loved much in comparison with her sister Rachel and the mother of Absalon is booty taken in war. The matter is even more complex for Eve, Cain’s mother. When she was expelled from the Garden of Eden Eve was condemned to a loss of control, ‘your instinct will urge you towards your husband who will dominate you’, which according to the commentators has something to do with her entry into silence. Eve loses the power of speech and becomes a being without a voice.What is at stake in the relationship between Cain and Abel is linked to the strange relationship created between Eve and Cain. Cain means “possessed”: he is as it were possessed by the history of the woman who gave him a name, his mother. He is possessed by a mother who in her silence makes him a medicine for her suffering.This resonates with many stories of mother-son bonds, of suffering by mothers who see their son’s birth as a cure for them, as the possibility that he may “speak” in their stead, but will be able to do so only through violence. In Hebrew the same word means both violence and mutism”.
In the face of the rise in integralism, will resolving the violence of their children pass through a response to the suffering of their mothers? “It is necessary to ask ourselves to what extent it is possible to placate the violence of children if we pay no attention to the suffering of mothers. The place of the feminine in our societies is critical and crucial. One must also ask oneself the question of resilience: how can one guide children and eventually help them break with their mothers?How can we stop seeing ourselves as victims? In the Bible God questions Cain in order to ask him what he counts on doing with his suffering and how he will act to ensure that it does not condition him. The question is addressed to us all. We are all bearers of a history of blessings or curses. The question is knowing what we make of it”.
St. Peter’s Square
Aug. 23, 2019
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