by Pastor Doug Kings
Delphine Horvilleur, 47, is one of only five female rabbis in France. And there are only about 600,000 French Jews among a population of 65 million. Yet since the beginning of the pandemic, she has become a national Internet star, according to a story last week in The New York Times. Passover was approaching when the lockdown began and Horvilleur was inspired to begin giving weekly talks on biblical texts via Zoom.
The talks became a sensation on social media, and soon began drawing thousands of Jews, Muslims, Christians, believers and nonbelievers. In 2020, Rabbi Horvilleur appeared on the cover of French Elle wearing a blazer and jeans.
“She is my rabbi,” said Edith Gillet, 49, a French atheist with a Catholic grandmother and no plans to convert. “I got hooked on her because she’s so inspirational in such dark times,” added Ms. Gillet, who watches Rabbi Horvilleur on social media from her home in Davis, Calif. “I’m drawn more to her philosophy than to any notion of God.”
Horvilleur’s popularity is especially surprising given her most common topic: death. But she must be on to something. Her recent book, Living With Our Dead, is a French national best seller (an English version will appear next year). As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Rabbi Horvilleur’s preoccupation with death is not surprising. Memories of the dead are still fresh in the minds of many in her family and community.
It is likely this sensitivity that allowed her to tap into a rising concern with mortality in the culture generally. The Passover story centers on the escape of the enslaved people of Israel from the Angel of Death, “passing over” them but striking down the first born of the Egyptians. Trapped in our houses by the pandemic, Horvilleur says, it felt like that angel was again hovering at our doors. Apparently, many felt the same.
Especially in the predominantly Orthodox community of French Jews, Horvilleur stands out for her contemporary and fresh perspective on traditional texts and symbols.
She understands God the way the Jewish mystics do: as infinite, distant and impossible to describe. “I believe in transcendence, in sacredness. So often I witness fascinating signs or mystical manifestations, and I’m free to interpret them,” she said.
Humor, she believes, is central to interpretation. “What could be more absurd than 89-year-old Sarah, wife of Abraham in the Bible, having a baby?” she pointed out.
And laughter, she said, has a place at funerals. When she presided at the Paris burial of a Frenchman who had lived in Florida, his ornate coffin was too large to fit in the hole in the ground. “We started to laugh about the typical French caricature of Americans. Their cars are too big. Even their caskets are double-sized,” she said.
As Horvilleur recognizes, death is often a metaphor for all our experiences of chaos, decay and loss. For many, the pandemic has sharpened our awareness of death’s presence in our world, of things coming apart in our communities, nations, and world.
An important concept in contemporary American Jewish culture is Tikkun Olam, translated as “repairing the world.” But Horvilleur says this translation is not correct. Rather than being repaired, the broken pieces become the seeds of a new beginning, a new birth.
“Resilience only comes from acknowledging that what is broken won’t be repaired. It’s always about knowing how you are going to bring together the shattered pieces of your life to create a stronger story for times of despair. A wonderful word in modern Hebrew is mashber, or crisis. Originally, it meant birthing tool.” We are in a time of mashber, she said. “It’s a time of anger and hope, death and life. It’s the birthing of something new and no one knows what that’s going to be.”
In the vision of Revelation, as the New Jerusalem descends from heaven, a voice declares, “See, I am making all things new.” Notice the tense: this is something happening now. But can we recognize it? God declares in Isaiah 43,
Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?
Times of disruption and death are frustrating and frightening. The Bible is filled with such stories, yet they are seen as times of opportunity and hope. Trying to hang on to or recreate what is lost blinds us to that. Instead, we are called to faith: to trust and accept that our loss is also, as Horvilleur says, “the birthing of something new and no one knows what that’s going to be.”
Blessings in your life and ministry.