BRUSSELS (Nov. 16)
Floriane Chinsky is attracting a lot of attention as Belgium’s first female rabbi — but she’s happy for the attention. “I am very happy there are positive and nice things being said in the media,” the Paris-born Chinsky told JTA. “My appointment is a good thing, and at the same time it’s strange. So because I am a woman, which in a way is a bad reason, I get to talk about good things.”
Ordained in December 2004 at the Conservative movement’s Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, Chinsky began as the rabbi at Beth Hillel, Brussels’s Reform congregation, on Sept. 11 of this year.
“As a woman you cannot learn to be a rabbi in Paris,” she said. “I had felt very close to Israel for a long time and I wanted to live there, so I said, ‘Ya’allah’ ” — Arabic for “let’s go” — “and I went to Israel to study.”
The Conservative movement — or Masorti, as it’s called in Belgium — is growing, but most Western European Jews define themselves as secular. That’s particularly true in Brussels, home to the only avowedly secular Jewish community center on the continent.
But Chinsky doesn’t see that as an issue.
“The word ‘religion’ is not a Jewish word. I feel very much that Judaism is a civilization, not a religion,” she says.
While other community leaders might disagree, they welcome Chinsky and plan to help her find a place in the community.
“Part of Brussels Jewry belongs to the liberal community, and they made their decision,” said Philippe Markiewicz, chairman of the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in Belgium and a board member of the main Orthodox synagogue in Brussels. “While I personally am more traditional, we respect the decision of the community and we have officially met with Rabbi Chinsky. She will definitely have her place in the community.”
Markiewicz added, “Judaism is all about diversity: We cannot build walls between Jews.”
Looking at it in a more sociological sense, he said, “I respect everyone who aims to safeguard our history and heritage and wants to transmit it to the next generation. Fewer and fewer Jews go to synagogue at all, and Rabbi Chinsky will attract people who would not otherwise attend services at all.”
Chinsky applies her legal studies and her doctorate in the sociology of law to her rabbinical work.
“There are different categories of commandments, for instance those between man and God versus those between man and his fellow man,” she notes. “But can you really make that distinction? Is it a social law, is it a religious law, is it a philosophical law, is it an organized social framework, is it an ethical law? If you don’t think it’s religious law, that’s fine too. I don’t see any contradiction between humanistic values and Judaism.”
Chinsky, 31, was in her 20s when she began thinking about becoming a rabbi, but it was a difficult step.
“You don’t do such a thing: To study law in France as a woman and then to study to become a rabbi?” she said. “But I decided I really wanted it, and here I am.”
Female rabbis are still rare in Europe, and the community that appointed Chinsky also went through a long process before selecting a woman. But she says ordaining women is a necessity.
“It’s very simple: Half of the population are women. Do you want to leave half of the Jewish population, of the talent, on the side?” she asks. “It’s clear that Judaism needs everyone to be involved. I do not want to lose even one girl who could have grown so much in celebrating her Bat Mitzvah. It’s so enriching both for people and for Judaism.”
With no other rabbi in the community, Chinsky’s job description is fairly open. Asked how she would define a job well-done, she says, “I think anything that brings people closer to tradition and helps them find a relationship with tradition reinforces Judaism. So I want Judaism to have different rabbis from different origins with different approaches.”