Interim chief rabbi of France denies extortion charges


(JTA) — An interim chief rabbi of France denied allegations that he helped extort $120,000 from a woman who needed his signature to obtain a religious divorce.

The family of the 28-year-old woman, who was not identified, filed a deposition March 18 with the allegation against Rabbi Michel Gugenheim and two members of his rabbinical court at a Paris police station, the L’Express weekly reported last week.

The family had made a secret video recording of their appearance earlier in the day at a Paris rabbinical court presided over by Gugenheim, one of two interim chief rabbis of France, L’Express reported. In the recording, Gugenheim endorsed the ex-husband’s demand that the woman pay him a little over $40,000, according to L’Express, and was heard saying, “This is the price of her freedom.”

One rabbinical judge, or dayan, asked the woman’s family to write a check for $120,000 as a donation to the Sinai religious institution, explaining that the French tax authority would reimburse 66 percent of the donation in keeping with Sinai’s charity status, L’Express reported.

According to the arrangement, Sinai would transfer 30,000 euros, or $41,310, to the husband and keep the remaining amount.

Contacted by L’Express, Gugenheim denied any wrongdoing but, citing confidentiality obligations, declined to elaborate.

“My only error was to not recognize the excessive and provocative attitude of this family. This is a ruse to undermine the Paris Beth Din,” he said, referring to his rabbinical court.

The woman received her get, or religious divorce, but her family threatened to file a criminal complaint for extortion against the rabbinical judges and the ex-husband, and submit the video recording as evidence unless the check was returned, according to L’Express.

But the woman’s brother was quoted as telling L’Express, “Michel Gugenheim authorized this. He favors this extortion of funds.”

Gugenheim, who is also the chief rabbi of Paris, and Olivier Kaufmann have been sharing the duties of the country’s chief rabbi since April 2013, when Rabbi Gilles Bernheim resigned amid revelations that he had used an academic title that he did not really possess.


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