France's top rabbi announced Thursday he is taking leave from his post, hoping to end a scandal that has unsettled the Jewish community after he acknowledged "borrowing" other people's work and lying about his educational pedigree.
The Central Consistory of France accepted Rabbi Gilles Bernheim's request for time away at an urgent meeting to discuss fallout from the case. Bernheim, 60, later issued a statement apologizing to France's Jewish community, his family and friends, and saying he could no longer do his job with the necessary "serenity."
"He hopes that the serious events he is blamed for and which mark him, don't obscure all the actions carried out in the name of his various rabbinical functions over the years in the service of the divine," the statement said. "He prays to be heard in his request for forgiveness..."
Richard Prasquier, the head of France's largest umbrella group of Jewish organizations, CRIF, said by phone that two other rabbis would temporarily fill the post of Grand Rabbi of France, while Bernheim is away for at least six months. Talks about whether he might return at all will take place in the coming months, he said.
Bernheim faced accusations by a French academic who tracks suspected plagiarism that parts of his 2011 book "Forty Jewish Meditations," and part of a text he wrote breaking down arguments in favor of gay marriage, same-sex parenting and adoption, were lifted from others. That text, written last fall, was cited in the Christmas address of Pope Benedict XVI last year.
Asked about the allegations Tuesday on Radio Shalom as the scandal swelled, Bernheim said he had carried out "borrowings ... what others might call plagiarism" from others. "Not only do I deeply regret it, but I recognize it as a moral flaw," he said of one instance.
Last month, Bernheim noted that pages from Meditation No. 26 were "nearly identical" to an excerpt from a 1991 interview with late French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, compiled in a later book entitled "Questions on Judaism."
Later, Bernheim wrote that he'd relied on an unspecified student to help research and write the book — "a terrible error ... but for all that, I am responsible." And in the radio interview, he insisted his mistakes were not related to his job as top rabbi, and said he would not resign.
Bernheim had also come under scrutiny for claiming to have received an "aggregation" — or high-level certification — in philosophy. On Radio Shalom, he acknowledged he did not actually have one, but had made the claim 37 years ago during an unspecified "tragic event."
Bernheim in the radio interview also alluded to a phrase that he attributed to Hasidim founder Israel Baal Shem Tov: "Man is the stuttering of God, and that one must know how to accept sometimes to only be able to stutter without speaking perfectly or brilliantly."
France is home to the largest Jewish community in Western Europe, at some 500,000 people. The Consistory brings together nearly 500 synagogues and oratories in France and its overseas territories. Bernheim has been in the post since 2009. It normally has a seven-year term.
Bernheim helped guide the Jewish community through one of its most wrenching episodes in recent years — the shooting deaths of Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi in the southwestern city of Toulouse by a radical Islamist in March last year.