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* Chief rabbi steps down after admitting moral failures
* Bernheim tried to hold on to post amid criticism
* Election for new chief rabbi due in a few months
By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS, April 11 France's Chief Rabbi Gilles
Bernheim, until recently the moral voice of the country's Jewish
community, stepped down on Thursday after admitting plagiarism
in two books and deception about his academic credentials.
Bernheim, 60, submitted his resignation and apologies at an
emergency leadership meeting of the Central Consistory, the top
Jewish religious authority, after initially trying to hold on to
his post despite acknowledging his faults.
In a statement, Bernheim said he quit because it was "no
longer possible to fulfill (my) duties with the necessary
serenity and tranquillity" and hoped the controversy would not
overshadow his years of service to French Judaism.
Until the scandal broke last month, the modern Orthodox
rabbi was better known as a leading religious commentator on
public affairs, including increasing anti-Semitism in France,
and an active participant in interfaith dialogue.
His recent booklet opposing a government plan to legalise
same-sex marriage this year won unexpected praise last December
from former Pope Benedict, who called it a "very detailed and
profoundly moving study" defending traditional matrimony.
In its statement, the Central Consistory's Council "took
note, with emotion and sadness, of the decision of the chief
rabbi to resign" and said his "authority and spiritual
contributions are considerable".
CRIF, the umbrella group of Jewish organisations, said
Bernheim had given French Judaism "an image of conceptual rigour
and openness to public life."
Central Consistory President Joel Mergui described the
plagiarism scandal as a "grave crisis" for France's
600,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in Europe, and said
an election for a new chief rabbi would be held in a few months.
Bernheim's fall from grace followed recent resignations in
Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel's defence and education
ministers were found to have copied parts of their doctoral
theses, and the resignation of an Italian anti-corruption
politician claiming academic degrees he did not have.
Bernheim initially denied plagiarism when accused last month
of copying a text by the late post-modernist philosopher
Jean-Francois Lyotard for his 2011 book "Forty Jewish
He later admitted it was copied but blamed it on a research
Another blogger then accused him of plagiarism in a 2002
book and L'Express magazine revealed he was not the philosophy
professor he was often described as being.
Although his official biography did not mention him passing
the "agregation," the highly selective examination needed to
qualify as a professor, Bernheim never disputed the title when
it appeared in newspaper articles and publicity for his books.
Confronted on Radio Shalom on Tuesday, Bernheim spoke of
"loans which others will call plagiarisms" and admitted never
denying the academic title others attributed to him.
These moral failures were not enough to justify stepping
down, he said. This sparked a flurry of comments for and against
him on social media and his spokesman quit without giving any
"It's clear a lot of people are upset and disappointed ...
but they are also thinking about the pain and state of turmoil
he finds himself in," CRIF President Richard Prasquier said.
ASHKENAZI AND SEPHARDIC
Bernheim was a leading proponent of a more modern and open
Judaism when he challenged incumbent Joseph Sitruk in a
hard-fought 2008 race that revealed deep splits in French
Although both were Orthodox, Tunis-born Sitruk was a popular
traditionalist who represented the Sephardic Jews who emigrated
from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s.
Bernheim, who grew up near the Alps, comes from the
long-established Ashkenazi community of East European Jews that
had traditionally led French Judaism.
A book he published with Lyon Cardinal Philippe Barbarin
before the election prompted some critics to accuse him of being
too close to France's Roman Catholic majority.
The election campaign became so divisive that two major
Jewish organisations and the Catholic priest in charge of
relations with Jews appealed to both sides for calm.
(Additional reporting by John Irish; Editing by Michael Roddy)