The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

French Jewry Confronts the Separation of Church and State: Challenges and Opportunities

Unlike Israel, which has an officially sanctioned rabbinate, France broke with its established churches including the Jewish consistories in 1905. When the law separating church and state in France went into effect, Jewish leaders were concerned about how this law would affect their community.

The separation law posed both financial challenges and structural challenges to the Jewish community.

Could Jewish institutions remain financially sound without government subsidies? Could French Jewry remain structurally united without an official consistorial system legally recognized by the government?

My paper explores the attempts of Jewish leaders to preserve a structurally unified community in the wake of the separation of church and state. As I demonstrate, although this 1905 law, the centerpiece of anticlerical legislation, would rock France in the years to come, French Judaism and the consistorial system emerged largely unscathed. Ultimately, though the law of separation dismantled the official bodies representing Judaism in France and deprived the organized Jewish community of government funding, French Jewry effectively established a new centralized structure. Despite the establishment of a few independent denominational religious associations, both liberal and Orthodox, this new structure, with the national Union des Associations Cultuelles Israélites (now called the Union des Communautés Juives) at its core, is still regarded as the official representative of Judaism in France today.