Ask Mimi Feigelson a simple question, you don’t get a simple answer.
“So how do you like L.A.?” I ask, as we sit down for coffee and pastries at a Pico-Robertson cafe, thinking this is just the warm-up for the real questions.
But for Feigelson, a visiting lecturer in rabbinics at the University of Judaism (UJ), small talk is for wimps. Every question is real and deserves a thoughtful answer.
She repeats the question to herself several times, smiles as she considers it carefully, and then tells of how kind and gracious everyone has been since she arrived here in July, how things have fallen into place quite easily. Still, she says, “like” is too facile a word, because Los Angeles is not, and never will be, home.
“I am grateful for my welcome, but Yerushalayim is home,” Feigelson concludes.
At 38, Feigelson has honed her ability to integrate disparate realities into one coherent and compelling existence. She is an American-born Orthodox Israeli woman teaching at an American seminary for Conservative rabbis. She is halachically observant, and has smicha, rabbinic ordination. She is aware of the political implications of her smicha, but insists it is a private odyssey. She has been vilified by many in the Orthodox establishment, but she maintains a commitment to honor and respect that same Orthodox establishment.
With a dark thick ponytail streaming over her right shoulder and her trademark thin braid hanging to the left, nearly touching the bottom of her black vest, Feigelson has a conservatively bohemian look, one that fits her dual mission of staying within the establishment while defying its conventions.
As she often does, Feigelson uses an analogy and a Chasidic story to explain herself. In traditional mystical sources, it is said the world will exist for 6,000 years. We are in year 5762, and therefore far along in the world’s life. “It used to be that people would come into the world and have shoresh neshama, the root of a soul, from one source. But today, each of us comes into the world and we have so many splinters of souls,” she says, likening it to the last tiny shards left when the big pieces of a broken vessel have already been swept up.
“That’s why we’re torn in so many different directions simultaneously, and some of us choose to listen to one voice and ignore the others, and then there are those of us who try to juggle as many voices as possible simultaneously, who are able to contain them,” she says.
Even for Feigelson, some aspects of her life’s path have been a challenge to contain — notably, being an Orthodox woman with smicha.
“I’ve been marginalized and ostracized to a certain degree, but in God’s eyes I am who I am,” Feigelson says.
Back home in Jerusalem, where she has lived since she was 8, Feigelson, who is single, is the director of the women’s beit midrash at Yakar, a community of Torah study, prayer and social activism that is on the leftmost vanguard of Orthodoxy.
Feigelson’s smicha is from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the late Chasidic master of song, story and Torah. When she started studying with him at the age of 16, he gave her entry into a Judaism from which she felt alienated for much of her Modern Orthodox upbringing, despite her passion for study and her devotion to halacha.
“What he gave me was the key to the back door,” she says of Carlebach. “When you are a guest you use the front door, but when you’re family you know where the key is hiding, and you can walk through the back even if the front door is locked,” she says.
But rather than just drink in his words while he visited Israel or she visited New York, she also studied on her own and got her master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.
Finally, after 15 years of studying with Reb Carlebach, she told him she wanted smicha from him.
“He said, ‘Mimi, you already have my smicha,'” she says.
Still, he set up an intensive program for her — including oral and written exams — studying all the halachic and talmudic texts normally studied for ordination, plus some extras, such as sections on honoring one’s parents and business ethics.
Feigelson kept her smicha under wraps for seven years, until she was outed last year in an article in the New York Jewish Week.
Feigelson says she feared the kind of reaction that in fact came out once word spread — the condemnation and dismissal, the accusation of being blasphemous toward Torah.
“There is a moment where you think of the absurdity of it. Did I do something wrong?” she asks incredulously. “That I sat and learned? That I was tested on it? That I was credited for what I had learned, acknowledged for what I accomplished? What sin did I do?”
Despite her strong words, Feigelson seems possessed by a calm, even peaceful resolve, fueled by a deep awareness that she is in this for the right reasons.
“I’m not out to prove anything. I’m out to live my life in honesty and integrity in God’s eyes,” she says.
She maintains that her smicha was the next natural step on her personal journey and not a political statement — she does not use the title rabbi, out of respect for the Orthodox world.
Still, she is aware that her smicha puts her at the forefront of a movement in which women are taking on leadership roles in the Orthodox community.
In Israel, women now argue divorce cases before rabbinic courts, and others answer halachic questions regarding menstruation and reproduction. In New York, several women trained to be congregational interns, where they took on pastoral and chaplaincy roles, as well as teaching.
“I am not going to give up the halachic community, I’m not going to give up my halachic pursuits and whatever it takes to make that happen,” she says. “If that means that there are things that have to wait, I’ll wait, but I’m not going to walk away. I can’t believe the Orthodox world can’t contain me.”
For now, though, Feigelson is spending two years teaching rabbinics to future Conservative rabbis — first year and fifth year students — at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at UJ.
Through the tractates of Mishna and Gemara, she is exploring theological questions and challenging her students to think about their own missions.
“I feel like I’ve been given this gift to be able to learn together and ask these questions that are going to formulate how these future rabbis are going to work with people,” she says.
Deciding to leave Israel for two years involved months of tearful internal struggle. For the UJ too, the match did not seem perfect. Feigelson has neither a doctorate nor Conservative ordination, which makes her an odd candidate academically and as a role model. Her expertise is in Chasidic philosophy; they needed a teacher in rabbinics.
“Both UJ and I had to deal with the reality of who I am and where I am coming from and what I have to offer, and who they are and what are their needs,” Feigelson says.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of Ziegler school, is thrilled with the creativity and the passion for Torah that Feigelson has brought to the school.
“We are trying to be an unprecedented rabbinical school, and not to worry about the mold but to provide excellence in both traditional and academic forms,” he says, “and sometimes that means bringing in people who may not have the usual academic degrees, but do have a vast knowledge base and can serve as inspirational role models.” Feigelson has already established a rapport with students and colleagues, leading a kumsitz, or singalong, the first week of school and having people over to her house for informal study. She demands a lot from her students academically and challenges them to think about why they have chosen the rabbinate, and where God fits into the picture.
She expects her students to challenge her, as well.
“My teachers receive my respect and honor, but never the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “I expect the same from my students.”
She also admonishes them not to get to carried away by “spirituality.”
“There is fine a line between spirituality and stupidity,” she tells her students. “On the one hand, does everything have meaning? Yes. On the other hand, does everything have meaning? No. Can you contain that? That is the question,” she says.
Feigelson has high aspirations for her students, much as she does for herself — a love of God and Torah, a sense of obligation, a sense of comfort with the ongoing struggle to embrace Judaism.
“I want them to feel that the tradition is alive, that it is a vibrant organism, that the letters are three-dimensional — not dead letters on the page,” she says. “You have to have something to hold onto, something to grapple with, something that challenges you and touches every part of who you are and has a conversation with you in those places,” she says. “That is what I want them to see.”