Outed as a rabbi, Orthodox woman to speak here

Mimi Feigelson considers herself a rabbi. And in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Renewal communities, no one would question that. Certainly she is learned enough, has studied enough, has the proper credentials. And those who have studied with her can't say enough about her — she definitely has that rabbinic aura.

But she won't use the title. Because in her world — which is Orthodox — things are not so simple.

Although she received smicha (rabbinic ordination) in 1994 from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, she kept it a secret from most people. And it remained that way until a reporter from the Jewish Week in New York followed up on a rumor. Feigelson was outed as having Orthodox smicha in December of 2000, shortly after an Orthodox rabbi granted smicha to Eveline Goodman-Thau.

"I live within the Orthodox world," said Feigelson, 39, in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "That is my spiritual community."

According to her reading of the sources, Feigelson believes a woman can be a rabbi. But her community does not agree. "I did not want to be marginalized for something that is halachically permissible. So in order to honor the community I live within, this is the choice I made."

The Jerusalem-based Feigelson, who has a two-year teaching appointment at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, will be a scholar in residence at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom today and tomorrow.

For an Orthodox woman, Feigelson has made some rather unorthodox choices. Her personal style is one; she wears her long hair in a ponytail — except for one thin braid on the opposite side — and can often be seen in a tie-dyed dress.

Her position at the University of Judaism, a seminary for Conservative rabbis, is another, as is her upcoming weekend at the Conservative Beth Sholom. Feigelson is known by some Bay Area Jews who studied with her during Passover last year in Dharamsala, India. This will be the first year in four she won't be leading a seder in the home of the Dalai Lama.

Feigelson, who specializes not only in Torah, but also in Chassidic literature and thought, strongly believes in teaching to those who want to learn, whether they be the students at Yakar, the Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem that she co-founded, or the completely secular Israelis traipsing through India. This also puts her at odds with the Orthodox establishment, whose teachers, for the most part, offer instruction only within the Orthodox community.

When approached to participate in the seders and seminars in Dharamsala, "I felt it was an amazing opportunity to bring God to a place where God already is," said Feigelson.

Meeting secular Israelis who are open to learning Torah in Israel is next to impossible, she said.

"To come into contact with them would take weeks and months of building trust," she said. "In India they're open; they're there. When we're on a journey, everyone we meet is a teacher. When we're in our homes, that's when our skepticism and doubt and fear come in."

In Dharamsala, she also engaged in interfaith dialogue, holding panel discussions with Buddhist nuns.

Though her family was strictly Orthodox, Feigelson said that interfaith discussion was something her parents were also engaged in.

"Religion is a garment, and it's a garment of God's will," she said. "There are different garments and there are different religions. I was born in the Jewish tradition; this is the garment that my soul was given to serve God in, but I respect that there are other garments."

Born in New York, Feigelson was 8 when her family moved to Israel. At 16, she began studying with Carlebach and continued to do so for 16 years. While ordination was not her goal when she began studying with him, after years of rigorous learning, she felt she was qualified and asked for smicha. He gave it to her in Jerusalem.

"Sometimes you start out aspiring towards it," she said. "This was more of an affirmation of a given reality."

She credits her mentor, who, though Orthodox, taught and interacted widely in the non-Orthodox world, with her own desire to do so.

"I will teach anywhere where I can keep Shabbat and kashrut; that comes from Reb Shlomo," she said. "Are there people who feel that is unacceptable? Yes. But that isn't what I learned from my teachers."

At Beth Sholom, Feigelson will discuss the spiritual dimensions of pre-Pesach preparations.

Not only does preparing for Pesach mean cleaning our houses from top to bottom, she said, but also it means preparing ourselves to be in a relationship with God.

Calling Egypt as it is called in the Exodus, Feigelson said, "Mitzrayim is those moments when God is absent from us. In the mystical tradition, Mitzrayim is a notion of contracted consciousness. Really being set free from it is being able to expand our vision emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically, to not be locked into what our physical eyes see."

Just as we rid our homes of chametz, or leavened bread, Feigelson said that preparing for Pesach means letting go of what she calls spiritual chametz. Identifying one's own chametz and acknowledging that it's there is only the first step, she said. The second is giving it a name, and the third step is deciding how to address it.

According to Feigelson, there is much more involved in preparing for Pesach than initially meets the eye. "It's about letting go of the things that hold us back from growth."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."