L’Chaim!” Reb Mimi Feigelson raises her glass of water for the umpteenth time and takes a sip. Fighting off a cold, she has sustained her voice for well over an hour, leading a late-night session on Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, the Chasidic master, at the Limmud conference.
The water, she’d have you believe, is vodka. This is not so much a class as a dramatic monologue in which she takes on the character of Levi Yitzchak, speaking as a spirit through the body of a woman he has possessed. It is not only a lively way to present his life and teachings, it also recreates the intimacy of a rebbe talking to his followers.
For many years, this animated educator kept a secret: she can lay claim to being the first modern-day Orthodox woman rabbi. A flutter of excitement followed Rabbi Avi Weiss’s announcement a couple of months ago that he was launching a school in New York to train Orthodox women clergy — to be known as maharats (an acronym meaning leaders in law, spirituality and Torah) rather than rabbis. But Reb Mimi was quietly ordained 15 years ago.
Now 45, she comes from a modern Orthodox family who made aliyah from New York when she was eight. She grew up serious about her Jewish studies but she found the Talmud, for girls in those days, a closed book.
When she was 16, she met the rabbi who changed her life, Shlomo Carlebach, the neo-Chasidic master of melody. “I was very involved with Gesher, a youth movement which brought religious and non-religious high-school kids together,” she recalled. “One of the counsellors was one of Reb Shlomo’s talmidim [students].
“He brought me to Reb Shlomo’s moshav in Modi’in. I spent a couple of Shabbatot there. On a soul level, it felt complete truth for me but sociologically, I was out of my element. It was very American and I grew up very Israeli.
“I’d never understand what he was saying because he taught in English. All the hugging and kissing, that didn’t work either. And I was already beginning to toy with the ultra-Orthodox world.”
Spiritually, she was leading a double-life, “normative by day, Charedi by night”. She took a degree at the Hebrew University, dreaming of becoming a history professor, while remaining attracted to the intensity of the strictly Orthodox and their “servitude” to God.
But eventually she realised the Charedi world could not be hers. “My mind was too expansive as a woman. I wanted to learn in ways I couldn’t learn there. I felt my soul was being suffocated.”
So she came back to Reb Shlomo — and immersion in the Chasidic sources. “I was like a kid who went off to college, I came home. I wasn’t a stranger. I started learning with him immediately.
“I’d take every class of his, I’d take notes in every class, I’d go back to the books that were the primary sources, then I’d come back to him with questions. He was a great teacher of Torah, a master of reading the white spaces between the black letters.
“I often use the image that Reb Shlomo gave me the key to the back door. Family uses the back door, guests the front. He gave me the key to the back door in God’s world.”
At the Hebrew University, she switched to graduate study in Chasidism. Her semichah (ordination), she said, was “a natural progression of the learning I had done my whole life. I didn’t set out to be the first female Orthodox rav in the 21st century, I wasn’t looking to make a feminist statement.
“When I said to Reb Shlomo I want your semichah—for me, a way of saying I want to be a link on the chain of tradition that you are bound to — his first response was, ‘But you already have it.’ I said I know, but I want to learn for it in a very specific way.”
She gained the semichah in two stages, firstly in 1994, the last year of Reb Shlomo’s life; and then in 1996, after completing the rabbinics syllabus he had set her along with her chavruta (traditional study partner, who was the son of a distinguished Jewish educator). She went before a “Beth Din of rabbis who functioned as witnesses to Reb Shlomo’s ordination. The semichah was a very private ceremony because it wasn’t meant to be public — I didn’t want to enter into the realm of controversy. And then I became a ‘closet rabbi’.”
When she was later outed as a rabbi in an American Jewish newspaper, “the silence was quite deafening and somewhat painful. There were people in New York who I thought should have picked up a phone to wish me mazeltov and they didn’t.”
It took a few more years before she felt comfortable out of the rabbinical closet. By then she had moved from being associate director of Yakar in Jerusalem to a lecturer in the rabbinic school at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Her title is mashpiah ruchanit, spiritual mentor, mashpiah being a word with Chasidic overtones.
Although the rabbinic school is institutionally Conservative, she explained, “I made it very clear when I came that I am an Orthodox rav. I got to my office the first day and there was a sign on the door, ‘Rabbi Mimi Feigelson’. I asked them to remove it. I didn’t want them to call me rabbi — if you see the title rabbi next to a woman’s name, you assume everything except Orthodox.”
So she chose “Reb” — the name used of the Chasidic teachers of old and her mentor, Reb Shlomo Carlebach. “In English, it’s easier because it doesn’t have gender to it. The title I use in Hebrew is ‘Rabbah’, she said.
“It’s a question of title, but not the reality because the reality already exists. It was created when women started learning. When the women’s yeshivot started sprouting, that was the first step to the ordination of women in the Orthodox world. And that I think is the true process because it stems from the learning and tradition creates voice by virtue of learning.”