Yeshivah Student, Feminine Gender
By Mimi Feigelson | 12/11/2009
Mimi Feigelson, an Orthodox Israeli woman rabbi and Jerusalemite, trains American Conservative students for rabbinical ordination at the American Jewish University, and waits for a change in Israeli Orthodoxy: "Where is our self-examination, when will we women look at our abilities that are wasted because we don't have the courage to stand up for them?" Like Hannah, the prophet Samuel's mother, she is ready to stand in public, humiliated and bareheaded, and demand that the Creator fulfill His Torah
"Who made a road through the sea and a path through mighty waters" (Isaiah 43:16)
"When did you decide to become a rabbi?" is one of the hardest questions that I have to answer. I usually begin with the declaration: "Rav or ravah is not what a person does, this isn't a profession, this is the way in which a person lives his life. This is the way in which I live my life." Afterwards I interpret this verse as the classical commentators interpret a verse from the Torah, or as the sages of the Talmud interpret the Mishnah.
The truth is that I did not wake up one morning and say: "When I grow up I want to be a rabbi!", since as a girl who grew up in the Bnei Akiva movement in Rehovot in the 1970s, I couldn't even dream of something like that. You could learn from rabbis, esteem rabbis, show honor to rabbis, and even crochet big kippot for them, but there wasn't any possibility of being a rabbi. The word "ravah" had not yet been coined in the Hebrew language.
My journey into the world of the study hall began the year that the Yom Kippur War erupted. When I was 12 I participated in a class in honor of Benny Gal, who was killed on the first day of the war at the [Suez] Canal. I was one of the few girls there, but that didn't prevent me from feeling at home. The feeling of awe captured my heart. Years later, my master and teacher, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, said: "Everyone has an address, but not everyone has a home!" I smiled when I heard this. I knew that I had not a few addresses in my life, but the study hall is my home. The books that the study hall contained were my partners to the journey. And even though the study halls underwent a transformation together with my spiritual development, the books always accompanied me wherever I went.
I was like the yeshivah students that I saw studying at bus stops, so that, Heaven forbid, they wouldn't miss a single moment of Torah study. But I didn't have a yeshivah [Talmudic academy] to go in and out of. The many midrashot [advanced Torah academies for women] weren't around them. I was forced to establish a yeshivah for myself outside the walls of the yeshivah. I had to find teachers who would teach me, despite my being a woman.
I arrived in Jerusalem in the early 1980s. My life's dream - to be a Jerusalemite - had come true. In my second year in National Service I worked in the Alyn Hospital, and afterwards I began studying for my B.A. and M.A. at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I sat in the lecture halls during the day, and in the study hall at night. Like then, when I was a girl, every night I ran to classes: Rabbi Begun, Rabbi Zuckerman, Rabbi Aviner are only a few of the rabbis who filled my head. I even took private classes to learn classical commentary. The verbiage that enveloped me was like balm for my searching soul, but I needed more than that.
The White Spaces Teaching
I searched for teachers. I looked for a "walking dictionary," who would interpret God's world for me and provide me with materials from which I could construct the ladder that was set on the ground with its top reaching the sky. I already knew then that I would have to do the construction work myself, but I was searching for building stones, I looked for partners for talks, guides from whom I could learn the art of searching. I searched for teachers who would teach me to ask questions, instead of supplying answers and instead of putting explanations and rationales in God's mouth. I sought teachers who understood that the white spaces between the words are more important than the words themselves. I knew that if there is a place where God dwells, it's in the silence between the words, and I needed teachers who would meet me there.
Udi Leon and Reb Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, were the first to teach me the teaching of the white spaces. A teaching that crosses the boundaries of years and worlds. A teaching that crosses the boundaries of gender and historical reality. I adopted the Hasidic tzaddikim as my guides. With them I talked, was silent, and cried. I walked with them on the paths of the world, and from them I learned to ask questions, and even to gaze upon the Creator and the Creation.
There was something bittersweet in my very choice of them as my teachers. It was Reb Shlomo who opened their world to me, and I, as a "Litvak [yeshivah-oriented Jew; usually associated with opposition to Hasidism] with a Hasidic heart" and as a "Hasid with a Litvak head," I began my Master's studies in Jewish thought, with a concentration in Hasidism, so that I could ask the questions in an orderly and serious fashion. The "sweet" was the content of the Hasidic teachings, the demand for belief, the assurance of the Creator's presence in the world. The "bitter" was the thought, that I couldn't shake off while perusing the pages of the different books, that if I had lived in their time, as a woman I would have had no access to them. The years that separate us enabled me to have direct access to the best that they have to offer the world. I was left to question and ponder: how would I overcome the interval of those years; how would I remain loyal to my femininity while studying; is it legitimate to use the Hasidic tzaddikim as a source of authority for my position in the world as a female Orthodox rabbi, when I know that this is correct from the essence of their teachings, while doubting if this is so in terms of their actual history? There were learned women, women who won standing and recognition within the Hasidic community; but all were "the daughter of ...," "the mother of ...," or "the wife of ...," while I have no Hasidic lineage.
Notwithstanding this, I had no choice. After about fifteen years of study with Reb Shlomo - in Israel, on trips throughout the United States and Eastern Europe - I approached him and said: "I want to receive ordination as a rabbi from you." He replied: "But you already have!" I replied: "I know I have your ordination, but I nevertheless want to study for this in another form." The spaces between what was said were clear to both of us: I wanted his ordination, first, because I wanted to be an additional link in the chain of rabbinical tradition to which he belonged; and second, because I had become aware that this was the right thing to do, and that the time had come for me to stand in the world: an Orthodox woman rabbi. This was not a political or feminist statement. I simply believed in my request, for recognition as a Torah scholar, feminine gender. For Reb Shlomo, this was a straightforward matter. It was clear to him, without having to say a word, that over the years he had trained me for this: with the Torah that he taught me; with his demand that I always be ready to give a Torah discourse as soon as he asked me, without giving me time to think or breathe; in the way in which he fashioned my homiletic ability when I sat facing a verse from the Torah or a Hasidic homily; in the way that he taught me to go about in the world and talk to people. But he understood the intent of my answer, and on the spot he wrote out for me a program of study that consisted mainly of Talmud and halakhah. My havruta (study partner) and I added to this assemblage a half hour of Zohar each day.
But Reb Shlomo left the world before his time, and I found myself standing in it by myself, as an Orthodox woman rabbi. Then as now, I hold onto the Hasidic tzaddikim, to support me in this.
My Response to "Where Are You?"
For about five years I've been a lecturer in Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University. An Orthodox Israeli woman rabbi trains American Conservative students for the rabbinate, religious functionaries to serve American Jewry. First year: Mishnah, Tosefta, and midrash halakhah in the first semester, Talmud with Rashi in the second semester. Fifth year: "The Theology of Tractate Berakhot" and "The Text as Spiritual Guide."
The first class in "The Text as Spiritual Guide" begins with a melody, in the tradition of my teacher Reb Shlomo, and continues with "Prayer on Entering the Study Hall," following the tradition of my master, R. Nehunya ben ha-Kanah. I feel at home in the space between the Talmud and Hasidism. I explain to my students that during the course of the semester each of them will have to textually present himself to the class, and open with some of the sources that serve as my spiritual guides. These conversations are my conversants. They define my life's journey and the way I live my everyday life. These sources explain how I came to be a woman rabbi, wandering by myself to the ends of the West, as well as my desires for the future.
I think that I met Rabbi Kook, the first rabbi of Palestine-Eretz Israel, when I was still a teenager. At the time he seemed so daring to me. His demand for nonconformity was like a breath of fresh air to me. I wonder how the following paragraph from his teachings are taught today in the Merkaz Harav yeshivah:
I am within the exile, my inner authentic self [...] the sin of Adam, who was estranged from his authentic self, who turned to the opinion of the serpent and lost himself, who was incapable of giving a clear answer to the question: "Where are you?", because he did not know his own psyche, because he had lost his true I-ness [...] the sin of the earth, that denied its authentic self, limited its force [...] the moon complained, lost the orb of its inner nature (Orot ha-Kodesh, vol. 3, p. 140).
What is the meaning of the fact that the first word that the human race heard issuing from the mouth of the Creator of the universe was the question: "Where are you?" The first word that the Jewish people heard was the declaration "I" at the time of the Giving of the Torah, but the human race received a question. I ask my students: "What was the first word that you would choose to hear from the Holy One, blessed be He?" The question "Where are you?" demands of me my peace of mind: it demands that I live the truth from which at times I would like to flee. It commands me not to get lost among all the teachings that were preached to me. among all the books and verbiage that I read. It was the "Where are you?" question that demanded of me not to waive the world of the study hall, even though the study hall of the 1970s and the 1980s was not fashioned with the consciousness that it had to ensure a place within it for women, as well. My standing before Reb Shlomo when I asked him for rabbinical ordination was my "Here I am" answer to the question of "Where are you?"
Facing Rabbi Kook, I place Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berditchev (1740-1809), one of the leading Polish tzaddikim. R. Levi Isaac is renowned as being the "advocate of Israel." The determination in his stance before the Holy One, blessed be He, always captivated me. In an autobiographical tone in his book Kedushat Levi, R. Levi Isaac interprets the following verse:
"And she said, 'Why is this happening to me?'" (Genesis 25:22). Interpretation: in accordance with what the Ari [R. Isaac Luria] wrote, that religious women suffer no pain in pregnancy and childbirth; see there. Accordingly, Rebekah, who saw that she suffered pain, thought that she was not one of the righteous women; for if this were not so, she would not suffer during pregnancy; and it is known that a holy matter cannot exist in someone who is not good [...] The Lord, may He be blessed, answered her (Genesis 25:23): "Two nations are in your womb," "one people shall be mightier than the other" - this is not as you think, that you are not good; in truth, you are good; your birth pangs are because there are two nations in your womb, who oppose one another; understand this.
Rebekah asks an existential question from the source of her soul: "Why is this happening to me?" She knows who she is, she knows what she must do in the world, and she even is familiar with the writings of the Ari and knows that righteous women are not supposed to suffer during their pregnancy, but she does suffer, and she is confused. Rebekah does not doubt the veracity of the Torah she learned from the Ari, but nevertheless is unwilling to deny the pain that she experiences. Actually, R. Levi Isaac asks this question about himself; the transition to masculine gender is in the Hebrew original [starting with "someone who is not good" - trans.]. R. Levi Isaac asks why, after he cleaved to Hasidism, which for him is the truth, he was persecuted and driven out of one community after another, until he arrived in Berditchev in 1785? And I posses the tradition of Rebekah my mother and R. Levi Isaac my father: I grasp them as if they were the horns of the altar, and ask the same questions about myself and about my life.
When I received the invitation to come and teach in the United States, I spent days and nights asking: "Why me?" I asked why I couldn't be in Jerusalem as an Orthodox woman rabbi. Why am I driven out from my home and compelled to wander, in order to live my life as it was meant to be? How is it possible that, despite my exacting observance, this isn't enough? How is it possible that "my service in the world" is not in the Land of Israel?
The power to live between "Where are you?" and "Why is this happening to me?" resides in the triangle between the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Berakhot 31); the Palestinian Talmud (the last lines of Tractate Kiddushin); and Mei ha-Shiloah on the portion of Vayeshev (on the verse [Genesis 38:1]: "Judah left his brothers").
The page in the Babylonian Talmud is quite well known, and is concerned with Hannah's prayer and the laws of prayer learnt from it. Intertwined within it are what I perceive as theological pearls, and the questions that sit in R. Eleazar's mouth. I am thinking especially of several statements that appear on page b of Berakhot 31:
"And she made this vow: 'O Lord of Hosts'" (I Samuel 1:11) - R. Eleazar said: From the day that God created His world, no person called the Holy One, blessed be He, Hosts until Hannah came and called Him Hosts. Hannah said before the Holy One, blessed be He: "Master of the Universe! Of all the hosts of hosts that You have created in Your world, is it so hard for You to give me one son?" A parable; to what is this like? To a flesh-and-blood king who made a feast for his servants, and a poor man came and stood at the door. He said to them: "Give me a piece of bread," but they took no notice of him. He forced his way into the presence of the king, and said to him: "Your Majesty the king, out of all the feast that you have made, is it so hard for you to give me one piece of bread?"
R. Eleazar sets before us the following challenges: to acknowledge both our poverty and our greatness; to know that the King is making a banquet; to stand at the entrance and insist on what is coming to us, by right; to know to push inside when the guards block access to the King; and finally, to stand before Him with integrity and sincerity, and with full faith in His integrity and ability. Hannah asked to be granted a son, but each of us, too, has some fruit that he would want to bring into the world - a fruit that needs the help of Heaven to give it life.
And similarly, near the end of the same Talmud page:
"Now Hannah was praying in her heart" (I Samuel 1:13) - R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Yose ben Zimra: [She spoke] concerning the concerns of her heart. She said before Him: "Master of the Universe! Among all the things that You created in a woman, You did not create one without a purpose - eyes to see, ears to hear, a nose to smell, a mouth to speak, hands to do work, legs to walk with, breasts to nurse from. These breasts that You have put on my heart, are they not to be nursed from? Give me a son, that I may nurse from them!"
The sensitivity of R. Eleazar, speaking in the name of R. Yose ben Zimra, causes chills to run up and down my spine: the understanding for the woman's heart, for a person's heart. Hannah does not ask for herself; she asks for a son so that she can return him to the Creator to serve Him in holiness. She asks to fully utilize all the gifts that the Holy One, blessed be He, has bestowed on her. And we, how do we gaze upon ourselves through Hannah's eyes? How do we want to serve Him in holiness? Where is our self-examination, when will we women look at our abilities that are wasted because we don't have the courage to stand up for them?
We can ask: What is Hannah prepared to do for all this? The answer appears before me on the page itself: Hannah is willing to stand in public, humiliated and bareheaded, and demand that the Creator fulfill His Torah.
How much Torah and halakhah R. Eleazar puts in Hannah's mouth! The staging of this moment, Hannah's demand that the Holy One, blessed be He, fulfill His Torah! From the moment that the Torah was given, the Holy One, blessed be He, too, is obligated by it, and by Torah law Hannah is entitled to demand a son from the Creator. The price, as we noted, is public humiliation. Hannah is willing to undergo these tribulations, this humiliation, to bear the accusing and suspicious stares, just so that she will gain what, on the one hand, is coming to her by right, and what, on the other, is not hers at all. Our children are not ours, they are the Creator's. The Torah that we teach as educators and as rabbis is not ours, it is the Creator's.
Living Life to the Full
The passage that appears in the last lines of the tractate of Kiddushin in the Palestinian Talmud is, for me, an additional source for Hannah's demand for a son, and for my demand to live as a woman rabbi within the Orthodox community. The next sentence is cited in the name of Rav (Rav and Samuel, among the leading Babylonian Amoraim, were disputants throughout the Babylonian Talmud): "A person will have to give an accounting for everything that his eyes saw but he did not eat." Korban ha-Eidah, a commentary on the Palestinian Talmud, explains: "'But he did not eat' - for he sinned against his soul, since he afflicted himself for nothing."
When I first came across this Talmud passage, I couldn't believe my own eyes: a Talmud passage that mandates living life to the full. And indeed, how is it possible to ignore the wonders of the world and the Creator? Are our soul's desires doomed to be ignored and vanish? And, the use of the verb "eat" - does this mean, that as far as Eve was concerned, it was correct to eat from the apple, since her eyes "saw" the tree; isn't this so, for any person?
When I'm tired, when existential questions give me no rest, I return to this Talmud passage and say to myself: At the end of my days, for what will the Creator come to charge me? "For everything that his eyes saw but he did not eat"! I am incapable of living my life differently from how I live it now.
In the same breath, alongside the Palestinian Talmud, I read the Mei ha-Shiloah. R. Mordecai Joseph Leiner, the author of Mei ha-Shiloah, is one of the pillars of my world. There are days when I know that he's the one who keeps me within the system of speaking with God. It is his way to contain the dialectic of the life of faith; it is his way to respect the doubt and the uncertainty within the normative and unequivocal Torah world; his so evident inner struggle - all these remind me that I am never alone. The book is mainly a commentary on the weekly Torah portions, and I repeat to my students (and myself): "If there is a single sentence that you cannot forget, then it is the sentence referring to the portion of Vayeshev: 'For with the Lord, may He be blessed, the conduit through which He sends life must itself also be of life'"!
Doesn't the Mei ha-Shiloah reinforce the Palestinian Talmud? Isn't this a demand to seize life in all its intensity? Our lives cannot be on the "after the fact" level, but on the "a priori" level [Feigelson uses the legal terms referring, respectively, to something permitted only ex post facto, or to something that is fully and unreservedly sanctioned - trans.]: it is impossible to have "sublime goals" external to us, that, in the future, will justify our existence. The demand is to live the present to the fullest. We will be even more precise if we say that the demand is to be life.
Hannah, the prophet Samuel's mother, the Palestinian Talmud (citing Rav), the Mei ha-Shiloah, and Rabbi Kook all demand of us a way of life so different from what we were taught. They demand that we live a life of the realization of dreams, of trenchant inner examination, and of belief: the belief in the personal greatness of each of us, and the belief in the Creator's greatness. Our fear of our power paralyzes us. It is the same fear that leaves the Holy One, blessed be He, small and limited, and fences in the Creator's infinite world. Yes, our life can bear us far beyond all that is known to us. The challenge of "the conduit must itself also be of life" demands that we live beyond the boundaries known to us, and thereby realize our being created in the image od God.
My textual journey would not be complete without mentioning at least one teaching from the Piasetzner Rebbe, R. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, may he be avenged (1888-1943). In his sermon for the Shavuot holiday, 1925, he said: "Someone who always serves the Lord with a holy mind entirely becomes a different person, a sort of person that he cannot picture in his imagination now, and whose closeness to the Lord will truly cause pleasure before Him, may He be blessed."
This teaching defines my life. When I sat for hours upon hours in classes at night, from the time I was twelve years old, beginning with the class in the Kuzari given by Rabbi Simhah Hakohen Kook, in memory of Benny Gal, to the classes at Machon Meir and Hapeilim in Rehovot, Gesher, Midreshet Bruriah (later Lindenbaum), Machon Alte in Safed, and Neve Yerushalayim; when I learned from Torah scholars in private lessons, and the years I studied with Reb Shlomo Carlebach; when I waived my childhood dream of being a history professor, and I changed my Master's studies (and, with God's help, my doctoral studies, as well) at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to Jewish Thought, so that I could unite my spiritual and intellectual aspirations - did I know during any of these stages how my life would be fashioned? Did I know that one day I would find myself as an Orthodox woman rabbi, and that the only place where I could, for a certain period of time, fulfill my life and devote myself to my work as a rabbi would be the United States? Never. I want to believe that the way in which my life will be realized will truly "cause pleasure before Him, may He be blessed." And who knows how the next phase will be realized.
I am grateful to my adoptive family in the United States, that enables me to be Reb Mimi. The use of the title "Reb Mimi," and not "Rabbi Mimi," is out of respect for contemporary Orthodoxy, and out of respect for the Hasidic dynasties that I continue. This adoptive family enables me to perform weddings in accordance with Jewish law and, in contrast, funerals; it asks me on every matter, from the laws of kashrut and Shabbat to "How does one learn what humility is," and "If you don't pray with us because you pray only in a congregation with a minyan [quorum of 10] of men and a mehitzah [partition between the men's and women's sections], how can we learn from you how to stand before God?"
I live now like Ulla and R. Dimi, who were among the Torah scholars who roamed between Jerusalem and Babylonia. We often find in the Babylonian Talmud the question: "And in the West?" This means, what was the practice in "the West," in the Land of Israel? And so, I roam between Jerusalem and Los Angeles three or four times a year, along with visits to Jewish communities between the two coasts of the United States. I learn of the greatness and the limitations of American Jewry, and of the greatness and challenges of Land of Israel Jewry. The reality of the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds has not ceased to exist. I have difficulty in understanding how we live in Israel, as if the Babylonian Talmud and most of the responsa and decisor literature were not written abroad. I have difficulty in understanding how only a minority among us thinks that we can learn something from our brothers and sisters beyond the sea. I know, and grasp on to this, that in the future we will decide the law in accordance with the Palestinian Talmud, but I am committed to the halakhah as it was fashioned within the Babylonian Talmud. I am always on the way, wandering between.
I live now between the third day and the sixth day of Creation. When was the vegetation created? The verses in the Torah indicate the third day, but afterwards we find the following written about the sixth day (Genesis 2:5): "when no shrub of the field was yet on earth." The Talmud (Hullin 60b) resolves this contradiction by stating: "This teaches that the plants began to grow, but stopped just as they were about to break through the soil, until Adam came and prayed for them, and when the rain fell, they began to grow." This teaches that the vegetation was created on the third day; its identity was defined and fashioned, and it waited until Adam prayed for it.
Most days of the week I feel that my existence as an Orthodox woman rabbi is like that vegetation, that tensely waits for rain. I wander between Jerusalem and Los Angeles, waiting alertly and grateful, and desire that Adam, who heard the Holy One, blessed be He, call to him: "Where are you?", will call to me: "Where are you?" and pray for me, so that I can burst forth from the same opening in the ground of the six days of Creation, and that I will be able to find my way home as an Orthodox woman rabbi. The question is actually that of the identity of modern Orthodoxy. My life is one possible reflection, and it presents a challenge to this question.
On my optimistic days, I truly believe that Orthodoxy is situated between the third day and the sixth. The way that women take their place in the social and Torah leadership might attest to our "breaking through the soil," even before the coming of the "rain." As regards my personal life, once again I read R. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, the youngest of the Baal Shem Tov's disciples, who says:
This is the reason why everyone must travel, this one to this place, and that one to that, for this is the direction [of the world by] the Creator, blessed be He, since he knows that portions of the sparks that belong to his soul are there, clothed in a food or some [commercial, scholarly, etc.] proceedings, and the Holy One, blessed be He, effects causes so that that person will go there by His putting desire for this in his heart; He wraps him in this reason for having to go there, and his main intent will be to eat there and drink, or engage in proceedings, and in this manner the sparks will be elevated [...] Accordingly, each person should put his eyes and mind to see this, which is the foundation of "In all your ways acknowledge Him" (Proverbs 3:6) (Meor Einayim, on the portion of Matot).
On less optimistic days, I hear myself singing again and again: "It is beyond my knowledge, it is a mystery, I cannot fathom it" (Psalms 139:6). I wonder how the sleeping can be awakened from their slumber: what has to be done so that modern Orthodoxy will understand that it should not fear what the present and the future have to offer? I think that it is Orthodox women who pay the highest price of the response to Reform and Conservative Judaism. And I wonder when this will stop; will it be in my time that the modern Orthodox rabbis will understand that our Torah will be one struck by a moral eclipse, as long as the present reality as regards leadership and interpretation by women remains in place?
And on both I do not forgo the call (Song of Songs 5:8): "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem! If you meet my beloved, tell him this: that I am faint with love." As one of the daughters of Jerusalem, I await my beloved, and seek to serve Him in holiness.
translated by Ed Levin