April 27, 2010
To Nudge and to Support
Chaim and Doreen Seidler-Feller’s marriage nurtures intellect, spirit and community
(Page 3 - Previous Page)
“I don’t actually like to be called a sex therapist,” she says. “It becomes sensationalized and salacious — oh, sex therapist married to Orthodox rabbi, wow, how does that work? The truth is, I’m broader than that.”
The choice to work with Orthodox Jews was also deeply personal. A self-described “outsider,” she found herself drawn to the community’s culture of silence around sex; the denial of the body in favor of the spirit, the lack of sex education and preparation for pleasure. In this respect, they, too, seemed like outsiders. And if anyone should challenge the merits of her work, she found a piece of Talmud to back it up.
“People are grateful that I am a traditional person who’s willing to talk about sex and help others with sex,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I don’t like it when people highlight this contradiction that somehow I’m even more ‘out there’ because I’m both a rebbetzin and a sex therapist. I don’t see any contradiction whatsoever.”
Doreen is unapologetic about her strengths and has been a stabilizing force in Chaim’s life, a blessing given his often-stormy personal history. Before they met, Chaim had been married to Soloveitchik’s niece, and the couple’s divorce, an unwelcome development in the Orthodox community, only increased an already growing tension over Chaim’s rejection of strict Orthodox social mores. His embrace of progressive social views — in particular, that women should have full access to Jewish learning and observance — was considered anathema. The discord led him to formally depart the Orthodox rabbinate and though he would remain traditionally observant, he came to be seen as a deviant — someone who broke ranks with the tradition and was a threat to the status quo.
Today, he remains reticent about the terms of his departure, saying only: “They did a lot of bad things; they isolated me. Institutions and communities want to protect themselves, so they demonize people who challenge the norm because that’s how they maintain their sense of self and their boundaries.”
To the Seidler-Fellers, it was a principled departure, the result of a yearning for a “serious, learned and progressive” Judaism, one that affirmed social and moral progress but remained halachically based, a kind of Judaism that, at the time, they felt didn’t exist. Chaim’s intellectual pursuit of an Orthodox egalitarianism appealed to Doreen from the moment she met him. “I couldn’t have accepted a sort of strait-laced, mainstream Orthodox guy,” she says. “What made it possible for me to marry Chaim is that he had a modern vocabulary — especially regarding women — and that was very important.”