April 27, 2010
To Nudge and to Support
Chaim and Doreen Seidler-Feller’s marriage nurtures intellect, spirit and community
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Chaim’s other notoriously volatile incident occurred in 2003, on the campus of UCLA, when he physically assaulted a female journalist who provoked him, challenging his loyalties, during a heated Israel rally. She sued, and ultimately he made a public apology, including in The Jewish Journal. The incident was much publicized and very painful for the Seidler-Fellers, an unfortunate stain on an otherwise remarkable legacy. He says, nevertheless, that the teshuvah he did afterward transformed him.
“I think I have to quiet my mind when it comes to politics and focus my public attention on being an educator and a religious leader,” he says. “I was deeply affected by what happened in the sense that I hurt people. I hurt Hillel, I hurt my wife and my family, I hurt myself. It remains with me as a lesson, because I think it’s incumbent upon leaders to know what their weaknesses are.”
Like Doreen, Chaim has a fierce passion for his principles that he has, at times, found difficult to contain. Together, they remain a pair of intellectual rebels sitting on the cusp between two worlds. And, as Doreen likes to say, they are not afraid of controversy.
“I have no patience for people who oppress Jews,” Chaim says, reflecting on a visit he made to the former Soviet Union to teach refuseniks. He could have been talking about any number of his experiences. His wife, sensing his vulnerability and at the ready to protect him, squeezes his hand: “He is fearless,” she says. “He is fearless as a Jew, and he doesn’t put up with any nonsense from anybody. If somebody attacks a Jew and he’s around, you can rely on it, this man’s going to stand up; if he were to meet Mel Gibson, he would stand shoulder to shoulder and eye to eye, and he would not retract a word or a step.”
Because of their forward thinking, the university setting has been the ideal home for them. “I came to the university because of its promise,” Chaim says. “There was creativity; there were young people who were thinking. Students would come into my office to talk about God, to talk about the meaning of life.”
Under his guidance, Hillel has become a place of Jewish inclusion — a home for Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated Jews, and, especially meaningful for Chaim, a destination school for Orthodox Jews on the West Coast. Hillel’s offerings in the way of learning, minyanim and kosher food reflect a serious and intense Judaism, but one that is embracing of all Jews, regardless of their practice or their politics.
In the Seidler-Fellers’ eyes, Jewish tradition isn’t something to submit to, but to struggle with. Halachah is a starting point, a vehicle for promoting justice in the world, not for upholding outmoded principles. And therein lies “the God of possibilities,” which Chaim counts as one of the central teachings of his rabbinate.
“I don’t think that is the heart of you,” Doreen disagrees, suggesting he lay out several options and then she will vote.
“The other one was the Tower of Babel,” he says. “What do you think it is?”
“What’s on your door? What’s the measure of a rabbi?” she asks.
“The rabbi — how does it go? The rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is not in the category of a rabbi, and the rabbi who is scared of them is not in the category of a human being.”
Before he settles on this, he adds one more: “He who holds the truth is in the majority even if he is alone.”
“I think both of them capture the spirit of who you are and what your Torah is,” Doreen agrees. “A boundary crosser — a man who is willing to stand alone.”