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Sexual Healing

Doreen Seidler-Feller, a Los Angeles psychologist, observant Jew, and rabbi’s wife, has a thriving practice as a sex therapist to the Orthodox

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Seidler-Feller in her office. (Rebecca Spence)

It takes a lot to shock Doreen Seidler-Feller. And yet the Los Angeles psychologist is quick to recall one memorable therapy session several years earlier, when her patient—a young, Orthodox married man—told her of what might happen if he dared gaze at his wife’s genitalia: His unborn children could turn out deaf and blind.

This was a new one for Seidler-Feller, who has built a thriving practice as the go-to sex therapist for L.A.’s sizable Orthodox population. “It was stark, and it was revelatory, and it was disturbing,” she said.

A silver-haired Modern Orthodox Jew who does not wear a sheitl, or a wig, as many of her patients do, Seidler-Feller, 62, says she aspires to make a “cultural dent” in the cloistered world of Judaism’s most pious adherents. “There’s a little bit of the messianist in me,” she said in an interview from her airy office in L.A.‘s Westwood neighborhood.

To help understand this particular patient’s fears, she turned to her rabbi—who also happens to be her husband of 35 years, Chaim Seidler-Feller, the longtime head of UCLA’s Hillel. He found the passage to which the patient was referring in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, the 19th-century abridged tome of Jewish law that is widely used as a guidepost for Orthodox Jews on matters of intimacy.

“Clearly the Shulchan Aruch preserves a point of view that is medieval about the fears that existed at that time—and up until Freud’s time—about the vagina and what its powers are,” said Seidler-Feller, the accent of her native South Africa still prominent. “But the point is that it was alive today, in this room.”

What also struck Seidler-Feller, whose work with Orthodox couples comprises about 40 percent of her clinical-psychology practice, was that the notion troubling that married patient derived from a minority rabbinic opinion. That the opinion has survived in the commentary alongside the far more permissive majority opinion written by the 3rd-century rabbi, Yochanan bar Nafcha, vexes her.

But Seidler-Feller’s clinical work can only reach so many, as she says, and several years ago, she and her husband decided to go on the road. At Jewish learning conferences such as Limmud, they unpack what Judaism has to say about sex, with Rabbi Seidler-Feller exploring the textual sources and Dr. Seidler-Feller providing the psychological context. “We want to show people that the majority opinions are permissive with respect to marital sexuality,” she said. “And not only permissive, but instructive.”

The child of a Czech Auschwitz survivor, Seidler-Feller was raised in a nonobservant home where the memories of the Holocaust were palpable; her mother had lost both of her parents, as well as her first husband, by the time she turned 18. Her mother’s tragic past, coupled with her parents’ early divorce, led Seidler-Feller to pursue a career in psychology. “When you have experiences that fracture you psychically, you can try to deal with them in many ways,” she said. “One is writing novels, and another is becoming a psychologist.” At the same time, she said, the traumatic events of her childhood led her to seek out traditional Judaism. By the time she met her husband in 1973 at Ohio State University, where she was pursuing a doctorate and he was the new Hillel rabbi, she had already traveled to Israel and immersed herself in Jewish study.

In her office, decorated with unassuming flower prints—she’d removed a Gauguin print that featured a nude figure after an ultra-Orthodox man complained—Seidler-Feller explained that about 15 years ago, she began to think of Orthodox Jews, particularly the ultra-Orthodox, as culturally underprivileged; she likened it to the digital divide.

“It makes my heart sad that, in the modern world, with all that we have available to us, the sort of information that could so enhance the quality of their lives is unavailable to them because nobody is doing the active translation that is required,” she said.

When she completed the UCLA human sexuality program in the late 1970s, the Orthodox population was far more skeptical of psychotherapy than it is today. Moreover, the field of psychotherapy was far less attuned to religious sensitivities. As a woman steeped in both traditional Judaism and modern psychotherapy, Seidler-Feller realized that she could provide the necessary cultural mediation.

Ultra-Orthodox communities—among them the Chabad-Lubavitch and Satmar Hasidic sects—provide virtually no sex education until couples are about to marry. Even that information, generally dispensed to women by a kallah teacher, who is charged with teaching brides about intimacy, can be minimal. With limited or no access to books and movies, let alone the Internet, community members have few places to turn for information on the most basic aspects of human sexuality. Real-world experience is also limited: The rules of conduct known as Shomer Negiah prohibit girls and boys from touching, while boys are taught at puberty that masturbation is a grave evil.

A 2004 survey of 380 married Orthodox women in New York and Israel conducted by a team of psychiatrists and sexual health experts found significantly higher levels of sexual dissatisfaction among that community than among the general American population. Nine percent of Orthodox women reported never experiencing an orgasm during sex, as compared with 1 percent in the general population, according to a 1999 study on sexual dysfunction in the United States. Tellingly, women who were raised observant were twice as likely to have difficulty climaxing than ba’alot teshuva, or women who were raised secular and chose Orthodoxy later in life.

One of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist who directs the pastoral counseling program at New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school, said that part of the problem is lack of education. “There tends to be a kind of wariness about sex education and sexual matters in general,” she said of the Orthodox world. “Coupled with the deep commitment to modesty, it becomes difficult to construct appropriate educational models.”

An Orthodox couple will more than likely wind up in Seidler-Feller’s office if they’re having trouble conceiving, unlike secular couples who often seek treatment because they’re not enjoying sex.

Seidler-Feller is herself still fairly conservative when it comes to sex, more Michele Bachmann than Dr. Ruth when discussing pop culture. “The more vulgar our culture becomes about sexuality, especially female sexuality, the more recessed that world becomes,” she says, speaking of the ultra-Orthodox community. “And that’s a dynamic I regret.” It also means that the need for her services isn’t going away anytime soon.

CORRECTION, June 22: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah did not grant quasi-rabbinic status to a woman. This error has been corrected.

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David Kraemer says:

I am somewhat puzzled by Seidler-Feller’s surprise at her patient’s belief, which is expressed explicitly in the Talmud, Nedarim 20a (making the belief not “medieval” but classical). It seems to me that those treating Orthodox patients should be familiar with the basic sources on sexuality in Judaism, of which this is surely one. Many of the relevant texts can be found in Boyarin’s book, Carnal Israel. There is undeniably one strong trend in Jewish attitudes concerning sexuality that is “puritanical.”

Elimelech says:

Chaim Seidler-Feller is anything but Orthodox and was also the “Rabbi who police reports state that kicked and grabbed the wrist of freelance journalist Rachel Neuwirth.

Rabbi Seidler-Feller has never been popular with the Orthodox. Many Orthodox students at UCLA have blamed him for not arranging enough kosher places to eat around campus and for not building an Orthodox community. UCLA Hillel finally brought in a mainstream Orthodox rabbi a few years ago to look after Orthodox students.

But Hillel has allowed Seidler-Feller to serve as director of UCLA’s branch, which is an embarrassment to the campus community.

If not for the shocking and inexcusable nature of the attack itself, Seidler-Feller should be let go due to the shameful way he conducted himself following the incident.

The incident took place after a speech by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz at Royce Hall. UCLA alumnus David Hakimfar chronicled what he witnessed at the event:

“I saw my rabbi take swings to Neuwirth’s face and kicks to her legs. The only thing that saved Neuwirth from being pounded in the face was a notebook in Rabbi Seidler-Feller’s hand that didn’t allow his arm to make the full extension to punch her head,” Hakimfar wrote in the online magazine Jewsweek, and confirmed to me.

Seidler-Feller, who is on sabbatical until August, could not be reached for comment.

Rather than accept responsibility for the attack, Seidler-Feller and his lawyer initially tried to shift the blame to the victim: “It was Ms. Neuwirth who accosted the rabbi, it was Ms. Neuwirth who confronted the rabbi in an angry and belligerent manner, and it was Ms. Neuwirth who spewed hateful and venomous words at the rabbi,” Donald Etra, Seidler-Feller’s attorney at the time, told a Daily Bruin reporter.

I don’t see how disseminating lashon hara about Rabbi Seidler-Feller has any relevance to this article. That said, I too [also with David Kraemer] find it strange, and sad, that Doreen Seidler-Feller is not more familiar with the generally permissive view the Talmud takes about sex between a consenting husband and wife, as detailed in such scholarly works as Boyarin’s “Carnal Israel” and Biale’s “Eros and the Jews.”

The Sages believed that the quality of the parents’ sex act had a corresponding influence on the quality of the child conceived by that act. That is, the more pleasure for both of them, the better the child. Contrary to what Seidler-Feller’s patient had learned, conduct that leads to bad children is more along the lines of forced sex or sex while drunk, angry at the partner, or thinking of someone else.

However, considering that women have been prevented/prohibited from studying Talmud until recently [a situation I'm trying to remedy], it’s not surprising that Seidler-Feller has not had access to these texts.

Perhaps her clients should be reading my “Rashi’s Daughters” novels, as some “kallah” class teachers in NY have their students do.

Rebecca Spence says:

Maggie, I regret if it was not more clear from the story, but Doreen Seidler-Feller is very much of the mind that Judaism is permissive and “sex-positive,” if you will, when it comes to sex between a husband and wife. This is exactly the point of view she seeks to promote; as she says, she is on somewhat of a mission to clear up misconceptions about what she sees as the true relationship between sex and Judaism.
“At Jewish learning conferences such as Limmud, they unpack what Judaism has to say about sex, with Rabbi Seidler-Feller exploring the textual sources and Dr. Seidler-Feller providing the psychological context. “We want to show people that the majority opinions are permissive with respect to marital sexuality,” she said. “And not only permissive, but instructive.”
-Rebecca

Michelle Friedman says:

As the psychiatrist and director of Pastoral Counseling at YCT quoted in the article, I take serious issue with Rebecca Spence’s flippant comment that our yeshiva is best known for “granting quasi- rabbinic status to a woman”. I respect Rabba Sara Hurwitz enormously, but her rabbinic status was not conferred by YCT at all. Further, I believe that YCT is best known for recruiting, training and supporting over 60 excellent rabbis who serve Jewish communities throughout the world.
Michelle Friedman, MD

wow, this article is getting a lot of heat. I disagree with Ms. Spence’s assertions as well. She seems to exoticize “the orthodox.” She’s seems to be wallowing in a sort of enlightened privilege, and that makes me sick.

Andrea says:

I am quite surprised at the many harsh commentaries on this piece, which I think is an excellent and thought provoking article on a subject that needs to be brought out into the open.

I definitely feel there is a real need in the Orthodox community for comprehensive sex education – about both pleasure and health, that is also sensitive to the needs and attitudes of the religious community. I hope to hear more in the future about Dr. Seidler-Feller’s work and the work of other sensitive, knowledgeable mental health professionals.

Doreen Seidler-Feller Ph.D. says:

For All Respondents:

My thanks to Ms.Spence for being as scrupulous a journalist as I have encountered in her interview with me. She was thoughtful and respectful in our meeting and subsequent dealings.

Ms.Anton is incorrect in her argument that the tradition and its interpreters (modern day rabbis) are uniformly permissive about marital sexuality. The view described by several patients has been upheld by their rabbi in personal meetings I had with him. So it cannot be said that what the patient told me was the result of “bad education”; it was the result of a variant education which poses challenges to standard sex therapy approaches. She is also presumptuous about which texts I have and have not had access to. An edition of Davka magazine from the mid 70′s shows me on the cover engaged in Talmud study. Access has never been a problem. Time and competing interests have.

To Kraemer’s point: Certainly there is an important ascetic strand in the tradition,no where better reflected than in the Kitsur Shulhan Aruch where stringent opinion supercedes the more authoritative opinion of R.Johanan. This is because religious life in practice is determined by poskim not by the Talmud. In my teaching this tension is always acknowledged and studied.It seems to me that Mr. Kraemer wants to avoid the interpretive layer by failing to ask how and why Jewish law came to codify that opinion and not the liberal opinion.

I hope that,like Andrea, most readers will be able to see and value the central issue here: that culturally and personally sensitive marital and sex therapy is available to those on the Orthodox spectrum from modern to charedi in Los Angeles. People do not have to suffer in silence and isolation. New techniques, technologies & adaptations of existing approaches should be made available to underserved populations of all kinds, including religiously Orthodox people. This is the work which gives endless springs of spiritual meaning and value to my life.

sechel says:

I understand Dr.Feller’s comments.However one doing therapy in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox world should know the sources.The kitzur Shulchan Aruch is one point of view but is not the normative point of view of almost all rabbinic decisors.
It is imporant to have competent therapists who also are sensitive and knowledgable of the relgious values and the nuances involved.

I don’t get it. As a former English teacher, I wonder if some of the people in the comments section were only skimming this piece when they read it or need to go back to school to study the art of reading as much as they believe Dr. Seidler-Feller requires a more in-depth Jewish education. The comments on this great article are incredibly frustrating. And I’m not even addressing the lashon hara. Overall, it sounds like a lot of the comments came from a misplaced belief that somehow Dr. Seidler-Feller believed that the problems she sees in her practice is representative of all Orthodox Jews or all Orthodox Judaism.

Both the author of this piece and Dr. Siedler-Feller come on personally to address the misconceptions people in the comments section had after reading the article and STILL, people don’t get it and assume she is uneducated when she merely referenced a certain text as an EXAMPLE of a problem…not as an example of all Orthodox thought on sexuality! She even cited more permissive text that she feels more people need to be aware of and need to learn about and she shares in her practice. She IS obviously learned in the Jewish aspects surrounding the topic she makes her living from BUT it is true that in SOME Orthodox communities–not ALL–and even many yeshivot and not just among young men in yeshiva, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch is being trumpeted as the end all and be all when it comes to marital sex.

I am glad the ridiculously false allusion to YCT was removed. Thanks to Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus and many others, the YCT pastoral counseling program prepares students to the best of its ability to help or refer congregants that face the problems Dr. Seidler-Feller sees in her practice all too often. In this area, they will not be part of the problem like some of the rabbis Dr. Seidler-Feller mentions but hopefully will be part of the solution.

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Sexual Healing

Doreen Seidler-Feller, a Los Angeles psychologist, observant Jew, and rabbi’s wife, has a thriving practice as a sex therapist to the Orthodox

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