A Counterforce Against the Seductions of a Perfect Rabbinate

September 1, 2001
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Doreen Seidler-Feller

Twenty-six years ago, I had only a passing acquaintance with what it might mean to be a rebbetzin. Of course I intended to maintain an independent identity as a clinical psychologist, but there was no denying the role induction that had been set in motion by my marriage.

Over the years, I have shared a sense of enterprise in expanding my husband’s position as Hillel rabbi in the UCLA community. Having a home open to students, faculty, and staff for meetings, classes, celebrations, overnight stays, and emergencies has added richness and vitality to family life; such openness also compromised family life. My children have benefited by knowing college students and faculty. They have achieved a remarkable sophistication about the university and scholarly life and an ability to engage in sustained social chatter. They know how to host at our home and they generally look forward to it. But they have also had to share their father, sometimes relentlessly and unwillingly. His absence has been most acutely felt by me on the weekends, and by our adolescent daughter.

Limiting the rabbi’s service is challenging for both rabbi and community. As a psychologist, I am aware that I model a diversified role that includes public speaking on a variety of issues pertaining to Jewish family life - especially sexuality, women’s roles, and healthy marriage. I also help my husband with his speeches, teaching, and strategies. So I know his work intimately; I know something about marriage and about communal life. My influence on his professional life is oblique but pronounced.

If holiness involves giving and searching for the opportunities to give, it also involves limitation. I like to think I help my husband set limits on the idealized image of rabbinical service. Over the years, I have seen a good deal of community abuse of rabbis in ways too numerous to detail. It is especially poignant when it’s your spouse who is under the heel of excessive expectation, endless demands and requests, frank and unrealistic fantasy. I try to function as a counterforce against the seductions of the “perfect rabbinate” and the complex wishes, implications, and expectancies it establishes. There are many who suggest that a perfect and redemptive rabbinate is possible, one that rehabilitates seekers in need and similarly reconfigures the interior emotional life of the rabbinical family. My conviction is that the preservation of holiness in family life requires a separation between community and rabbinic family, not a merger between them.

Simple acts concretize this idea. The dinner hour is family time. The phone is taken off the hook. I also insist that people observe a moratorium on phone calls to the rabbi between 11 p.m. and 11 a.m. Those calling from other time zones are not exempt from the rules. Our son has scheduled Sunday midday activities, designed in part to create unassailable facts for his father and those who would want his teaching, his consolation, his poetry. And I discuss and help marginalize issues, requests, and duties that my husband brings home that deserve a lower priority in the overarching context of his work. I also respect his incredible work ethic and love of the Jewish people which, in part, has brought on this clamor. Sometimes, of course, the excitement and activity he creates and elicits and the posture I take means we argue. I like to think these are arguments for the sake of two ideas regarding the essence of holiness for the sake of Heaven.

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Dr. Doreen Seidler-Feller is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles.

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