Jan 5, 2024 2:55 PM
A series of rabbinic notices and proclamations were published last week in multiple Haredi newspapers banning lectures and counseling sessions by the popular Haredi marriage and relationship counselor Shaindy Bilgrei.
The harshly worded letters, signed by prominent rabbis from across a broad spectrum of the Haredi world, describe Bilgrei’s lectures as being of “foreign influence and crooked guidance derived from impure sources, which cause the foundations for holiness of the home to be destroyed.”
One letter, signed by over 30 U.S. rabbis, was issued as a rabbinic ruling, saying, “None of her lectures may be listened to and she should never be consulted at all.” Another letter claimed that Bilgrei’s lectures are “filled with profanity” and lead to “the abyss of pursuit of lust and desire.”
The reference to “holiness of the home” is a common rabbinic euphemism for sex and intimacy among married couples.
Bilgrei’s lectures have been offered at in-person events and are also available online at TorahAnytime.com. In her talks, which she has been giving for at least five years, Bilgrei doesn’t speak explicitly about sex. However, she says that God intended for marriage to evoke “dizzying delight” and that a woman’s husband should make her feel like “she is the most worthy, important, valued, and number one person to him.”
Another popular Hasidic marriage and intimacy counselor, who asked not to be named for fear of negative consequences, told Shtetl that Bilgrei’s events have drawn thousands of attendees within the Orthodox world, and she was told by some attendees that “taking Mrs. Bilgrei’s classes changed their life.” While she’d never attended the program herself, she said she thought highly of it.
After Hasidic couples are engaged — frequently as young as 18 — each partner receives separate advice on sexual matters, relationship issues, and how to comply with complicated Jewish menstrual laws. But the counselor interviewed by Shtetl said she believes that for many Hasidic couples, this education simply isn’t enough.
“It’s not enough to teach a girl and a boy how to do the physical act. It’s not enough, we’re not animals,” she said. “That’s not preparing anyone for a marriage. If anything, many, many, many women are traumatized from their first experience in the facts of life, as I’ve seen.”
Sara Glass, a therapist who grew up in the Hasidic community, said she thinks it’s important for women to have spaces where they can talk about their feelings and challenges around sex and intimacy.
“As a therapist who treats women in the community, and as someone who has been married in the community, I’m worried,” Glass said. “It is hard enough to speak out when you’re struggling in your marriage. And by putting more restrictions on who women are allowed to speak with, that may result in women choosing not to speak, and suffering in silence. That will mean more marriages and more children who are suffering.”
Public discussion of sex and intimacy is considered taboo in the Haredi world, and ordinary people’s private opinions on such issues are difficult to assess. But in a lively discussion on the Yiddish-language Kave Shtiebel forum, where most people post anonymously, users widely agreed that the anti-Bilgrei letters showed the rabbinic leadership to be out of touch with the realities of people’s private lives.
One dismayed commenter, using the name “Kleine Tzadik,” wrote that Bilgrei’s lectures were a “miniscule salvation in today’s desolate wilderness” regarding relationship and intimacy advice. “I just don’t understand it,” the commenter wrote. “So many young people struggle, couples are desperate for help and advice, and the little that there is, they want to take that away?”
Ultimately, though, all press might just be good press. As another Kave Shtiebel commenter, “Yam Shel Shulem,” wrote, “Don’t worry. Now that there’s a ban, even more people will find out about the lectures, and start listening to them.”
Read more in Shtetl: