Our beloved friend and teacher Rabbi Bonna Devora Haberman — הרב בנה דבורה בת שולמית ויעקב הכהן — passed away yesterday in her home in Jerusalem.
R’ Bonna was a friend and colleague to many in the Jewish Renewal world. She was a student of Reb Zalman z”l and was ordained in his lineage, and she taught in the ALEPH Ordination Programs. In her tireless work with YTheater Project Jerusalem and as a founder of Women of the Wall, she inspired all of us to work toward our highest hopes for an Israel which lives up to our dreams. She inspired us to bring our whole hearts to the holy work of wrestling with the disjunctions between the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem, and to strive to bring holiness to the world in which we live.
Baruch dayan ha-emet. May the ascent of her soul be gentle. We dedicate our work this month to her memory. In our hearts, her light continues to shine. May all who mourn be comforted.
Below is a eulogy by Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg on behalf of the Aleph Ordination Program Va’ad.
Haqafah Alef, this being a four-fold song to our beloved Bonna Devorah Haberman, of blessed memory, on behalf of the Aleph Va’ad.
How do we measure time? One month ago, on Rosh Hodesh Sivan, Bonna received ritual smicha, as Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan and I placed our hands on Bonna’s sweet and brilliant keppele, closing a circuit of Torah-transmission much greater than any one of us. The heavens opened, and we rejoiced in the intimate space of Bonna’s Jerusalem home. Upon the ceremony’s end, ululations broke out, and we began chanting a niggun of Reb Shlomo, forming a circle of joy around Bonna. (She had been resting most of the day, supine, but rose for and to the occasion.) Today, one month later on Erev Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, Rabbi Bonna breathed her last, surrounded by another circle of love: by extended family, her five children whom she loved fiercely and by Shmuel whom she loved tenderly for more than 34 years, and by the closest of friends—all of whom, but a few days earlier, would have moved mountains to keep Bonna with us a little longer. And now, this mesirut nefesh: this progressive and repeated letting-go….
Tomorrow, on Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, Rabbi Bonna Devorah Haberman will be returned to the earth in a cemetery in Beer-Sheva, a beit almin that acknowledges the multiplicity of Jewish spiritual paths. Even from afar we too can be melaveh, act as escorts of this extraordinary woman, who was a master-teacher, a visionary with feet that danced on the earth, a scholar who innovated both in the academy and beyond its walls, a ritual artist who brought down the shefa (the divine flow) and opened apertures, a bridge-builder (gosheret gesharim) and co-founder of the Y-Theater project that brought together Palestinians and Israelis, who did not agree on much, to create art that spanned worlds and three languages. Bonna did not whitewash. Bonna did not flinch from being who she was. She did not crumple. She was ohevet yisrael (one who loved the people and land of Israel). She offered (and received) criticism in the most loving way I have witnessed, as an act of love. She stretched across difference to behold the divinity of the Other. Life, for her, was a series of birthings….and she too, was an em kol hai, a mother who gave us all greater Life. To see her was to see the Face of the Shekhinah.
Bonna was also an athlete, strong and slim, with no excess weight: while teaching at the Aleph Smicha Week in New Hampshire two years ago, she would run in the morning and swim across the lake in the afternoon. When other runners and trekkers would toss in the towel, not Bonna. Hence her family nickname: “never-say-die-Haberman.” Then who wiped out the sun today? Who absorbed the moon’s sliver this evening? Bonna, our great lovie, has left our earth-plane, too soon, too soon, and something in us has cratered and shattered.
Yes, we all will die….
Bonna we reach out our arms to you, in gratitude for your life, your wild and beautiful Torah, your exquisite friendship.
Segue…. For those of us who didn’t know her, I suggest you google Bonna’s essays starting here, read her books, see her slam sermons, her interviews on Israeli T.V., and talk with her students. She was (is?) a spiritual provocateur, who prodded us to our best, largest selves; who challenged regnant orthodoxies with verve but also love. She was a close reader of difficult texts, one who birthed new-old Torah, millin hadtin atiqin. Even in her dying days, she had moments of sheer radiance and pellucidity, her thin frame growing gaunt as a finger, but illumined from the inside out. Bonna was an organic gardener, a dancer, a singer of piyyut and niggun, of Bob Dylan and her landsman Leonard Cohen. On her next-to-last day, after reciting the viddui (deathbed ritual), she chanted from memory the great Jewish devotional poem, Lekha eli teshuqati in Yemenite mode. It begins:
All my desire, my God, is for you
all my pleasure, all my love
My heart and my kidneys are for you,
my breath and my embodied soul
Dying as an act of drawing near and contact-improv, of ultimate devequt.
And we, “down here below” (to use Abbey Lincoln’s phrase), must find new ways to integrate her love, her challenges—to live a little bigger (more courage, more integrity), and a little smaller (leaving room for others to unfold). Ke-shma ken hi: Bonna was a Builder (Bonah), and Jerusalem was her home, the earth her annointed mishkan, and the Holy One, her resting place.
Tehi nishmatah tz’rurah bi-tzror ha-hayyim: may the soul of Bonna, הרב בנה דבורה בת שולמית ויעקב הכהן, be bound into the Gathering of Life. May waves of love and nehamah (deepest consolation) flow to her astonishing family and to all those who cry out and grieve at her passing.
While Bonna had a home in the world of Jewish Renewal, her lineage opened wide, receiving Torah from Nechama Leibowitz and feminist pathblazer Helene Cixous, from Rabbis Louis Jacobs and David Hartman, from Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman. She was a co-founder of Neshot ha-Kotel, Women of the Wall, and taught at Harvard, Brandeis and Hebrew University. She taught in her home and at her Shabbes table; she did street theatre; she taught at Elat Chayyim and she anchored the Israel curriculum at Smicha Week 2013. In her last months, she and I were crafting a new program of study for Aleph Ordination students. The wheels were always turning.
Bonna was equal parts critical thinker and poet, precise and expansive, conceptual and embodied: she learned from the genome project and Talmud, from feminist theory and complexity theory, and sported with the angels. In her, it all somehow knit together, מקשה אחת, one entity. Simply put, more than almost anyone I know, Bonna was in love with life.
Last month, when Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan and I laid hands on her, Bonna was already, we feared, at death’s doorstep. We had to ask ourselves pointed questions: How do you give smicha to someone who is your teacher and at best, your peer? And what does it mean to give smicha to someone who may be standing at the limen between life and death? What will be Bonna’s rabbinate? The answer to the first question was easier: you realize you are a shaliach, an emissary of your teachers, and their teachers (“may our hands…be like their hands; and your hands…like ours.”). The transmission is much bigger than you (than us). For the second and third questions, you pray for a miracle, that Bonna, be-gufah, will grace us here for many years to come. But you also pray that the Holy One open the conduits of consciousness to Bonna, be-khol ha-olamot uve-khol ha-zmanim, in all worlds and across all time. That Bonna be able to expand and draw down Torah from there, the place beyond place, the time that births time. And a baqashah that Bonna merit to live with emunah u-vitahon, i.e., with elemental trust: eyes open, heart open, open palms. Open to what is and whatever may be.
A bit of history. Bonna’s smicha was never intended to be a lifetime achievement award,. It was both a recognition of her prodigious learning and exemplary middot—for who she already was—and an affirmation of the mutual connection between Bonna and Aleph—the promise of continued flowering. Reb Zalman had wanted to give Bonna smicha in 2014, but even after she became ill with cancer, she deflected that gracious offer, saying she wanted to wait until she had studied kol kitvei, all of Reb Zalman’s Hebrew writings. Indeed, her lucid reflection on several of Reb Zalman’s teachings formed the kernel of her d’rush at last month’s smicha ceremony.
Bonna’s smicha was on Reb Zalman’s mind before he passed. To wit: on the day before he passed, Reb Zalman called Bonna, to see how she was faring. So too, Reb Zalman had asked me to prepare the text for Bonna’s smicha ceremony.
And so, on September 14, 2014, as Daniel Siegel and I were pondering what nusach to use for Bonna’s shtar smicha (ordination document), I shared some of my thoughts re: Bonna’s gifts, so that the two of us could get the girsa (wording) right. I wrote Daniel the following words, which flew off the top of my head (or flowed from deep in my heart). On the day of Bonna’s smicha, I revised those words, and shared them with her, in written form:
To Bonna, pro-Bonna, in love and gratitude for one of the great friends of my life, to my teacher and conversation-partner, one of my companions on the path. I’m talkin’ about you, Bonna—
שתחיי ותלמדינו לאורך ימים טובים אמן
Long may you live and teach…
Bonna is a visionary who drinks deeply from the myriad sources (Biblical, rabbinic, hasidic, philosophical). She is a brilliant and unstintingly courageous embodied-thinker-activist (one word)… who balances (more than anyone I know!) radical questioning/critique with unstinting love! LeV ToV (the Good Heart). Balances gashmiyut and ruhaniyut (body and breath), knowing how intermixed they are. She is משיבה הרוח ומורידה הגשם , someone who causes spirit to flow/unfurl/quicken and integrates that spirit with embodied being…So too, she lives with the cycles of the season: the rain, the wind, the dew, the Sun and Moon’s phases: is sensitive to the alternation of the seasons…how it provides clues for worship and wonder, for ways in which we are partners with the Land. From this deep and wide place (Torah/Eretz Yisrael/the rising tide of Gaia :אשירה לה’ כי גאה גאה-יה), Bonna is not only talmidat hakham, but a ritual artist who enacts the pasuq, בכל דרכיך דעהו—In all your ways know God! (Proverbs 3:6)
Bonna is a healer: able to bridge — often ‘al besarah —worlds of Arabs and Jews, with honesty, unblinking clarity, and the open heart. She learns from stumbling blocks and conflict. She is in it for the long haul: steady in her commitments even amidst the maelstrom of war. She points to how Jewish culture in Israel may be cross-fertilized by the ingathering of its peoples: learning Mizrahi baqashot traditions, alongside hasidut and organic farming, feminisms alongside entrepreneurs of connectivity, both Talmudic ShaS (the great Six) and Cixous (the great Helene).
Bonna’s energy is legendary: the closest thing we have to a renewable resource, never-say-die-Haberman… and she has learned yet more during this trying period, when her energy also flags and sometimes craters.
Bonna is רואה את נולד (Avot 2:9), not only in the sense of discerning consequences, but in the sense of seeing what is aborning; of noting, developing and midwifing האפשר—what can be. (My favorite kabbalistic shem for the Shekhinah—ha-efshar shebe-tokh ha-efshar: possibility within possibility. Bonna knows from that!) She nurtures her students (and they are many) with cheerful love, radical questioning, waves of grace/hesed. She opens her heart and home in equal measure, and teaches with the totality of her life (and commitments). She who stands נוכח פני ה gives us new clues/glimpses of the Shekhinah’s partzuf. She-who-births-new-Torah-and-life.
Finally, Bonna bears within her the legacy of disparate beloved teachers of the generation past: Nechama Leibowitz, Louis Jacobs, David Hartman, Shlomo Carlebach, and our beloved Reb Zalman: integrating their Torot, making them her own, while modulating and extending their legacy for a new generation. She is a master teacher and conversation partner. She is truly RaV, one who (ff. Rav Kook) stretches to hold RiV (diversity of opinion, mahloqet, teeming multiplicity), with love, rootedness and yet, elasticity of vision. (I know no one who welcomes honest disagreement as much as she! “Oh lovie, do you really mean that?”) As such Bonna is a precious and irreplaceable reservoir and tzinnor for our future growth (as Renewalists, as Jews, and yes, as planetary citizens).
Bonna will keep us honest; and she will water us with her bountiful (Bonnaful) constructive love. Al tiqrei banayikh ella bonna-yikh, bonna ha-yeqirah shelanu, yeqirat yerushalayim. (Do not read: your children, banayikh, but your Bonna—our beloved, noble citizen of Jerusalem.)
Like many of us who didn’t follow the straight path to becoming who we most deeply are, Bonna contains worlds: she is out-there courageous, yet personally modest, a soaring Ottawa-London-Boston-Yerushalmit sage. Our great lovie.
כן: Yes, our Bonna.
Shir Merubba, the four-fold song of divine presence. Rising up above her body, Bonna’s soul is singing (in maqam to be sure), and we are left behind gasping. But then we breathe in deeply and some of that fiery song enters our hearts, filling us with perfumed light….
—Written by Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg, on behalf of the Aleph Ordination Program Va’ad