Reflections on Dr. Bonna Devora Haberman, z''l in honor of Shloshim
עז והדר לבושה ותשחק ליום אחרון
She is garbed in strength and glory; she laughs until the last day. (Proverbs 31:25)
It is difficult to recall that about six weeks ago, while waiting for a subway on my way to the Yeshivat Hadar summer orientation, I finally managed to respond to an email from Rabbi Haviva Ner-David asking to share reflections on what I learned from Dr. Bonna Haberman, my friend and teacher. Bonna had reached an acute stage in her struggle with cancer, and Haviva was going to share these reflections with her so that she could rest assured that her work in the world would continue and be able to focus all of her strength inward. I typed what I could on my phone, managed to press send before getting into the subway, and hoped that it was not too late. My thoughts now grow from that hastily typed message, and from my sense of regret for not responding to that message sooner, for missing the opportunity of hakarat hatov – expressing gratitude – to Bonna herself.
Bonna was fearless and joyful, seamlessly stitching together ideas and approaches that many of us would rather let lie in opposite corners of the world. Radical feminist and Zionist. A strict keeper of Shabbat and a strict keeper of the environment. Talmidat Hakhamim, and activist. She is known for her writings, her teaching and her involvement in organizations such as Women of the Wall.
I got to know Bonna in Jerusalem in 2006-2008, and in subsequent visits to Jerusalem. Bonna visited Yeshivat Hadar most recently in January 2014 at our winter learning seminar on the topic of food, co-sponsored with Hazon. In a panel on ethical food practices, Bonna became a last-minute surprise panelist – we hadn’t even realized that she was in the country. While the other panelists introduced themselves with a brief biography or anecdote, Bonna, unpredictable as always, began by reaching towards the floor and picking up a small piece of dirt on her finger. Examining this speck, or really encountering it, she asked, “Where did you come from?” If only we could see our food – and everything – for the full story that it has to tell us. That was Bonna – urging people to see what they wanted to ignore. Needless to say, it was easy to dismiss Bonna’s antics as a little over the edge, a little crazy. It was very easy to think, “That’s just not how the world works” and put her in a different world that we didn’t have to let into ours. But now that she is no longer in our world to challenge us, I am left thinking about what aspects of her legacy I need to call my own and continue.
The last time I had a Shabbat meal with Bonna was parshat Tazria, 2014. In a parsha about birth Bonna pulls out her birth journals from the shelf and starts to read aloud. (!) Excerpts of this journal appear in her published feminist theology Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink. Her approach to feminism and Torah was not about evaluating Torah or feeling alienated and certainly not about apologetics; it was about jumping into the deep end of the raw, real chaos of life and discovering wisdom. Bonna’s no nonsense, full of dignity approach to areas of halakhah like hilkhot niddah inspires me not to give up on the possibility and imperative of feminist halakhah even as I continue to wonder what exactly that means. I draw so much strength and courage from Bonna to learn and teach Torah that feels as deep and true as I can reach for.
Bonna wasn’t afraid to notice when Torah was scary or terrible and look that Torah right in the eye and know that it was a reflection of a world that can be scary and terrible and look that world in the eye through that Torah and say: No. And say: Yes, it can be otherwise. Yes, we will make it otherwise. Yes, we will love building this world together. And Yes, we will build that world standing proud and tall embracing Torah in our arms. Even when it seems like a crime to hold this Torah in these arms in this place – even when it is a crime – because this Torah is ours, and this world is ours to fix.
We had seudah shlishit (the third Shabbat meal) at her house once a month after Rosh Chodesh, and would close with Kiddush Levana (prayers offered when seeing the waxing moon on Saturday night) in her garden, surrounded by pomegranate trees, gazing up at the stars and the new moon, and reciting intricately crafted Hebrew feminist poetry (written by Tzemah Yoreh, now my spouse) alongside the traditional Kiddush levana liturgy. Bonna seemed especially Bonna when we rose on our toes towards the moon, saying “Just as I dance opposite you but can’t touch you so may none of my enemies be able to touch me to cause harm.” The first part of the line was so true for Bonna. She had a playful, vibrant energy behind each step she took in the world, literally and figuratively, even when a goal seemed impossible to reach. If only the second part of the line had been true. As the midrash says of Elisheva, Aharon’s wife, whose joy turned to tears on the day the mishkan was dedicated and two of her sons died, Middat ha-Din has played a cruel trick – on Bonna and on us – by snatching Bonna from this world. ותשחק ליום אחרון. May we live to see the day when learning and laughter fill the world as much as they filled Bonna’s life.
Since prose does not seem to feel quite adequate, below is a poetic formulation of reflections on Bonna’s life and legacy, inspired by a Talmuic passage in Yoma 47b that discusses the korban minchah – the grain offering – and specifically the status of small bits of dough that are left between the fingers of the kohen after offering a handful as a korban. Bonna was a kohenet – both the daughter of and married to a kohen – and her voice rang loud and sweet whenever she joined in birkat kohanim.
An Offering For Bonna
How did she slip through the cracks
between the rough fingers of this earth?
A minha in the hands of a Kohen
leaving behind only specks of fine sifted spiced flour
imprints of her words
Solet belulah ba-shemen
Sparkling specks of what was just a handful
of a much larger offering – waiting, unoffered, potential.
This sparkling speck
If you let it stare you in the face
Will challenge you
Will urge you to confront your way in the world
She laughs, giddy, always, with discovery.
So easy to dismiss you as crazy
So easy to put you in a different world that we don’t have to let into ours.
Now you are in a different world far from ours.
There is no way that she is not still prancing around the streets of Jerusalem
Medaleget al he-harim
Jumping between “religious” and “secular”
Between “Israeli” and “Palestinian”
Leaping across divides in a dance of joy rather than the stress of a bridge pulled in too many directions.
Every part of you must be part of Torah, she taught
Every part of Torah must be able to live in a world where every part of you can live
Leyning Sotah in a whisper
A colorful flower kippah on a cloud of white-gray hair floating above a sweet adamant voice
Pulling the rug out from under you with a smile
Bonna always exposing the unnecessary boundaries we draw,
the unnecessary shell, exterior, pretense, assumptions, obstacles
Blood. Sweat. Milk. Ink.
How do you start from what you know,
what you know most deeply,
and build worlds from there?
Bonna dancing a dance that that would never reach as far as it might but ends at least with us saying Shalom Aleichem to three new people.
Of course the next day is Rosh Chodesh.
A new moon now
Waiting to be made holy
Or really waiting for a dance partner.