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Pay attention to your souls: Bonna Devora Haberman’s spiritual legacy

On the spiritual legacy of Bonna Devora Haberman: She worked day and night to improve our world

It is sad to die on Rosh Chodesh Tamuz. Bonna Devora Haberman will no longer pray ardently at the Wall, prayers woven with sadness and joy, with wishes for mercy and peace. Bonna Devora, one of the “Women of the Wall” founders, was many things: researcher, rabbi and activist, Israeli and American.

She felt at home among different groups, and was also a homeless wanderer who kept searching and looking for a home. As one of the family, she devoted herself to the community needs and cared for many people; as an outsider, she worked tirelessly to repair and improve society. I called her “Soul Leader.”

We were not close friends, but the meetings and conversations we had left deep impression on me. She taught me important things that can be summed up as, “Pay attention to your souls.”

The soul records: Theater and Life

Bonna Devora did not back away from conflicts. She tried to heal them by her faith in the power of an honest and open discussion, by exposing one’s soul. She believed that theater is the meeting of people and souls. Consequently, she founded an Israeli-Arab theater group that dealt with the conflict and initiated the “Midrash Esther” educational project about gender and Judaism. It was important to her to activate this project in religious schools for boys.

“The only way to make the students understand Esther’s soul in the situation she was put in is a theater workshop on the Book of Esther, and in fact, this will throw light on their relationships with girls of the same age, as well,” she once said to me.

We worked together on this project at the Charles E. Smith High School for Boys at Hartman Institute and held interesting discussions about art and faith. I told her about a Tibetan monastery I visited, where the monks worked for days creating sand mandalas, meditating, and then sweeping away their exquisite work of art. I kept taking photographs, anxious that they were to be lost forever. I was frustrated by the notion that these works of art exist only in my lame photos.

“You should not have been frustrated, nor taken those pictures,” she said to me. “It is exactly like the power of theater. The value of things is in their occurring at present. In their rich and plenty presence. Like a full and rich life. That’s the way things should be. We also need to live in the present and stop thinking all the time how others will perceive our life in terms of eternity.”

“But it was so beautiful,” I said. “Imagine that Michelangelo would have burned down the Sistine Chapel after painting it, or Picasso his paintings. It is terrible to think that so much work was done without leaving any trace.”

“You’re wrong,” Bonna Devora said, “the soul is registering.”

You cannot clear your conscience with our guilt

Last year we spent a weekend together at a conference of the Society of Jewish Ethics in Seattle. It was an ultra-liberal conference and in spite of its title, “Expanding the boundaries of tradition,” it mostly focused on three topics: Bioethics, sex and gender, and Israel’s moral functioning.

Bonna tastefully introduced the religious struggle for equality in Israel. I was deeply impressed by her way of rarely complaining about evil and often stressing matters of love. She didn’t go into detail when criticizing those who put barriers and repress gender equality, but emphasized the positive efforts she and her friends make in this regard.

I learned more from her reaction to lectures of others. One young doctoral student sharply criticized Israel for the way it treats Arabs. Academically, it was a very poor lecture (among other things, he said that Arabs are exempt from army service because of discriminatory racist reasons). Bonna Devora ignored the content of his lecture and held a long discussion with him after the meeting. She worked day and night to rectify the situation in Israel, and passionately argued that Israel deals with matters of discrimination, inequality, and violence more morally and honestly than the United States. She claimed that the tendency of liberal Jews in America to focus on matters of discrimination in Israel is an attempt to repress their responsibility for these sorts of problems in America. “You cannot clear your conscience with our guilt,” said this soul leader who is all conscience.

Bonna Devora passed away as one of the family and also as an outsider in Israel. She died in the middle of a quest to fulfill the dreams of many. Among other things, she dreamed of a long voyage around Israel in an “education bus” that would create dialogues between different groups through workshops, studies, and theater.

Bonna Devora and I belong to different movements, support different political parties and have different religious sensitivities. I cherish the beautiful lessons I received from this great Soul Leader. She will be greatly missed by Israeli society. I hope there will be successors to her legacy that will continue to lead us in her way and teach us to pay attention to our souls.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the director of the institute's David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence. He co-heads the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis and a faculty member at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel.