Amidst the recent press around the newly-ordained Orthodox women rabbis, the material world lost one of the most passionate, uncompromising and principled Jewish feminist spiritual leaders of our time. I think it appropriate that as we celebrate the strides being made, we thank those Jewish feminist pioneers like Rabbi Bonna Devora Haberman, without whom these developments would never have been possible. Her relentless dedication to feminism as a Jewish value prepared the earth for the revolution that she, thank God, had the opportunity to witness. It is absolutely necessary that we mourn our tremendous loss, recognize Rav Bonna’s contributions, and commit ourselves to continuing her legacy of working to fix the world and pursue justice—no excuses or apologetics accepted. For there is still much work to be done.
I met Bonna when I came to Israel a little over twenty-five years ago one summer before moving here myself. I decided to pray with Women of the Wall, and Bonna, of course, was there. Having grown up Orthodox, but having come into my feminism, I was struggling to find my place in religious Judaism. Bonna stood out immediately as someone I could look to as a role model. She was outspoken and passionate, and at the same time so full of joy and love for Torah. She embodied the notion that Judaism could be both alive and authentic, spiritual and grounded, just and practical, radical and steeped in tradition. Her smile and her energy were contagious. I became an active member of Women of the Wall from then on—first from the U.S. as an international board member, and then in Jerusalem as an activist on the ground,
When I first moved to Israel, Bonna was no longer here. She had moved with her family to the Boston area for a number of years. But we kept in touch, and I saw her when she visited, and then when she returned, I had the honor of becoming a true friend and colleague. We sat through many a WOW meeting together, both of us usually taking a more radical point of view. Bonna was a model for me of someone who stood up for what she believed in, totally believing that justice could be served if we simply pushed hard enough and stuck to our principles. She believed in humanity, despite the horrors she witnessed and rallied against—such as the trafficking of women in Israel she spoke out so eloquently against.
Bonna was one of the people whose personal example finally led me to leave Orthodoxy, demand full egalitarianism in my own spiritual life, and call myself a post-denominational rabbi. She was not willing to settle for anything other than full egalitarianism, and she was not caught up in being accepted or approved of. She was interested in following her heart and speaking truth to power. When I received ordination from Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky about ten years ago, I came to the realization that I had done what I, personally, could do at the time to push Orthodoxy towards the ordination of women, but that my place was with those like Bonna who would not wait for the approval of Orthodox male rabbinic authorities to grant us full rights and access. I know I have Bonna’s role modeling to thank for helping me bolster the courage to make what then felt like a radical move in my life.
I remember at my children’s bar and bat mitzvah prayer services, I knew I had to make a difficult decision. Bonna was the daughter of a Kohen and was married to a Kohen, and it was her practice to stand up with her husband and sons when they blessed the congregation. I knew this would not go over well with certain members of my family, but I also knew that I could not say no to Bonna on this one. I could not tell her I was compromising on full egalitarianism for the sake of avoiding discomfort. Bonna believed, I think, that causing discomfort in the name of justice was part of how we change people’s perspectives, challenge their complacency. I love her for this!
I also remember how, after months of holding our monthly Kiddush Levanah women’s groups in Bonna’s garden, Bonna suggested it was time to start inviting men to the group, opening my eyes to the reality that the change we want to see happen in this world will only come if women share their spaces with men and make their voices heard in mixed gender groups; that the time has come for men’s spheres and women’s spheres, men’s voices and women’s voices, to be merged so that we can all influence one another and bring about a balanced, healthy world.
Bonna’s life was very much about balance and health, as far as I could see. Not only was she physically strong and sturdy so that she could run marathons and hold complicated advanced yoga positions, but she also managed to balance her time between activism, family, spirituality, work, study, creative pursuits, culture, and simple pleasures. With all of her commitment to making the world a better place, she seemed, at least to an outside observer like me, never to let her activism get in the way of her family life. I can hear her saying to me now as I write this that activism was part of her family life, was part of their family experience. But I think it was more than that, because many activists do not manage to keep that delicate balance. Many activists sacrifice family for the cause. Bonna did not.
Bonna was not interested in titles and pomp, or in being acknowledged or thanked. She was interested in pursuing justice. For that reason, I think, she supported my bid for Orthodox rabbinic ordination, but she did not then go for the rabbi title herself. Like me, I think she was more interested in breaking down hierarchy than in creating levels of authority. I also think that, like me, she did not want to be boxed into a specific movement or denomination or be limited by a specific label or title. Besides, she knew she was a rabbi already in all but the title. Yet, I am so glad she decided in the last weeks of her life to let the title be bestowed upon her by the students of Rabbi Zalman Schachter- Shalomi, with whom she was studying for ordination before he himself passed out of the material world last summer.
I miss you terribly already, Bonna. I miss your presence in this world. I miss just knowing people like you exist and are fighting for what is right in the name of God and Torah. I know it was important for you to know that we will continue the struggle to create a better world so that you could leave this world in peace. We will do our best, Bonna. But no one can do it quite like you!