Sacred Earth: Pope Francis and Bonna Devora Haberman

06/19/2015 03:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016

The Jewish world lost one of our greatest voices for feminism and for a just Zionism this week, Rabbi Bonna Devora Haberman​. She was a founder of Women of the Wall, an activist and scholar, and co-director of YTheater, a Israeli Jewish and Palestinian theater company in Jerusalem. Bonna had one of the broadest, most inspiring smiles I have ever experienced -- every part of her face smiled, even her voice smiled -- and it was a joy to be in her presence.

Two days after Bonna died, Pope Francis released his much anticipated encyclical on climate change. Perhaps the most important theological position in the Pope's encyclical is the charge to see the Earth as sister (taking off from Francis of Assisi's Canticle), and not to see the Earth as a thing to be dominated. Pope Francis also voices a clarion call for environmental justice and the effects of climate change on the poor, and especially on the poorer countries.

Bonna never forgot the connection between justice for people and the well-being of the land. But Bonna's unique voice focused on the question of what it means to have a sacred relationship to *the* land, that is, for the Jewish people, the land of Israel. This is a question that Bonna was totally impassioned about, one that leads me from the encyclical to Bonna's work and legacy.

bonnaFundamentally, Bonna taught the Torah's perspective: in order for our relationship to the land to be sacred, we must hold together not just economic justice and the environment, but also human rights and the environment. Ultimately, our freedom as individuals, our freedom as a people, our freedom as a species, is deeply interwoven with our ability to support and sustain freedom for others -- for other individuals and other peoples, and for the land and all her inhabitants, human and other-than-human. This is also the essential message of the Sabbatical year, which we are observing now. In light of the Pope's encyclical and in her memory, I want to share a few passages on this theme from Bonna's book, Rereading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter.

On caring for the land and the land as the beloved:

From love and desire spring responsibility for the well-being of the land, a full-fledged ecology based on reciprocity, sustenance, and flourishing. Such an ecology initiates a viable partnership with the land. Dedication to the fine quality of water, earth, air, vegetation, and fauna derives from caring rather than self-interest. Curbing waste, toxic emissions pesticide use, chemical run-off, and pollutants of all kinds can become as obvious as concern for our beloved's health and well-being...In this way, we attend to our beloved's needs and delight in our beloved's exquisite beauty. (p.91)

On recognizing others and the risks of desire for the land:

Seeing the fulfillment of open and graceful, unbound and limitless desire entails risk. Similarly, the Jewish people needs to continually renegotiate the risks and dangers involved in pursuing the passion to be together anjmjd inhabit the land, for there is no "land without a people." Mediating desire with the need to coexist in our surroundings is a constant responsibility of lovers." (p.89)

On the relationship between God and the Jewish people in the land:

Entering the land of Israel is the physical culmination of a connection between lovers who have been separated for thousands of years and miles. These wandering lovers have unrelentingly anticipated their reunion, longing to return home to each other. The land is the place to give each other fitting attention, to cohabit together and to delight in each other's presence. (p.82)

On the sacredness of the land as a product of our moral relationship to the land:

Rather than thinking of the land as inherently sacred, independent of people and our actions, sacredness depends upon human behavior. Sacredness is a potential to be actualized through sustainable living with respect for human dignity and the integrity of creatures and creation. The text of the ten holinesses (ten degrees of holiness culminating in the Holy of Holies in the Temple) defines sacredness in terms of scrupulous attention to the moral process of the Jewish people living in the land. Since the founding of the modern State of Israel, the sacredness of the land is more fully in the hands of its Jewish inhabitants than ever before. Whatever sanctity pertains to the land depends on human will and action, on our worthiness. (p.124-5)

In her words and in her living, Bonna taught that the sacredness of the land arises from our ritual and ethical relationship to the land, rather than sacredness being inherent in the land. Coincident with this is that we don't acquire the land by conquest and control, but rather through enacting a right and ethical relationship to the land.

Though my perspective and Bonna's on the land's sacredness were not exactly the same, our feelings and politics overlapped very strongly. At the end of her book, Bonna asks,

How can Israel embody sacred processes for working out Jewish destiny while embracing peaceful coexistence and ever-refining ethical conduct? Are we committed enough to the sanctity of space without capitulating to the machismo of territorial possessiveness that fuels conflict, conquest, and draws blood? (p.190)

How indeed? This may be the most important question for the Jewish people to answer today.

As mourning for Bonna began, we entered the month of Tammuz. The Women of the Wall prayed at the Western Wall for Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. Every month they gather on the women's side, and whenever possible read from a Torah scroll. The rabbinic authorities in charge of the Western Wall try to stop them (even though they have support of Israel's Supreme Court), but for this month and the last they've been able to read. But this month, they also sang "Miriam's song" by Debbie Friedman in Bonna's honor, and recited kaddish in her memory.

Now that it is Tammuz, we are approaching the time that is bein hameitsarim, the three weeks "between the straits", a time of mourning for the Temple, whose wall still stands, the wall where the women pray, that culminates in the fast of Tisha B'Av. It is also a time of mourning for the land, and for how war and empire destroy the land.

But now our whole world is really "between the straits". That has been true for a long time, maybe since the proverbial exit from the Garden of Eden. The mission of the Temple was to fix that, to bring blessing to the land, to all lands, and to the whole Earth. The Temple was a place where even the planks of the walls were endowed with the divine energy of fertility and so bore fruit (according to midrash), a place that existed as a model of all Creation and an image of God (according to Kabbalah). But even without a Temple, the mission doesn't end. The mission, given to us by the Torah, presented by Pope Francis and taught by Rabbi Bonna Devora Haberman, is still to find that holiness in our relationship to the land, and to honor its presence in the whole Earth.

Bonna's presence was enormous, and it's hard for me to imagine Israel without her. Through her leadership, her teaching, her joy, she brought tremendous blessing to her beloved land and to all who knew her. Her memory will continue to be a very strong blessing. May we hold her vision close to our hearts, and may we act on it.