Interview with Rabbi Bonnie Cohen, Jewish Renewal Movement


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“Getting people to look inward is where the mystical begins and that is what Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman gave us in a Jewish context”

Around the 50´s a new Jewish religious movement began to emerge in the United States that later became known as the “Jewish Renewal Movement”. This movement was founded by a couple of Hassidic rabbis from a Chabad Lubavitch school who became sensitive to the counter-cultural trends that were popular at the time. These trends reflected a profound need for change within US society, a need that, some years later, found expression in developments such as the hippie movement, hybrid combinations with other traditions – mainly Eastern religions -, esotericism and feminism. Renewal opened up to these movements and reflected some of the spiritual concerns of many young Jews who felt that the existing branches of Judaism failed to fulfil their spiritual needs. In effect, they were looking for something different, something more open to the outside world at a moment in history in which everything that was happening around them – especially on university campuses – was very exciting. Jewish communities had already opened up to their socio-political environment through the Reconstructionists during the inter-war period. However, Renewal proposed a new inward openness as well, an inner freedom, something that later became quite fashionable amongst New Age Americans, and had never been witnessed before this generation: the individual had become his own temple

Rabbi Bonnie Cohen (New York 1946) has been actively involved in Renewal since the early seventies. She was ordained in the year 2000, but had previously served as an Inter-Faith Minister, and was able to carry on this work after being ordained as a rabbi. From a very young age she was attracted to the spiritual dimension and the world of introspection. Guided by an open mind, she forged a necessarily heterodox path over many years, one rich in experiences and encounters with inspiring figures. She has always been committed to the idea of spiritual growth and the realm of social activism, linked to the principle of Tikkun Olam (healing and balancing of the world). In this respect, we might mention her fight to promote the civil rights of Native Americans. She has lived in Sitges (Barcelona) since 2002, a place where she feels she is very much at home. Our conversation in her apartment revolves around Renewal, focusing in particular on the values that distinguish this movement from other tendencies within Judaism, and around the charismatic figures of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Reb Shlomo Carlebach. We touch on issues such as the far-reaching influence of the Jewish Reconstructionists, her respect for Chabad Lubavitch, her link with alternative health care, Yoga, Buddhism, Sufism and her interest in Islam. We also talk about the feminine approach to spirituality, the State of Israel and conversions to Judaism. We should point out that Rabbi Bonnie Cohen often stresses the fact that she is speaking for herself and not as a spokeswoman for Renewal. In this sense, she believes that the most important thing is to find one’s own path and one’s own voice.

Some might believe that Jewish Renewal has strayed rather too far from certain principles of Judaism to be considered strictly Jewish. However, this movement has encouraged many Jews to embrace the faith, as well as attracting many non-Jews. Furthermore, as Delphine Horvilleur, also a woman and a rabbi, once stated: “The best definition of Judaism is that it never allows itself to be defined and that it teaches us that none of our identities are definitive”.

Reb Bonnie at her home it Sitges.

Jonas Benarroch : The Jewish Renewal movement was founded by Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi (1924-2014). What circumstances led to the creation of Renewal?

Rabbi Bonnie Cohen : In 1949 Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn z’l, the Rebbe Rayatz, (1880-1950), the Lubavitcher rabbi at that time, called Reb Shlomo Carlebach and Reb Zalman into his private office and said: “It is time for you two to start visiting college campuses, start at Brandeis University”. It was December 1949 and Rabbi Schneersohn died in January 1950. I find it significant that one of his last acts was his vision that birthed the Renewal movement. And so they were sent out as emissaries for Lubavitch, at first together, and eventually separately. Reb Zalman continued to go to different universities and Reb Shlomo went to the ashrams, New Age centers, and yoga retreats searching for lost Jewish souls. It was an assigment given to both of them, and each did it in their own way. Reb Shlomo got a lot of secular kids interested in their roots and many who came from religious homes and were searching for a more meaningful experience to return. In 1966 Reb Shlomo opened the House of Love and Prayer, in San Francisco, which was Renewal. Reb Zalman is known as the father of Jewish Renewal and his partner, Reb Shlomo Carlebach is known as the father of Jewish music, “Am Yisrael Chai!”

JB : Was the House of Love and Prayer something connected to the Havurah movement?

BC : Havurah, as a movement, began much later, in the late 70s or early 80s, as far as I can remember, while Reb Zalman and Reb Shlomo began in the 50’s. A havurah, is a small group of friends who come together for a particular purpose, usually prayer or study. Even within a small orthodox Stibl… I´m speaking about New York, which is my experience…

JB : Stibl?

BC: Stibl is a tiny congregation, sometimes in someone’s home, or a store front or basement, a little insignificant place where men go to pray together. So even within these small groups you can find 3 or 4 that want to study together, they are study partners. This concept of study partners has always been around. What Renewal did was give it a little bit more focus and inspiration. If you meet six people that´s OK. Whatever you can get together, get them together. That´s not a congregation, it is a havurah.

JB : What amazes me about Reb Zalman is how someone from a Hassidic background, from a Lubavitch yeshivah, was able to connect with certain hippie values, overcome the gulf between two such apparently disparate movements and build bridges between the two or, rather, combine the two.

BC : Reb Zalman went to university and opened his mind. He got advanced degrees in psycology and became expert in human behavior. But it is really not so surprising if you understand a bit about Hassidim. The movement was founded by Rabbi Yisrael Bal Shem Tov in 1734 and was revolutionary at the time. The Besht (acronym for full name) taught that Judaism and Torah are for all Jews and not just for scholars and the elite. He believed that all people are capable of a close relationship with God, and the incredible joy that that brings would, in turn, infuse all aspects of one’s life. So a joyful life and showing kindness to others was paramount, actually not very different from the flower children of the 60’s. Then we need to look at the deep mystical teachings they were learning. Rabbi Schneersohn taught that the basic task of a hassid was to pray in order to introduce light, in order to illuminate oneself. This meant washing one’s ego with the light of the labor of self-cultivation, with the light of “real work”, which is prayer, and actual work, which is secular.
In my opinion Reb Zalman and Reb Shlomo were perfect compliments and perfect teachers for the 60’s generation. Reb Shlomo loved and hugged everyone and Reb Zalman had the ear of university students, and together they were able to wake up and mobilize a generation of Jews. I don’t know if they would have been received as well in a different period of time with a different generation.

Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi. Still image from Beyond Beliefs, documentary film directed by Jim Lemkin.

Reb Shlomo Carlebach. Image from Reb Bonnie´s office desk.

JB : Does the Renewal Movement have any close links with the Kabbalah?

BC : One of the major gifts Rev Zalman gave us was inspiring us and encouraging us to dive into mysticism, not only Jewish mysticism. He was accepting people like myself that had already tasted from everything else that was out there and somehow they´ve returned and comeback to Judaism. So yes, Renewal encourages internal focus; the Reconstructionists are more intelectual and the Reform are more interested in the social aspects. So, those groups, in adition to mainstream Judaism, which is conservative Judaism, and even orthodox aside from the Hassidic world, had wanted to present mysticism as a form of superstition. They didn´t want it to be considered as part of the tradition. … they worked very hard to ignore and forget mysticism. So then my generation comes, the 60’s generation, and we already tasted that mystical experience, and we wanted more of it. Reb Zalman gave us permission to come back with everything we had tasted, not only to come back with what we tasted, but also to continue to pursue what we tasted, because it had value. So yes, he gave us permission and focus…

JB : What do you mean exactly by “he gave us permissión”?

BC : By his example, encouragement and… he showed a way, a respectful way, and he didn´t denigrate anybody or anything. He didn´t say if you are under 40 you can´t study this, because some say that under 40 you shouldn´t study Kabbalah. Why can´t you study this? Because if you taste it you won´t be grounded in reality anymore. But if you have lived 40 years of getting out of bed in the morning and going to bed at night, then you are grounded enough in habits, and maybe Kabbalah is not going to distract you from everyday life chores.

JB : I´ve read that Reb Zalman wrote a book or something about the sacramental value of LSD. It sounds very psychodelic, but I wonder if part of his spiritual teachings involved altering consciousness and so on.

BC : I am not familiar with the book you are refering to but Reb Zalman did write an essay in August 1966 called State of Jewish Beliefs.

“When I can undergo the deepest cosmic experience via some miniscule quantity of organic alkaloids or LSD then the whole validity of my etymological assertions is in doubt. Yet the psychedelic experience can be not only a challenge but a support of my faith. After seeing what really happens at the point when all is One I can also see Judaism in a new and amazing light. The questions to which the Torah is the answer are recovered in me”.

I personally never heard Reb Zalman talk about LSD, but it was very much a part of the culture of the 60’s. In his younger days Reb Zalman smoked a little grass but by the time I met him he had problems with his lungs and couldn’t smoke anymore. So, when he remarried, about 25 years ago, he asked me if I could bake him something in food that he and his wife could enjoy for their wedding and on their honeymoon. At the time Reb Zalman was the Rabbinic Chair of Elat Chayyim, the Woodstock Center for Healing and Renewal, and I was in charge of the kitchen. I love to cook and I love to eat, so that’s why I love to cook! Many years before, in the 60’s there was a recipe from India flowing around for the Sacred Ghee. So some friends and I were able to get enough pot together so I could make the Sacred Ghee and then bake these beautiful little cookies. And you trip. It is really a trip. And he loved them, of course. He savored them. But about his personal experience with LSD I don´t know, I didn´t speak with him about that so I don´t know.
Personally, I was very lucky regarding psychedelics. I grew up in New York City and my closest girlfriend had a brother three years older than her, who was a theatre student at Yale University with access to Richard Alpert, whom we now know as Ram Dass, and Timothy Leary. In 1960 the big brother got us a very pure form of LSD called Blue Dot, which was my first experience with LSD. And the brother and some of his artistic friends, very smart guys, guided us using the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I was very lucky in my journey. Because it was so pure it was really a gift. After that amazing experience my perception was permanently altered. The previous year I had already had an out-of-body experience when, during a simple surgical procedure, my soul left my body and was flying around the operating room. I was watching as the doctors thought I was dead. Fortunately, it was not my time to die but it was a great lesson.
Now, many people are taking ayahuasca. A close friend of mine about my age and also a rabbi, who lives in New Mexico and also had experiences in the 60´s, recently tried ayahuasca with a group led by a shaman. My friend is a professor and wanted to know what his students were experiencing, so he could understand their experience and help them. My friend did not get sick but everyone else in his group did. After the trip he said he would not take ayahuasca again and would advise his students that plants native to one’s area would be a better choice.

JB : Ayahuasca is very fashionable now.

BC : Yes, it is part of this generation. When I was in Bali 10 years ago, a lot of the young people there were taking ayahuasca and they asked me to guide them, to be there, to help them. Most of them got really ill, and as I watched them, puking and getting sick, torturing themselves, I saw how desperate they were for a meaningful experience or revelation to make sense of their lives that they were willing to puke their guts out. And most of them did have an experience that was helpful to them. If somebody is really struggling they are willing to go to extremes to open their hearts and minds. But there are also many other ways to look inside that do not make you violently ill. They may take longer than one day but each day along the way will be part of the trip.

JB : To what extent is Jewish Renewal cross-cultural? How open is it to other traditions?

BC : Renewal is a philosophy and not a branch of Judaism and has undergone many changes in the last few years. There was a time when the Aleph Board censored what Reb Zalman said because they didn’t like his connection to Sufism, but in the early days, when I was most active, there was no problem if someone brought up bits and pieces of other traditions. I think each rabbi is still free to do their own thing, and Renewal is not a denomination, it is a phenomenon and a spiritual movement, the youngest of the movements, and still evolving. The Jewish Reconstructionist movement, founded by Rabbi Modecai M. Kaplan in 1922, stressed that Judaism was an evolving civilization and that the cultural and historical aspects of the religion were as important as the theological. Rabbi Kaplan lived in New York City and taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1908 until he retired in 1963. Each day he saw many Jewish people who were not actively practicing their religion but rather considered themselves Jewish by culture. He realized that we couldn´t take Judaism from the shtetl and transport it to a different culture. It does not work. So he coined the phrase: “Tradition has a vote, but not a veto”. I had the enormous privilege of meeting Judith Kaplan Eisenstein – the eldest daughter of Rabbi Kaplan and the first young woman to become a Bat-Mitzvah in a congregation, in 1922. Judith and her husband, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, who was a Reconstructionist rabbi and founded the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), retired in Woodstock, New York, where I lived. So I had the good fortune of spending time with them. Rabbi Kaplan was the first to recognize that each community has to recreate Judaism for themselves. Kaplan gave us that wonderful insight, which we alredy accept. How do we recreate this? You find out what the people in your community are interested in: social action, ecology, mysticism,… and that is what you need to give them.
Is God immanent or transcendent? Where is God? So, we focus on both. But, getting people to look inward is where the mystical begins and that is what Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman gave us in a Jewish context. They introduced us to the great Hassidic mystical teachers of hundreds of years ago and exposed us to teachings that would help us continue to grow and become better people everyday. The idea that if we are not a better person today than we were yesterday why do we need a tomorrow? The Hassidic teachings were very helpful. Chabad Lubavitch is very mystical. If you are fortunate enough to find a Lubavitch rabbi to study with it will be a blessing.

Frame hanging on the wall of Reb Bonnie´s living-room.

JB : Do you personally follow some of the orthodox practices?

BC : Yes. I´m a combination of all of it somehow. I keep what works for me and reject what doesn´t. I personally need a lot of quiet time and I like being alone, looking inside. For the last year and half I´ve been studying Islam; revisiting Sufism, which I had been practising in my younger years in NY City, but in my own way. Now I have become fascinated by the many similar teachings between Judaism and Islam. I have been reading No God But God, by internationally acclaimed scholar Reza Aslan, an amazing book that gives a clear history of Islam. I highly reccomend it. I am also studying the teachings of Mevlana Sheikh Nazim Adil Al-Haqqani An-Naqshbandi. I am very interested in the teachings of this recently deceased Sufi saint. Reb Zalman would go to hear him speak whenever they were in the same area. Anyway, I was visiting a friend and she has a photograph of Nazim, and I looked at it and started to laugh… there was something that really tickled me. When my friend went to Argentina to visit a Sufi community down in Patagonia, I spent a lot of time at her home, up in the Sitges hills during the summer. I felt really happy being there and it seemed that this face was following me all over the house. And everytime I looked at the photo I laughed. There´s something that really touched me very deeply. So when she came back, I told her and she got me one of his books in English and I started reading it. Yes, it is good for me at this time to study with a new teacher… So I´m very happy to be learning something about the history of Islam and recognizing again and again the shared themes and instructions for a meaningful life between Islam and Judaism. it´s a new chapter of my life… Ok, so I think Reb Zalman would encourage me with all of this, but not Reb Shlomo.

Mevlana Sheikh Nazim. “it seemed that this face was following me all over the house. And everytime I looked at the photo I laughed. There´s something that really touched me very deeply”.

In Islam there is something called Hadith, a teaching reported to have been said by Mohammed but was not written down during his life time. It is an incredible problem that they have. And one Hadith is: “one hour of introspection is equivalent to seventy years of prayer”. I loved it because, in my understanding, deep thinking is connected with mystical experience. Judaism also has teachings about the value of silence but not in the Torah. In Pirke Avot, Sayings of the Fathers, 1:17, as translated by Rabbi Rami Shapiro:

Shimon ben Gamliel said:
I grew up among the Sages.
All my life I listened to their words.
Yet I have found nothing better than silence…
Whoever multiplies words causes confusion.
The truth that can be spoken
is not the Ultimate Truth.
Ultimate Truth is wordless,
the silence within the silence.
More than the absence of speech,
More than the absence of words,
Ultimate Truth is the seamless being-in-place
That comes with attending to Reality.

Naturally there are also many other things that can get us to look inside. One of my sons, who grew up in our home where jazz music was playing a lot of the time, said that jazz nurtured his creativity and encouraged him to look inside. So whether you use silence, music of any kind, prayer in any form, meditation, or medication to help you get deep inside yourself it really doesn’t matter, the goal is personal growth. There is a wonderful story from the prophet Elijah in the Book of 1 Kings 19:11-13: “Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire – a soft murmuring sound. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

JB : It’s easy to understand here the need for introspection. In fact, I think a spiritual movement that seeks to lead you inwards is quite liberating, because it counteracts the power of commands that come from outside.

BC : I think it is important, but not everybody can. There are a lot of people who want and need a teacher to tell them what to do. They either don’t have the background or are not secure enough to proceed on their own..

JB : But doesn’t Renewal encourage each individual to follow their own path?

BC : No. Most teachers want their students to follow them. Everyone is giving directions on how to meditate and find inner peace. But I think in general we respect that everybody can go inside and find something. You don´t have to do it my way. My way is not your way. I have people who come to me since I´m back in Spain who want to convert to Judaism, Spanish people who believe that their families used to be Jewish. And the first thing I do if somebody wants to convert is to teach them how to read the Hebrew letters, because I do believe that there is a mystical quality, a depth, in those letters. And just reading the letters will help you focus. And after they´ve learned the letters, I start them with short prayers and melodies, and then I send them to work on their own. The important question is why does somebody want to convert? Why do they want to be Jewish? Do they want to move to Israel or do they want to feel Jewish? Why are they doing it? That´s always my first question. If they want to move to Israel I´m not the person to work with because I´m a female rabbi, which they don´t recognize right away, and I´m not affiliated with the mainstream rabbinical organizations that are recognized. So I can´t give them a stamp that will follow the guidelines of conversion in Israel. But I can tell someone how to be a Jew if that is what they want. If I can help them I do, I give them what I can give them, and then I send them to one of the traditional congregations in Barcelona. I was fortunate that a few of my students who wanted to officially convert were able to go before the London Reform Bet Din and be questioned by them. In America I was part of a local Bet Din of three rabbis and we were able to complete the conversion ourselves. People would have studied for a long time and if they seem to have assimilated the knowledge and have a true desire, then they would be immersed in water, like a baptism, then the three rabbis would sign the papers and the person would be considered Jewish. In America I signed quite a few conversion certificates. Here it is much more complicated because the Spanish Jewish community is very connected to the State of Israel. Again, I am speaking from my personal experience. The only way for someone working with me to get that official stamp of a Bet Din is to do an intermediary step. But the first question is always why this person is converting. If it is for spiritual growth and spiritual knowledge they don´t need that.

JB : The web-sites I have consulted the most before meeting you are those of Aleph and that of Aquarian Minyan. What is the link between them?

BC : Aquarian Minyan is a community congregation in San Francisco and Aleph is an organization that is the container for a lot of Jewish Renewal congregations. My rabbinical degree is from the Aleph Ordination Program (AOP). Reb Zalman signed it as the Rabbinic Chair of AOP. Aquarian Minyan was part of the Aleph community, and as far as I know, would look to Aleph for direction, or leadership or new prayers. But I think now they have become an independent congregation. The Woodstock Jewish Congregation (WJC), Kehilah Lev Shalem, in Woodstock, NY, where I worked for many years, was independent for about its first ten years and eventually affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. All branches of Judaism support a rabbinical college and participating congregations contribute money to help support and train rabbis for the next generation. Members of these congregations pay dues and part of that money goes to the parent organization. Some congregations are not financially strong enough to contribute to the umbrella organization and others just choose not to. But supporting rabbinical schools is a very important ideal in Judaism, so until the WJC affiliated we sent financial contributions to all of the main rabbinical schools each year, which was the only way we could get people of different levels of religious observance to agree to start a congregation and remain independent.

JB : Aleph has 18 principles. I want to ask you about some of them. Tikkun Olam, the healing and balancing of the planet. How is this aspect approached?

BC: That´s a concept from the Talmud. It is not a new concept, or something that we introduced. And everybody does it in their own way. At the WJC, where I was education director for many years, we got different groups of people together to clean the highways, pick up trash, work together with churches of our community providing a soup kitchen, so there was always some group that was giving free food… I invited church classes of children twelve and thirteen years old to exchange information, to come to our synagogue so the children could learn about each others’ religion. These were not social gatherings for the children, they were classes, learning sessions… These are all examples of Tikkun Olam.

JB : Does this have any direct involvement with regard to environmental movements or left-wing political movements?

BC : Absolutely, but each rabbi does it in their own way. Rabbi Michael Lerner started Tikkun magazine in 1986 presenting a different side against neo-Conservatism in the Jewish world and U.S. politics. It became known as the first Jewish intellectual and cultural magazine to criticise the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and to challenge the materialism and lack of spirituality in many Jewish institutions. Tikkun did this to strengthen and not weaken the State of Israel and to foster a spiritual and ethical renewal in Israel and among world Jewry. Tikkun provided an intelectual foundation for many social justice-oriented organizations and others critical of Israeli policy toward Palestinians yet supportive of Israel’s right to exist.

Fragment of Tikkun Magazine web-site. Editorial by Rabbi Michael Lerner.

JB : This two-sided perspective, on the one hand respectful of Hassidism and, on the other, taking part in a left-wing political ideology, reminds me of something that occurred in Germany under the Weimar Republic. Certain Jewish left-wing intellectuals were impressed by Hassidism. They were not attracted by mainstream Jewish movements, either conservative or reformist, but they were attracted by the Hassidim.

BC : The Hassidim are the mystics within Judaism. Children born into a Hassidic home are steeped in spiritual and mystical teachings from birth. By the time they are 6 or 7 years old they already know more about Jewish mysticism than those born outside of Hassidism will ever be able to learn in their lifetime. In Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach’s shul we had a saying that there is no catching up, unless you are born into that community there is no way you can catch up, because those formative years, before the age of 7, are pivotal . The main mystical book of Chabad Lubavitch is called the Tanya, and children in those communities are memorizing Tanya at a very young age where they are taught to look deep inside. So there really is a seat of mystical Judaism there and they are very protective to ensure the continuation, which is appropriate.

JB : Of course, to preserve their way of life, which is something that happens in all closed communities. But sometimes they present very aggressive reactions towards modern life.

BC : Yes they do, and it also depends on the rabbi. Each rabbi is different, but they are protective which is understandable. I am very fond of Rabbi David Libersohn, Chabad rabbi of Barcelona. Whenever I went to speak with him regarding any question he was always helpful.

JB : What is most important within Jewish Renewal? Hassidic traditions or Kabbalah itself?

BC : There was more focus on the Hassidic traditions. When I started with Aleph Ordination Program (AOP) they were using a Hassidic model of mentorship for the rabbinic program, but a few years later they included the more formal curriculum of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). This came about because of the dedicated leadership of Rabbi Marcia Prager, a graduate of RRC, who also got smicha (ordination) from Reb Zalman. Reb Marcia worked closely with Reb Zalman creating a formal seminary to promote the renewal of Judaism as a spiritual path. Their work culminated in the AOP, a very innovative seminary that trains rabbis, cantors and rabbinic pastors. Reb Marcia is Director and Dean of the Aleph Ordination Program.
Kabbalah is much more intelectual. The first book by Reb Zalman that I read in 1973 was Fragments of a Future Scroll: Hassidism for the Aquarian Age, that presented the connection between deep mysticism and what he wanted to bring forward into modern times. The Hassidic tradition is a way of looking internaly, organicaly, that any person could do regardless of education, whilst the Kabbalistic tradition can be intellectually challenging. Both use meditation, but in very different ways. Hassidism is kind of like Buddhism: you just are. You don´t have to do anything special except make the time and then you can accomplish something. When I teach Kabbalistic meditation, first I teach the Hebrew letters. When people come to me because they want to convert to Judaism or they want to learn, I also first teach the letters. As I told you before, I believe that there is power in the letters, so that has always been my approach. Very few of my colleagues do that; they are most interested in giving teachings and the history; I just want to give people the tools to look inside. That´s my focus.

JB : Another of the principles of Aleph talks about “the transformation of consciousness resulting from living in a time when the feminine is emerging”. Has this got to do with a feminine approach to spirituality, or is it more political, something of a feminist declaration? This principle also recalls a Kabbalistic aspect regarding the loss of the feminine dimension of God.

BC : The Shechinah (the feminine aspect of Divinity)

JB : The Shechinah, okay. But I would like you to explain more about this feminine dimension in Renewal. How do you focus that?

BC : Embracing the Shechinah is a state of mind. The Shechina is the indwelling presence of the Divine. Kabbalat Shabbat, the Friday night liturgy, is full of references to the feminine. The song welcoming Shabbat, L’cha Dodi, begins “O, come my friend, let’s greet the bride, the Shabbath presence bring inside”. In the Renewal community, beginning in the late 70´s, there were many strong, talented and charismatic women attending the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Some of them wanted to change the liturgical Hebrew to feminine grammar, so when a new Reconstructionist prayerbook was created many of the prayers underwent a gramatical transformation. For me it was not important, God is neither a man nor a woman. I personaly don´t feel offended reading a prayer that is using masculine grammar for God. God is not a person, God is a spirit. So I had no problem with it, but I was a minority voice, for sure. There are many congregations with women rabbis that do it that way. I don´t do it that way, although I will sometimes use a different word instead of Adonai, My Lord. I´ll use “Ruach/spirit” or a different word. But for me its just as foolish to call God a woman as it is to call God a man, it doesn´t make sense to me. So, your question is: how did that start? It started with this group of very strong women who would become rabbis, some of them wanted to bring about a feminine spirituality, some remembered that they hadn´t heard anything feminine when they were growing up and so they wanted to change that for future generations. But Shechinah, the feminine aspect, is there; that´s a part of normative Judaism.

JB : But normative Judaism generally talks about the divine in the masculine, Adonai. It doesn’t invoke Shechinah much in its prayers.

BC : Some of the prayers do.

JB : But they are not focused at all in this feminine aspect.

BC : The Shechinah is the in-dwelling presence of God. That is the feminine. A few weeks ago I did a service here for a holliday called Sukkot, the harvest festival, and we spoke about the Shechinah. I am fond of gospel music and included some songs and instructed people to say Shechina instead of Jesus, when it appeared in the songs. Shechinah is a receptive, feminine, internal dimension of the Godhead, I think very similar to the aspect of Jesus.

Pages from a Jewish Reconstructionist Prayer Book.

JB : I think that this tendency to feminise certain symbols of power is intimately linked to the social and political situation today. When Margot Fuentes Krattel talked to me about the people who took part in the Minyan community in Barcelona, I realised that the most actively involved members were women. If you go to a kabbalat Shabbat service at the synagogue of CIB, you see many more men than women, but when I attended the Shabbat service in Minyan there were more women than men.

BC : Yes, there are. I think that is the case all over the world maybe except for Israel. I have only been to a few Minyan gatherings so I really can not comment on that. Margot was one of a small group of people who started the Minyan and within a short time the other founders moved outside of Spain, one to Peru and another to Berlin. Margot deserves a lot of credit for keeping it going on her own.

JB : From my point of view, the greater active presence of women such as Margot somehow shows that they find it easier to connect with this new spirituality. And I think this is something we should take into account. Perhaps it is nonsense to imagine that God is either a woman or a man, because it is spirit. But it’s a masculine spirit, at least in monotheistic religions. Everything that deals with language also deals with ethics. That´s why I believe empowering women and the feminine through these symbols is not that absurd. One of the statements I like most about Jewish Renewal is this principle of the emerging feminine. Even if it is a spiritual statement, it connects with the need for a change in our cultural and political perspective.

BC : Well, I think that the majority of Jewish men become a bar-mitzvah, a son of the commandments, so they would have had a certain amount of very preliminary Jewish education, but many women haven´t. So these women are looking for a way to connect. The Minyan is a lovely group with a basic traditional approach to Judaism. People beginning to embrace Judaism are not ready to join a congregation and pay dues and join committees. They want something less formal where the children are free to roam around. The Minyan offers families a comfortable experience, one that was much needed in Barcelona.

Reb Bonnie and havurah lighting hannukah candles at her home in Sitges (2015).

JB: Another Aleph statement that I´m interested in going deeper into is the following: “We believe that the healthy expression of the Jewish People requires a vital self-governing Jewish community in the land of Israel”. But there´s no further explaination about a Jewish State or a bi-national State or a two-State solution, or even political discussions such as the occupation of the West Bank.

BC : Aleph has undergone many changes over the years. but that statement was written in 1990 and may not have been updated since then. I personaly don´t have a very strong connection with the State of Israel. I don´t like the politics, and I think it is out of tune and out of step with Jewish ideals. But it is just my opinion as an individual person who has thought a lot about it. If I had a congregation now I don’t think I would voice that opinion. But I don´t have a congregation now, so I can have any opinion I want. For me it can only be a two-State solution. I don´t really see how anything else could happen. I am happy that there are strong women in Israel who are making changes. There was a wonderful woman rabbinic scholar, Bonna Devorah Haberman z”l, who was part of the group Women of the Wall. The group was founded in 1988 petitioning to get a section of the Western Wall where women could pray and be allowed to congregate. Reb Bonna crossed over a couple of years ago, but Women of the Wall continues on. So there are strong women working within Israel to make changes to benefit women. As far as I know, Women of the Wall are just dealing with the Jewish religious stuff, not with a bigger political picture. It´s a very complicated big story. But there are some wonderful women working there, and I´m grateful for them because I am very happy to be here living and working in Catalonia.

JB: Within the eighteen principles of Aleph there is the concept of Paradigm Shift, which I´ve also heard from some other contemporary spiritual and political movements. What are the signs of a paradigm shift?

BC : Again this is my own personal belief. I feel the energy of our planet has been speeding up over the past few years. Everything runs much faster. A lot of people get sick, some people die, some people get confused. It´s hard for some people to keep up.

JB : I think the first time I heard about the Paradigm Shift concept was in the 80´s.

BC : Reb Zalman wrote a book called Paradigm Shift.

JB: I suppose it was linked with the advent of the Aquarian Age, something that the New Age generation yearned for.

BC: Well, Damanhur, a community where I lived in northern Italy, claim that they are in touch with aliens and… they are a very interesting community, you have to look at their web site … they are artists. It was founded by an artist, Obert Airaudi “Falco”; he died about three years ago. And he felt that every human being, to reach their full potential, has to balance their left and right brain, so if you are a mathematician you have to be drawing part of the day, and if you are an artist you have to be doing numbers or something else to balance your brain. This community is amazing. They built a temple down in the side of a mountain and call it The Temple of Human Kind, which some people call one of the wonders of the world. It´s quite remarkable. It´tells many stories; it´s all art; it´s stained glass and generates all these beautiful lights, with mirrors reflecting it. It´s really exquisite. So you´ll get more information about this from Damanhur than you will from me. Personaly I feel that we are moving much faster, as I said.

Temples of Humankind (Damanhur.org)

JB : You told me that you come from a conservative Jewish background, so how did you come to Renewal spirituality?

BC : I came to this spirituality with my first LSD experience, when I knew deep within that all people are equal. That was in 1960; I was 14 years old.
And even before that, for a couple of years, I had been studying a book that I used to call my bible, The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran. Do you know that beautiful book of poetry? So as a young person it was my bible. I was already rejecting the Judaism of my parents. I was very open to people of all religions and all races. That was difficult for my parents, but what they were preaching was difficult for me. And so The Prophet was my bible and I was constantly giving it away to people. Buddhism became a big piece of my personal path early on too. I didn´t come to Renewal until much later and, by then, I already had a lot of experiences. Even when I heard Reb Zalman on the radio and bought his book, Fragments of a Future Scroll: Hassidism for the Aquarian Age, I was leading Sufi workshops on the upper west side of Manhattan. I came to Jewish Renewal … this is a great story … when my eldest son turned about 11, I suddenly thought: “this boy has to become a Bar-Mitvah, what am I going to do?” So one Friday night we wandered into the synagogue near where we were living, and people were struggling with the Hebrew language. At that time I was president of a group called RAIN, Rights for American Indians Now. We were involved with a native American tribe, the Mohawk indians, whose reservation is on the New York-Canadian border. The Mohawks wanted to be considered a sovereign independent nation by the United Nations, and my group was supporting them in that work. One of the criteria for being considered a sovereign people is having your language intact, but the Mohawk had almost lost their language; they were not teaching it to their children. So our group helped them to build a school and get back on track with their language and they did go on. I was very involved with their struggle at that time, so when I went into this little synagoge with my kids, and saw the people struggeing with the language… and it occurred to me: “Oh my Goodness! If not for the ultra-orthodox, are the Jews the Mohawks of a hundred years from now?” And I knew I had to find my Jewish voice. So David, my older son is 50, and he was 11, and that was when I started to do Teshuvah. Right there, when I realised and I said: “No, I have a voice, I have an opinion, I have experience, and it´s different from the ultra-orthodox”. And I did begin to put my voice out there, which brought me to Renewal, 40 years ago. By then I had had a lot of experience. I started my spiritual journey when I was very young.
The first time someone brought me to a Shlomo Carlbach concert I walked out after a few minutes. I was not ready for my teacher. The first time I encountered Reb Zalman was when I heard him interviewed on the radio, a show called In The Spirit. The commentator asked him something about a conflict between Jews and Muslims and about the lack of respect, and he… I don´t remember exactly, that´s a very long time ago… and he said: “Well, there´s very little I can say, but I have memories of being a Muslim in previous lives”. I too have many memories of previous lives. So, when I heard a rabbi say that he had memories of past lives it was very encouraging for me. I really enjoyed his book, Fragments of a Future Scroll: Hassidism for the Aquarian Age, but I wasn’t ready for him as my teacher then and it took about 8 years before I actually met Reb Zalman in person and embraced Renewal.

First inter-faith wedding officiated by Rev. Bonnie Cohen (1982).

JB : And when did you become a Rabbi?

BC : I was ordained in 2000. I had previously been ordained as an Inter-Faith Minister from a different seminary in NYC, and when I met Reb Zalman he encouraged me because he respected inter-religious work. I was one of the first people officiating weddings between Jews and non-Jews because I wanted their children to be raised Jewish. So I was already doing the work and Aleph, through Reb Zalman, gave me permission to go to the AOP and continue working. He said: “Your work is doing inter-religious work. How could we tell you, if you come to our school, if you study with us, you have to stop your work? We can´t do that.” So they allowed me that. Now many rabbis officiate inter-religious weddings, but back then nobody else did. Through Aleph I was able to study at my own pace. I did it all slowly, I was working and couldnt stop working. I was already Education Director for the Woodstock Jewish Congregation and I had an inter-religious school as well at that time. I was busy working and loved what I was doing, I had sons in college and couldn´t just stop working and go back to school. So I did it slowly in my own time. You should read my ordination certificate, come to my office.

[Bonnie takes me to her office and shows me her ordination certificate. I read it carefully]

Rabbinic Ordination Certificate of Bonnie Cohen, issued by Aleph and signed by Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi in July 2000.

JB : Are you a Mohelet too? That´s the feminine of Mohel, isn´t it?

BC : Yes. Circumciser. Reb Zalman asked me to do this work because I already had a strong connection with alternative healing.

JB : So circumcision is important for you after all.

BC : Yes. I think it´s important. Now more than ever because of the connection with HIV-AIDS. But in the early years it was just one of the biblical commandments that made sense to me. And by the time Reb Zalman asked me to do the work there were many young Jewish women who had decided not to circumcise their sons; it had fallen out of fashion. Reb Zalman thought that because I was already respected in the field of alternative health – I was already an alternative health care practitioner before I went to any seminary – that maybe new parents would listen to me. I did introduce homeopathy and other natural ways to help the baby. When I learned that the training for mohels was an appreticeship program, and not adequate in my opinion, I decided the best thing I could do would be to create some kind of proper training tool so people could practice before working on a baby. Doctors practice on babies in a hospital; nobody knows the difference, but mohels coudn´t do that. So that´s what I tried to do and when I started that work is just about when we learned that there was a very strong connection between HIV and circumcision; circumcised men have a 60% protection rate against contracting HIV-AIDS from infected women. It was in the 80s when that information became public, and I realized that the work was not only for Jewish babies but had a much larger application, it was important work.
So this is a good example of what Reb Zalman did with Renewal. He empowered each of us to bring the Torah of our lives into action, and so he gave me permission to use all of the alternative healing knowledge and techniques I had acquired in a Jewish context. For many years I had been one of Reb Shlomo’s alternative health care providers. And Reb Zalman really encouraged me to continue with the healing arts, what he and Reb Shlomo had called the Sacred Healing Arts.

JB: I see your work has not just been limited to helping souls; you´ve also sought to look out for people´s bodies.

BC: I have had rheumatoid arthritis from a very young age and I began experiencing pain in my joints when I was 3 years old. By the time I gave birth to my first child I had been on and off of cortisone and other steroids for 12 years; and with the big hormonal swings of pregnancy and childbirth my body closed down. When I had to stop nursing my baby to go back on the steroids I knew there had to be another solution, so I began my search for alternative healing therapies and techniques. I always had a lot of faith, and so by the grace of God, and a lot of trial and error, I was led where I needed to be and learned how to heal myself. While I was still at the WJC I developed a program for adolescents struggling with ADD, ADHD, or anywhere on the autistic spectrum, trying to learn for a Bnei Mitzvah. When I retired I started to apply those same techniques to younger children. Of course I am happy to work with adults too. My approach has always been to help people help themselves.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Rabbi Bonnie Cohen, Jewish Renewal Movement

  1. Elyn Aviva
    13 February, 2018 at 7:47

    Wonderful, informative article. Thank you both!

  2. Maurice Azagury
    26 February, 2018 at 18:28

    Good to see that diversity of spirit inside the jewish community.
    thank you for a very interesting interview.

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