Living the dream

Rabbi Menachem Froman was very different from almost every other Israeli rabbi

Rabbi Menachem Froman was very different from almost every other Israeli rabbi, and would say of himself that he was a Rav because he used to argue (from the Hebrew lariv – t o q uarrel/fight) with everyone. Although committed to the Land of Israel almost viscerally, and despite having lived in the West Bank as a point of principle, he supported peace with his Arab neighbors and indeed met with the leaders of the Palestinians on numerous occasions.
Froman often quoted Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, “Never despair,” which acted as a sort of leitmotif for much of his life. It reflected his undying belief in the rightness of his way and the means of achieving what appeared to be an impossible task – uniting the Palestinian and Israeli peoples in peace.
His philosophy was based not on politics, but on religion. He believed that the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam had enough in common to forge a lasting peace in the Middle East.
Many praised his efforts – as could be witnessed by the thousands who attended his funeral in Tekoa on March 5. But just as many scoffed at his goals, calling him a dreamer and, worse still, a traitor.
Born in the religious community of Kfar Hassidim near Haifa, Froman attended the secular Reali School in the city. In the Six Day War, he was one of the paratroopers who stormed the Old City of Jerusalem to reclaim the Western Wall. The experience had a profound effect on him.
Following his studies at two yeshivas, Mercaz Harav and Yeshivat Hakotel, Froman received his ordination from Rabbi Shlomo Goren and Rabbi Avraham Shapira, both of whom were national religious leaders. While at Mercaz Harav, he slept for six months in a sleeping bag in a nearby park to convince himself that his path of repentance was the correct one. He went on to teach at the Ateret Cohanim and Machon Meir yeshivas. He also studied Jewish Thought at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
A founding member of the Gush Emunim radical right-wing movement that was born out of the Six-Day War, Froman moved to Tekoa on the West Bank shortly after it was founded in 1977 and began meeting with the local Arab residents of the area. He also began to fraternize with the leaders of the Palestinians, including Yasser Arafat, after the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman returned to the West Bank following the Oslo Accords.
But unlike his fellow Gush Emunim followers, he felt strongly that a solution to the Palestinian-Israel conflict would not emerge through politics alone, but also, and mainly, through the voices of religion. He believed that the land would eventually revert to its true owners, the Jewish people; in the meantime, however, the Palestinians had as much right as the Jews.
He once said that he was prepared to live under Palestine rule in Tekoa rather than abandon his house in order to live inside recognized Israel. “What matters is the holiness of this land,” he said. “I prefer to live in a future Palestine state than to leave to live in an Israeli state.”
Most Israelis could not relate to what he was doing and he became the object of scorn and ridicule. Even people who helped him thought that some of his actions were “silly,” such as his befriending Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated in March 2004, in an Israeli military operation.
One man who defended Rabbi Froman through thick and thin was Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former Knesset Member. An ardent peacemaker himself, Melchior shared his fellow rabbi’s belief in integrated education for religious and secular youngsters.
Melchior says that Froman would quote the Talmudic tractate hulin to explain his paradoxical thinking.
According to the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon Ben Pazzi relates the legend of the origins of the moon thus: Although initially as large as the sun, the moon complained that “two kings cannot share one crown.” “In that case,” God replied to the moon, “go and reduce yourself!” The result was the moon as we know it – an orb far smaller than the sun. From being one of two great luminaries, the moon was denied any independent power to shine. Henceforth, the only way it could shine was by reflecting the light of the sun.
The moon’s reduction was akin to total selfeffacement.
In this legend is a far more subtle idea – it accounts for the origins of tragedy.
The smiting of the moon makes tragedy inevitable. Total dependency of any sort gives rise to radical feelings of imbalance and insecurity, with all the dire results that this situation implies.
Froman read the situation of Israel and the Palestinians in a similar light. He prayed for the time when the greatly reduced lunar sphere would once again attain the dimensions and might of the sun, and when the spiritual and material cycles would collide and interpenetrate. Then Israel and Palestine could share their heritage as brothers, and the idea of fratricide would be anathema.
In order to achieve this idealistic end, Froman met with people who the government of Israel had labeled terrorists. He didn’t bother with labels. “The root trouble in the conflict is the arrogance of the secular leaders of Israel and America,” he opined. “They have marginalized religion and religious leaders and where has that left us?” When he was confronted by critics who claimed he was “unrealistic,” he retorted, “My critics believe that we can continue to occupy another people – that’s unrealistic!” He argued against the liberal left. The peace he believed in, says Melchior, was not that of the left, who believed it could be achieved through separation, a peace that was rooted in fear. He believed in communality, unity, working together. He would sometimes clap his hands together as if to signify that the bringing together of left and right hands could unite in a noise of clapping and praise.
In correspondence with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas he recalled his last meeting with Arafat.
The former PA leader was moribund; but he managed to address his visitor as “his brother.” He ordered that the blessing Froman had brought with him be publicized in the Palestinian papers to let the Palestinian people know that “there are rabbis who are sending blessings of peace.”
In February 2008, Froman reached an agreement with Khaled Amayreh, a journalist close to Hamas, for an Israeli- Hamas ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Senior Hamas officials endorsed the agreement. The Israeli government, however, did not respond to this initiative, effectively rejecting it.
In order to affect his idealistic aims, Froman often resorted to the theatrical.
“He was very attracted to the theater,” says Melchior. He dressed up in his tefillin when he met members of Hamas, in order to fulfill the prophecy that states that “all the nations of the earth should see the name of God upon you.”
It is ironic that US President Barack Obama visited Israel just a couple of weeks after Froman’s death. Froman had been invited to meet with Obama at the White House, but his health (he was suffering from colorectal cancer) was not up to it. What could have happened in such a meeting is anyone’s guess; just another mystery surrounding this charismatic figure.
Rabbi Nahman of Breslov also mentions what one has to do under stress. “Squeeze one’s eyes tightly, so that you can see at a distance and avoid seeing the immediate surroundings.”
That seems to have been Rabbi Froman’s way. You had to share his distant vision. But not everyone had his inner conviction, nor his outward confidence.