Farewell to a Freedom Fighter

Remembering Rabbi Menachem Froman, the one of a kind, idiosyncratic settler rebbe, whose calls for peace were embraced by religious and secular alike.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

"Come and meet me in chemo," he suggested. "There's lots of time to pass there." I knew Rabbi Menachem Froman, who passed away this week, for seven years, during which I realized that in order to connect with him, really connect with him - you had to play the game or give up in advance. To play as he did: to immerse yourself in it entirely, with profound seriousness, and never to forget the irony. That was the only way to touch Rabbi Froman's crazy theater, to understand a single scene from a ramified, exciting and problematic play.

Even when I insisted on rules and limits, he had different plans. Until the first interview, in 2006, he didn't know me at all. He asked me to pick him up in the evening from the Moussaieff Synagogue in Jerusalem, so that we could drive to his home in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa and conduct an orderly interview - with a notebook and recording device - about his desire to conduct negotiations with the Hamas government that had just been established in the Gaza Strip.

The prayers at the synagogue took a long time (that year, he took it upon himself to say Kaddish three times a day for left-wing leader Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, who had just passed away ). And after that he convinced me to accompany him on a nighttime shopping excursion for shoes, replacing ones that had torn. There was no interview that night. The notebook stayed in my bag even when we finally arrived in Tekoa, but there was a story and a meeting.

So when he suggested that we meet in the oncology department of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem while he was receiving chemotherapy treatment, it somehow sounded reasonable. The soundtrack was the annoying beep of medical equipment, but the rabbi was focused. Alive, sharp, in a great mood. "Are you nauseous?" asked a nurse, interrupting the conversation. The reply was a joke and a kabbalistic midrash that dragged her into the conversation, too.

In general, that period - the winter of 2011 - was in many senses a high point. His body was riddled with cancer, which had in effect gone out of control, but Froman's life looked like a huge trance party with lights and colors. The local cultural elite - headed by those he dubbed "the chief rabbis of the left," writers Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua - doffed their hats to him, and all came to Tel Aviv's Tzavta Theater for the occasion of the establishment of his movement, Eretz Shalom (Land of Peace ). The media covered the event and finally granted recognition to the rabbi who had always been considered a strange bird.

However, his meetings with leftists and Muslim leaders - which were always good photo-ops - diverted attention from the real revolution led by Rabbi Froman, which was actually more successful in terms of results. It was a revolution among the Jewish public rather than one aimed at the Middle East.

Froman led a revolutionary religious stream whose members participated in his funeral by the thousands this week. The main impetus for this movement, although not the only one, were the gatherings he called "Torah-Shira." What began six or seven years ago in a small Tekoa synagogue or in his home - a lesson in the basic book of kabbala, the Zohar, accompanied by songs - turned into a powerful force during the years of his illness.

The hard core were his students from the neo-Hasidic Tekoa Yeshiva or the Shefa Institute for Judaic Studies in Jerusalem. When his illness began, the movement expanded to include hundreds of young people from the settlements, and then to broader religious circles - both urban and rural - as well as secular people who somehow ended up there. There was nothing exclusive about these encounters. You could join no matter how you looked and what you believed. Not all the thousands who came to these meetings over the years were members of Eretz Shalom.

Man of action

Because of his political and spiritual views, Rabbi Froman was for years considered "the village clown." During the years of his illness, although he made no changes to his philosophy - on the contrary, he reinforced it to the point of supporting a binational state - half the village joined him. The gatherings grew and became increasingly sophisticated, largely thanks to his son, Shivi, who was his producer, with leading artists lining up to join in. The evening before our chemo meeting, the Mifal Hapayis Building in Tekoa was full to bursting with 600 or more people in a study session, with Rabbi Froman accompanied by singer Eviatar Banai.

"Many of my lifelong dreams are coming true these days," he said, as the poison dripped into his body. "I've always thought that Torah and song should be brought together. I call it Torah-Shira. Song creates freedom, it creates wings. I have an entire philosophy about that based on the Zohar. So every week a different singer comes. Eviatar, Kobi Oz, Shlomo Bar, Berry Sakharof, Micha Shitrit, Ehud Banai, Erez Lev Ari. Every week is different. Every singer is different, all wings are different. I sit there next to the singers and think 'What will I give to G-d?'"

Although he was a profound speaker, Froman was first and foremost an actor. Blogger Amit Assis wrote this week that he was "a man of action" - one of those people "whose religious revelation was not expressed in ready-made ideas about what's forbidden and what's permitted, and regular forms of prayer, but existed in the body, the soul, in action."

During that same meeting in chemo, Froman said that the young people who follow in his footsteps are "not a generation that speaks, but a generation that lives. The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, says the Zohar ... the Tree of Knowledge is the world of speech. When you know and speak, the Tree of Life is above speech."

Froman's movement flourished during a period of extremism, and said a great deal about his personality. Price tag acts of retribution? Froman's disciples might have looked like hilltop youth, but these were the beautiful and refined ones who play music and sing and embrace and love. Indeed, during our encounters in the settlements, nobody was armed.

"I've been saying for years that the goal of Zionism is the feminization of the Jewish religion, changing it from masculine to feminine," he said. "This wave of life, this undefined wave, is the hope of a free religion in Judaism's future - not of peace or politics, which can be a by-product. Everyone searches for the source of the commandment to get married. They can't find a verse, so they say 'be fruitful and multiply.' I say that's a mistake. The main thing is to love, that's where children come from. Not that the purpose of love is children - that's a by-product, and by-products are always less than the event itself."

While we were talking, he said he was beginning to understand why he chose to add to his name "Hai Shalom" (Life Peace ) a few days earlier, in order to help his recovery, making his full name Menachem Hai Shalom Froman. "Explain why I called myself Hai Shalom, because peace will grow out of life. How? I don't know, and I don't want to know. Other things will grow, including a new religion. A living, liberated religion, not people who look at the Shulhan Arukh [code of Jewish law] and frame everything according to what is written there. You know that the Zohar identifies halakha [Jewish religious law] with the Tree of Knowledge, but the Zohar is the Tree of Life. That's what it says about itself. A new spirituality, neither religious nor secular, neither right nor left. It has no actual form, except to remain free.

"The movement we established is called Eretz Shalom mainly because it sounds good in Arabic - 'Ard al-Salam,'" he continued. "But the intimate name I use is not Eretz Shalom, it's Eretz Hahofesh [Land of Freedom]. The entire issue of peace is religious freedom, to become liberated. At the end of the event with Kobi Oz, I had the audience stand up and we sang 'Hatikva' with an emphasis on the line 'To be a free people in our land.' It was very powerful. He gave this Tel Aviv-style performance - don't ask! - in Tekoa, and after the performance I said Kobi: 'I thank you for introducing freedom into the religious world, you are bringing me close to the vision of Zionism, to be a free people in our land.' And we sang, we stood and sang 'Hatikva.' I was really moved."

The chemo was over. The outpatient clinic emptied out and his oldest son, Yossi - who always sat next to him at Torah-Shira evenings - came to drive him home.

"We have to leave. You're the last one," said his son. "I'm the last one? I'm the last of the Mohicans."

Last Sunday Rabbi Menachem Froman was lying on the bed in his home, unconscious. He had less than 24 hours left. Outside the modest house, some of his regular Sunday students had gathered. The lesson was taught by others instead of Rabbi Froman, and his son Yossi sat with them. "Every Sunday was preparation for this Sunday," Yossi said.

They studied the chapter in the Zohar in which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai plans to leave the world, surrounded by his students. Between passages, Froman's students played, sang and danced. The sounds burst into the house as he slept. At the end of the evening, Yossi invited anyone who so desired to stand before his father and say farewell.

I preferred to remember his ironic smile.

Mourners and followers attend Rabbi Froman's funeral in Tekoa on Tuesday.Credit: Ahikam Seri
Rabbi Froman. His life looked like a huge trance party.Credit: Moti Kimche

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