In the days since his death, Rabbi Menachem Froman -- may his memory be a blessing -- has been all over my blog reader, my twitter stream, and my Facebook feed. As my friends and colleagues have mourned his passing, sharing memories of studying with him, sipping tea with him, learning from him, I've been moved and surprised by what I've learned.
In the Jerusalem Post article Lessons from a man of peace, Yossi Klein Halevi describes Rav Menachem as a "man of paradox who helped found the settlement movement and continued to believe passionately in the right of Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel, even as he came to promote a two-state solution and rapprochement between Judaism and Islam." That's a paradox, all right: a settler rabbi who believed in the Jewish people's God-given right to inhabit the whole land -- and who also worked toward the Palestinian dream of a Palestinian state, with full expectation that his home of Tekoa, now part of Gush Etzion in the West Bank, would be part of that state.
2002: Rabbi Froman picks olives with Palestinian women in the West Bank village of Aqraba, in protest against violence committed by Israeli settlers. (Image found here at Huffington Post -- the whole slideshow is quite remarkable.)
Rav Menachem's vision, Klein Halevi writes, was that "however improbably, it was religious Jews who were best positioned to make peace with the Palestinians and the Muslim world generally." The peace process as we have known it, he argued, has been largely driven by political actors who tend to be liberal or non-religious. In his mind, that's exactly why it hasn't yet succeeded. Klein Halevi continues:
He taught me that, in order to make peace with the Muslim world, one needs not only to honor Islam but to love it – cherish its fearless heart, the power of its surrender, the wisdom of its frank confrontation with human transience. Once we went together to a mosque in Nusseirat, a refugee camp in Gaza. It was the time before the second intifada, when such adventures were still possible. We'd been invited by a community of Sufi mystics to join their zikr, the dance that combines chanting and breathing with vigorous movement. For nearly an hour we danced together with our Muslim fellow believers in God. "Allah!" Rav Menachem repeatedly cried out in devotion.
After the zikr, we sat with members of the community, and Rav Menachem explained why he had come here. Two thousand years ago, he said, my people sinned and were expelled by God from this land. But now God has brought us back, and I want to learn from my Muslim brothers who didn't leave here how to worship God in this land.
It was an extraordinary moment: A rabbi – from a West Bank settlement! – was telling Palestinian refugees that God had brought us back to this land. And they listened to him -- because he had come to learn from them, because he was speaking to them as one religious person to another, because he made no apology for Jewish indigenousness.
The mention of dancing / chanting zhikr with Sufis puts me, of course, in mind of the story of Reb Zalman Among the Sufis of Hebron, to which I have linked many times before.
The JPost isn't the only Israeli paper remembering Rabbi Froman. In Ha'aretz, Gershom Baskin offers Menachem Froman, the settler rabbi who wanted to be a Palestinian citizen, a personal letter of remembrance to Rav Menachem. Baskin notes that he himself is not religious and does not believe in God, but that Menachem never seemed to mind. He writes:
The last time we met, about one month ago, was when we together went to speak to President Mahmoud Abbas. You were weak and in pain, but the meeting and working for peace gave you strength. And you spoke for about one hour. And President Abbas listened and responded. He had admiration in his eyes for you and appreciation for your love of humanity and your dream to see peace before you left this world. You told Abu Mazen that you look forward to being a citizen of the State of Palestine, living in your home in Tekoa. Abu Mazen responded that he looked forward to giving you a Palestinian passport.
In the video embedded below -- seven minutes -- he points out that God tells us to love our neighbor, and that the Palestinians are his neighbor; therefore it is his religious duty to love the Palestinians. (If you can't see the embed, you can go to the video at YouTube: The Challenges of Rabbi Menachem Froman.)
(I also recommend the short video Rabbi Froman Goes to Qusra -- in 2011 he made a sympathy visit to Qusra, where right-wing settlers had vandalized the mosque the night before. He begins his remarks with a fluid Arabic bismillah as well as a fervent prayer of Allah hu akbar; his further remarks, in Hebrew, are translated on the spot into Arabic. The video, in-progress material from the documentary A Third Way: settlers and Palestinians as neighbors, is subtitled in English. If you want to contribute toward the finishing of A Third Way, you can do so here.)
I'm humbled to learn about Rav Menachem and his work. He managed to bridge positions typically described as left-wing (he advocated a two-state solution and met regularly with leaders of the PA, including the late Sheikh Yassin of Hamas) and positions typically described as right-wing (he believed in the God-given right of the Jewish people to live in all parts of the land of Israel, and strongly opposed the uprooting of settlements in Gaza and/or the West Bank.) I wish that he had lived to see the peace for which he so ardently yearned. May that peace come speedily and soon.
Rav Froman's Funeral, Elisheva Goldberg, The Daily Beast, March 2013. "Rav Froman endorsed Obama for president and, on Election Day, he went to pray for his victory at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. A symbolic act that summarized his interesting, complex, and, yes, privileged politics. He deeply believed that Islam is a religion of peace, and he was outspoken about his desire to obtain citizenship in a future Palestinian state. Yet all of the elements of his philosophy were manifest in Tekoa, a settlement surrounded by Palestinian villages that, however you cut it, is still an obstacle to a two-state solution and on unequal footing in countless ways with the very neighbors to whom Froman was so friendly."
Settler rabbi fights rightist attacks with neighborly solidarity, Harvey Stein & Brad Rothschild, +972, October 2011. "Rabbi Menachem Froman, the 'settler rabbi for peace,' from the Tekoa settlement, sometimes comes to the rescue after these price tag operations, especially ones aimed against religious symbols, like mosques. Froman has been going against the grain for over 20 years: he had a long-term friendship with Yassir Arafat, and visited the wheelchair-bound spiritual founder of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin, in Gaza (before Yassin was terminated by an Israeli Air Force missile in 2004). More recently, he has organized contingents of settlers, armed with new Korans, to visit the villages inflamed by their mosques being burned or defaced."
- Thousands mourn beloved, controversial West Bank rabbi, Matti Friedman and Ellie Leshem, The Times of Israel, March 2013. "His vision was not without its contradictions — he sought an equal partnership with Palestinians while participating in a settlement enterprise predicated on their disenfranchisement under military rule — and his ideas drew widespread interest but few dedicated followers. His personality was such, however, that few doubted the honesty of his intentions, and many were attracted by his engaging and offbeat nature, by his willingness to flout criticism and pursue an entirely original path, and by the intensity of his belief."