The West Bank’s Rabbi Menachem Froman has the solution to the conflict
‘All you need is a little faith,’ says the Tekoa leader, who isn’t averse to quoting Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
More reports from Israel and Palestine can be found at “Reports from Journeys to Israel and Palestine.“
How do you feel today?
First of all, I want to apologize. I am tired and not very lucid or focused. The morning hours are hard for me, after prayer. I also had a bad night. So my wife Hadassah is with us. You will hear things from her, too.
I can see this is not easy for you. I’m sorry. I will try not to impose on you. Let’s talk about your activity for peace, about the meetings you have been holding for years with leaders and clerics from the Arab world.
For almost 40 years I have maintained that it is impossible to forge peace here without taking into account the religious element, which is very powerful in the Arab public and also stronger than what some readers of Haaretz would like to believe in the Jewish public. [Sheikh] Ahmed Yassin once told me: You and I could make peace in hamsa dakika − five minutes. How so? Because we are both believers. In recent years I mentioned this to everyone who was ready to listen, and it was considered bizarre and crazy. Suddenly, the situation is slowly beginning to change.
A senior Israel Defense Forces officer who was in charge of collecting intelligence once told me: There is no one who understands Hamas like you, who meets with them and talks to them like that. But to make peace with Hamas? That is crazy. And then Hamas came to power.
But most people hold the opposite view. For them, religion, which you regard as a common denominator, is the cause of war.
That is true. And I say: Not only in Israel, but the whole Middle East will go the same path. I was in Egypt and Jordan and met with the most extreme clerics. Before bin Laden’s assassination, I used to say that the rumor that he is in our house, in the attic, is untrue. Now, with [Mohammed] Morsi’s election [as president of Egypt], suddenly I have a meeting with President [Shimon] Peres and probably also with [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu. To his credit let it be said that he asked his political adviser, Ron Dermer, to meet with me. He sat with me for an hour and a half. They spoke, asked questions.
“Tell us, is it possible to talk to them? Aren’t they insane?” And by the way, I don’t think they are nice, in the words of Golda [Meir].
So they are not nice.
Of course not. After all, I saw them to be like a hamsin [hot desert wind]. Is that nice? No. But that is part of reality here. So the things I talked about all my life, peace on a religious basis, are suddenly coming true. That is why I met with Peres yesterday. We agreed to do something, and I made all kinds of phone calls to my Muslim friends. But … sorry for being a little unfocused. Do you know the poem by Rachel [Bluwstein], “Mineged” [“Across From”; see Deuteronomy 32:49-52]? It is engraved on her headstone [following is a rough translation]:
Has he come? Shall he come?
Contains sadness of Nebo.
One across from the other − the two banks of one river.
Rock of fate:
Palms spread. Seen from across.
Unto there − you shall not go.
Everyone and his Nebo
Crossing a wide land.
What does she write here? Something fantastic. We are here in Tekoa, opposite Mount Nebo. And Moses and Aaron are also at Nebo. They were not privileged to cross over. Is there a God or is there not a God? That is a question I have been asking all my life, tearing off one petal and then another: There is, there isn’t. There is, there isn’t.
You’re not sure?
Sometimes I am sure [there is]; sometimes I am sure there isn’t. My whole family was murdered in Poland. The whole family.
What do you hear in that poem?
It is about Moses. All his life he leads the people to the land and does not enter. I am in exactly the same situation. At long last, Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] wants to talk to me, to hear what to do. I say that in his praise, because his mode of thought is so different. Yet he is ready to open up and listen. I have suggestions. I think, for example, that we should send a delegation of rabbis to Dr. Morsi with a letter of congratulations. I don’t know whether Bibi will accept and agree, but there is much work to be done. And I do not know whether I will be the one who does the work. Like Moses, all his life leading the people to the Land of Israel: “And it shall be, when thou art come into the land.”
But he himself did not come into the land.
No, he did not.
Hadassah: It is actually a potent expression of life that a person concludes it in the middle. Life is not over for him. Everything opens and opens and opens.
The rabbi: It is possible that I will not get to Dr. Morsi with Bibi’s letter and the proposal: Let us build peace. The slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood is “Islam is the solution.” That is a very frightening slogan, certainly for people like Bibi. But I will not come to Dr. Morsi and will not hand him the letter, simply because … I will not cross over. That is the thing. Mount Nebo. Your visit here coincides with the weekly Torah portion about the sin of Moses, because of which he did not enter the Land of Israel; my bar-mitzvah Torah portion is Ve’etchanan − literally, “And I pleaded.” Moses pleads to be allowed to enter the land. For our ancient sages this is a model of prayer. Think what that means … This prayer that was not answered. Life as pleading. Not life as achievements and doing things. Life as supplication. Finally I might have the possibility to do something. Or maybe not.
Maybe yes. I have a daughter who joined the Bratslav Hasidim − it happens in the best families, yes? I always take from her the expression that the Bratslav people always utter: “For God, praise Him, everything is possible.” And for the Bratslav group everything is truly possible. Or maybe it is truly not important? Why is an unanswered prayer held up as an archetype of prayer? Perhaps because prayer that is not answered is a very great thing.
When Moses stands on the hilltop, God tells him to look at the land that he will not enter, right? He shows it to him, section by section. Why? What is your reading of this?
He comes to the land, but not invasively. Not to appropriate something. Our teacher not only yearned for this land; his yearnings were to come to it but not as a conqueror. And that is exactly what we are talking about. On the one hand, yearnings, and on the other, the knowledge that it shall be fulfilled, but not by you.
You have been living with the brutal knowledge [the rabbi has a terminal illness] for more than two years that your days are numbered.
Believe me, they did not give me even two years. They did not give me anything. They said it is a miracle.
Do you also think it is a miracle?
As it is written, “Hanging by a miracle and a rock.” To live by supplication.
Hadassah: There is no explanation for the way he is holding on. Against all expectations.
What are you holding onto at this time?
Hadassah: The answer is that he is not holding on. He is not overcoming, he is not building. He is suspending himself between heaven and earth. Suspending himself from God. Not hopes of one kind or another. He never says, “Things will be good,” but is willing to be in this state of suspension. Simply to be suspended like this, above the abyss.
The rabbi: I always talked like that. And now God has let me live like this. This is the point of Bratslav, of Rabbi Nachman. It is so basic for him, this picture of Moses standing on the hill above the battle with Amalek, raising his hands and being victorious. Rashi and Onkelos interpret this as referring to prayer. “And his hands remained steady.”
What is your interpretation?
Like Bratslav. Faith. You raise your hands. Faith also includes raising your hands.
Are you afraid?
You are trying to resolve the conflict between us and the Arabs, but there is also a rift within us, between a large part of the Israeli public and the settlers. What do you think about that?
There is a saying by [Andrei] Gromyko, who was the foreign minister of the Soviet Union: “Peace is indivisible.” My goal is not to make peace between us and the Palestinians. That is the result. Peace between a man and his fellow man, between a nation and its neighbor is all a kind of mental adjustment, a decision of the soul, which wants to move to the side of peace. It is necessary to purify the Jewish religion.
What do you mean?
On festive occasions I dress like my grandfather, who was a Gerrer Hasid. I put on a white kapote [robe-coat] and white spodik [tall fur hat]. I think Judaism has to be transformed from black to white. I spent many hours in meetings and in studying Islam, and this activity was undertaken to transform the religion into white. Rabbi Kook, whose picture is here opposite me, says that the whole of the Jewish religion is a process of purification from idol worship.
From what would you like to purify the Jewish religion?
From idol worship. From egoism. I feel that there is something very, very deep in the love between man and land. That has always been my image. Man is made from dust and to dust he will return. The connection between man and his land is the connection to his life source. That connection can derive from love or it can derive from possessiveness: meaning that you want to be the owner of the land, to control it. Instead of being swallowed up in your wife, you want to be the owner of your wife. When I met with [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, he gave me volumes of the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi. Rumi writes that one can be swallowed in the earth like sugar that dissolves in water. If you have an orientation toward being swallowed, of abnegation in the face of the objective truth, that is peace.
So that is how you apprehend it.
Look, Tekoa, for example, is a mixed settlement. There is a school here, which my wife founded, in which religious and secular children learn together. The problem is not only settlers and non-settlers, religious and nonreligious. It is all a matter of mental orientation. Whether you build everything on your ego, or you are an instrument of the general flow − for the general truth, for the general peace, even if operates from an awareness of “I will decide, I will navigate,” as with [Yitzhak] Rabin. And even more powerful than being a pipeline for what is general is being humble, with the goal of abnegation, of being an instrument consciously. The Holy One blessed be He can also work in strange ways, but the direct way is through people who wish to be an instrument for the general peace. Those who wish to be such an instrument, and that is their life’s goal, that is the most direct and the simplest way to live a worthy human life. What I say is that the most important thing is to be a genuine human being.
And that is the source of the solution you are proposing: to stay in the settlement, close to the land, but under Palestinian sovereignty.
I met with someone who is very close to the prime minister, and he told me that the solution I am proposing is also the solution he has envisaged for years, from the political viewpoint, and that he is working to persuade the prime minister. That is how he described his approach: He is thinking of a practical solution; whereas I come from another side, which is purification, distillation of the relations between man and land. In the same way that a man is not the owner of his wife but is swallowed up in her − and that is the joy of a relationship, that you have someone to lose yourself in, in which to dissolve like sugar in water. That is also the joy of land and of love of the Land. We came to Tekoa to take part in that: to participate in the establishment of a mixed community. With the intention that I want to learn, to receive. I do not want to give. I do not work for my truth. I work for the sake of the general truth, the objective truth. In the final analysis, the question is whether you abnegate yourself before God or you represent him. And I abnegate myself before God.
I see that as connecting to a life of supplication.
Yes. It is the same thing. Abnegation also in the sense that your plans are not fulfilled, or are fulfilled but not by you, and thus the religion is purified of the aspect of idol worship that it contains. Not to take values, Moloch, and sacrifice yourself and your children to them, but to see the human aspect. That is the human disposition.
I am deeply moved to hear you say this.
That is the human purpose: to be a man; a mensch, as they say in Yiddish. The main thing is to be a human being, all the rest is just a means. In the kabbala, the light of adam kadma [primordial man] is stronger than the light of the patriarch Jacob. In other words, human light is a step higher than Jewish light. I think that this is how one should forge oneself: to be human. Rabbi Kook says that the Jewish nation is not a nation at all, it has no national definition, it is the essence of the human. A human-nation, as A.D. Gordon put it, a nation that is a mensch. God has strange ways of loving us. Even a religious Jew can be a human person.
If so, what is your thinking on the occupation? How do you explain it?
I said that peace is actually a mental orientation. Peace, fundamentally, is an alliance that accords each of the two sides its freedom.
But there is no peace yet. No alliance. However, there is an occupation, which I believe is the root of all evil.
I too think that the occupation is the root of all evil. The question is what you mean by the word “root.” The occupation derives from the power of man’s fear and desire to protect his ego, because of his lack of desire to open up. This week I conducted a marriage ceremony and I asked the crowd to applaud the couple for being brave enough to enter into an alliance, because in an alliance you forgo your ego, the desire to subjugate all the facts around you to your ego. The occupation is a far deeper problem. You are talking about it in the political sense, but that is only one sense.
The occupation is a symptom.
Yes. Man is always in a dilemma about whether to open up and be free, or to subjugate and be subjugated, to hate and be hated. That is also our dilemma in the political sphere. Bibi gave that speech in which he related how much the occupation bothers him, but giving a speech is not enough. The occupation is an expression of the desire to subjugate the facts to my ego. I always say that the settlements are the fingers of the hand that is extended to peace.
I’m not sure I understand.
Because here is where the true contact is forged between the Muslim and Jewish cultures. Hadassah always says, There is a fence and there are ties; when there is a fence things like the Twin Towers happen. You know, every Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha I sent greetings to Abu Amar [Yasser Arafat] and afterward to Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], in which I wrote about loving your fellow man as yourself and not doing to others what you would not wish them to do to you. What I want for myself I must also want others to have. I want a Jewish state, I must want there to be an Arab state. I love Jerusalem, I have to want them to have Jerusalem, too. When Abu Mazen saw that he was so moved that he went to another room and brought me his misbaha, his prayer beads, as a gift. I have it here.
And what did Abu Amar say?
The “affair” between me and Abu Amar made my wife very jealous. Before his death he asked me to visit him in Ramallah. Maybe now people will suspect that I gave him the poison, eh? But he called me and said, “Hakham [wise] Froman, come to me as quickly as you can.”
Did you go at once?
Yes. Of course. But these are stories. Let’s drop it. Just stories. At the end of the day, the settlements, as I see it, were established for this. They are the hand that touches the other hand. The meaning of religion as being love and freedom.
Despite your condition, you are still active and are now working to establish a theater.
A theotoron: toron referring to the Torah and theo referring to religion. A religious theater. Samuel Beckett said, “What is theater?” A group of people standing on a cliff while below there is a stormy sea in which a drowning man is crying for help − and they cannot help. The drowning people are the actors and the people on the cliff are the audience. In the theater, life is presented as distress. The audience cannot help the prince of Denmark, Hamlet, but is present and is confronted with the problem of human existence. [The late Polish theater director Jerzy] Grotowski proposes a different definition. He likens theater to a hill at night where someone has poured gasoline on himself and set himself alight, while around the hill people are standing and watching, their faces lit by him.
What I gather from this is that the actor gives his life, and his selfless devotion illuminates the faces of the viewers. A third definition is that in the theater the actors and the audience overcome gravity for an hour and a half. The audience is elevated. As [Rabbi] Moishe Levinger says, What is dancing? A person jumps up and overcomes the force of gravity. In Yiddish the “force of gravity” is the “force of gravitas” − in Hebrew “koved,” in Yiddish “koived.”
Is there no element of idol worship in theater?
A person in the theater jumps up, overcomes his ego, his self − the self-definition that does not allow you to be free. To play-act is to be free. Also, in the biblical sense, to love. That is certainly freedom. So this theater is a religious theater, not in the sense that it observes the halakha [Jewish religious law] or draws on the Jewish sources, but that it achieves the purpose of religion: to liberate man and cause him to love. This is the repentance of the religious public, from subjugation to the halakha and its rigidity to freedom and love.
When I sat with my son Shibi and we thought about what we were getting into, owing to my illness, Shibi said that the only thing we need to work on is the theater. That is the dream. In the past few years I have been teaching the Zohar, because it posits itself as an answer to the revealed Torah. It seeks to liberate us from religious dogmatism and from the halakha. “To be a free people in our land” − I am not enthralled by the national anthem, but when I hear that line I am moved. The idea that for certain moments you can liberate yourself from gravity and gravitas is truly wonderful.
You gave yourself another name, didn’t you?
After I was diagnosed with the disease there was a gathering in Tzavta [a left-liberal venue in Tel Aviv]. I changed my name there to Menachem Hai Shalom [Menachem Living Peace]. Someone once told me that he thought that everything I was doing was due to the fact that my name in numerology is shalom (peace). I checked. It’s true. Without helping by adding the number of letters. “Froman” really is “peace.” According to the halakha, you are supposed to change your name in the synagogue, but I did it in Tzavta. I told them, You are the synagogue. [Former Meretz MK] Walid Sadik is the custodian; A.B. Yehoshua is the Sephardi rabbi; Amos Oz is the Ashkenazi rabbi. I told them that I don’t know how much time I have left, but peace. Hai Shalom. And now it seems the conditions for this exist, but … like Moses on Mount Nebo, we will go in or not.
What would you like to leave behind?
If only you will succeed.
Praying, too. I live from prayer. A life of supplication. I told you. That is a life of a particular kind. For example, the main word used with respect to a life of supplication is “thank you.” I have strength. Thank you.
Hadassah: I have been saying for years that really the true value he has is not in what he is advancing, but in what he leaves behind. The invitation to open a different portal to see reality. That orientation. To transform consciousness. Even here in the settlement, at first, his was a completely solitary voice. Now there is already a stream. Consciousness has developed among the young people of Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful organization).
The rabbi: In short, what my wife is saying is: You can die.
Hadassah: Heaven forbid! The opposite. I simply see it in practice. I see it among the Arabs, where there is no such talk. Because he bursts through that talk, many Arabs see him as their spiritual mentor, as their leader.
You were a nonconformist all your life, espousing unconventional opinions. Was it worthwhile?
The rabbi: We shall see. If there really will be peace, then it was worthwhile. If the unconventional ultimately becomes the conventional, then yes. Rabbi Nachman says that Abraham was the village idiot, people threw stones at him.
And at you?
They also threw them.
Hadassah: Of course. Ask the children. They grew up in an atmosphere of having a different kind of father. For some of the children it was hard. The reactions to him were very harsh at first. The children had this kind of sport, in which they used to hitchhike around a lot and say they were from Tekoa. The reaction was, “Ah, Tekoa, there’s that crazy rabbi there, he’s totally crazy.” They would let the driver talk for the whole ride. Then, a second before they got out of the car they would say, “Yes, he’s my father.” In the end, it also gave them resilience. But it was hard for them.
Do you think you are crazy? Do you have any doubts about the path you chose?
The rabbi: Many crazy people, I think, don’t think they are crazy. Things will be good − if things will be good and there is peace. It has to materialize. A life of supplication; you have a great profit from that. You ask whether it is worthwhile, but of course it is worthwhile. A life of humility. I always say, there is the halakha, to walk, there is kabbala, to accept [Hebrew wordplays]. To accept is tremendous joy. Because then the objective good or the objective truth speak through you. It is not only you and your thoughts. It might be expressed in a possibly cruel way. What Rachel writes is terribly cruel. Moses does not enter the land. But the nation enters. If there is someone who does not fulfill [a particular task], someone else will do it. Maybe my son. Maybe Rabbi [Michael] Melchior. Maybe [Kadima MK] Otniel Schneller.
Do you feel that you have succeeded in repairing the world a little? In leaving your imprint on it?
God will repair the world; that is something huge, isn’t it? Why does the world need my imprint? God’s imprint is the truth. It is better to be objective in the world. For things not to happen because of how you are, but as they are.
What has your suffering, mental and physical, in the past few years taught you?
That is a great philosophical question. Let it go. One must accept what is. To accept is more than to do by yourself.
Hadassah: He taught me to be thankful. Sometimes you feel down in the dumps, [but] you have to say thank you for everything there is, for every bit of life, for all that is good.
Is there anything you regret?
The rabbi: Of course. One’s wife is part of one’s body, right? So my wife regrets all my meetings with all the Muslim leaders and all the hours I invested in this.
Thank you very much. I will leave you now. I see you are tired.
One moment: It is most important of all for me to say thank you. For all the mercies I have received. From my wife, from my children, and especially from my son Shibi, who was a rabbi in an army preparatory program in Galilee, and when the disease was diagnosed left his work with his wife and came back here, to Tekoa. He is my “operations officer.” He truly strengthens me. And the other children, too. And the community, which embraces me, and also many friends and pupils.
In the oncology department of Shaare Zedek [Medical Center, in Jerusalem] I receive exceptional treatment from Prof. Segal, Dr. Shmueli and nurse Bruria. No words can describe it. And there is also another thank you. A big one. To Mira. Mira Farbstein is a classmate of mine from the Reali School [in Haifa]. We had good relations in high school, even though we followed such different paths. She is married to [American business magnate] Sheldon Adelson. After my disease was diagnosed I suddenly get a phone call from her. After 40 years during which we didn’t talk. She says, “Menachem, I read in the paper that you are sick. I want to tell you that whatever you need financially I will take care of.” She has been as good as her word. Those, truly, are wonderful things that I receive. That is what is most important to say. Write: “Menachem Froman says thank you.”