I’ll begin with a confession: I never made it to the funeral. Driving from Jerusalem, by the time I reached the turn to the town of Nokdim, a few kilometers before the steep hill leading up to Tekoa, there was already such an endless line of cars in front of me that I gave up and turned around. That, like much of yesterday, had a certain surrealistic quality to it, and that seemed appropriate for the enigmatic “Rav Menachem,” as he was affectionately called by his friends and students.
Although I was never his student in any formal sense, I did think of us as being friends over many years, although not particularly close ones. We were of course neighbors in Gush Etzion, and we always had many friends in his town of Tekoa (where one of our sons now lives with his family), so we often ran into each other at weddings and other events. Over the years the family connections broadened: One of his daughters was my student, and one of his sons the teacher of my own son.
I also ran into him at political events. It may be surprising for some to hear that the political events at which I saw him were not of a “left-wing” nature. The truth is that his politics were much more complex than many think, and defied simple labeling. I recall that just before the expulsion from Gush Katif I saw him at a demonstration and informed him that a boy from Tekoa had just become “the first soldier to defy orders” to evacuate the settlers. He responded, “Oh, he was just home for Shabbat, and already he had a chance to perform that mitzvah as well!” But enough about politics.
I really got to know Rav Menachem when we spent a year together (along with his wife, Rabbanit Hadassah) in the advanced Zohar lectures of his old friend Professor Yehuda Liebes of Hebrew University. Rav Menachem and Professor Liebes (whom he always referred to as “Reb Yudele”) had been study partners in Zohar for many years. The two would often argue affectionately in the class, with Rav Menachem pushing for more traditional readings of the text. We often drove back together to Gush Etzion after those lectures. Once, when we were passing the Old City, he exclaimed excitedly, “Look, Hadassah, here are the walls of old Jerusalem.”
Another time, a student who was then transitioning from yeshiva study to academic training asked him what he got out of the class, and if it gave him anything in the way of “yirat shamayim” (the awe of Heaven). He responded, “This class is the essence of my yirat shamayim!”
With Rav Menachem you always learned to expect the unexpected. Often before the class, we would pray the Maariv service together at the synagogue on Mount Scopus. He was especially ecstatic, since the synagogue overlooks the Temple Mount. I remember hearing that Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook zt”l used to say that if one wanted to learn how to daven, one should observe Rav Froman. He was a true “master of prayer” in the sense of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav’s story.
Rav Menachem didn’t only study the Zohar, he taught it on every occasion, formally at several Hesder yeshivas and often at many less-formal gatherings. He was one of the rabbis who are to be credited with bringing the study of the “inner dimension” of Torah to the national religious yeshiva world. In addition to the Zohar, which he would teach in a freestyle literary manner, he also emphasized the teachings of Rebbe Nachman.
In him, and in his ongoing relationship with Prof. Liebes, we can also identify another fascinating religious trend of the last two decades: the growing interaction between the world of “religious” Torah study and the academic world.
When I think back over the past couple of years, when Rav Menachem battled his deadly illness with characteristic humor and optimism, one particular story comes to mind. At the fourth yahrzeit gathering for my beloved teacher Rav Shagar zt”l, who was one of Rav Menachem’s closest friends, he made an unexpected appearance. At the time I formulated my thoughts thus:
Afterward, Rav Menachem Froman, one of Rav Shagar’s chevrutot and closest friends, arrived in a wheelchair and pajamas, having ‘escaped’ from the hospital. He too has been battling severe cancer for most of this year, with ups and downs. I will admit that he appeared to be physically very weak, and yet his ever-present smile was still there… It was very hard for many people present to see him in such a weak state. He spoke of his friendship with Rav Shagar and of how the Rav is still alive, like Yaakov Avinu about whom the Talmud states that he didn’t die, for his children (and students) are still alive, and he lives on through them. He proclaimed dramatically that Am Yisrael chai, od Avinu chai, and od Rabeinu chai (our rebbe – Rav Shagar still lives).
On the day after his funeral I apply those words to Rav Menachem himself. Od Rabeinu chai –– Rav Menachem lives on through his children, his friends and his students. May his memory be blessed.