Harvey Stein
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Rabbi Menachem Froman: Prayer as Performance

(courtesy Harvey Stein)

We really need the joyful spirit of Rabbi Menachem Froman now — as the world is falling apart and so many people are suffering. And not only his spirit, but his chutzpah, his desire to perform for Hashem, to perform as a form of prayer.

I saw this in action, when I went with Rav Froman and a group of West Bank Israeli activists in September, 2011, to the northern West Bank Palestinian town of Qusra. A small group of settlers had vandalized the town mosque there: throwing a burning tire into it, and spraying insulting graffiti on the outside walls. Froman stood on the outside steps of the mosque, several hundred Qusra villagers gathered around, and began by shouting the traditional invitation to Moslem prayer, “Allahu Ahbar!” And the Palestinians responded back instinctively with their own “Allahu Akbar!” — creating a strong bond, and a prayer community, with this strange rabbi.

But first a confession: I came to Israel as a typical “leftist” Jewish immigrant, seeing those damn West Bank “settlers” as the main obstacle to peace. When I began to work on my feature documentary on Rav Froman and some of his students, I called it “A Third Way — Settlers and Palestinians as Neighbors.” We eventually had many community-based screenings, and a small theatrical release. These days I’ve changed the second part of the title to “Israelis and Palestinians as Neighbors” — because I want to acknowledge the full humanity of those West Bank “settlers,” not automatically demonizing them. And because it’s become clear to me in 2022, that we have to all somehow learn to share this land — not live in segregated areas, dividing it up with security fences and concrete walls.

Rabbi Froman inside the vandalized Qusra mosque (courtesy Harvey Stein)

In a fantastic essay by Hillel Mansfield, “Halacha and Theater,” Mansfield begins by asking, “can halakha be a kind of a playful performance?” (Halacha is the sum of traditional Jewish laws and text). Mansfield elaborates: “Thinking of halakha as a form of religious theater widens our perspective on which features of ritual, Hashem (the audience of the theater) is watching.” And then he quotes extensively from an essay by Rav Froman, in which Froman talks of tefillah as a form of theater — based closely on Froman’s reading of the Zohar, the mystical Jewish text he spent many years teaching on.

And yes, other great rabbis have said similar things: Mansfield says Reb Nachman refers to halakha as ”שעשוע – a kind of delight, a form of play.”

After their first “Allahu Akbar” exchange on the mosque steps, Froman dramatically repeats it two more times – courageously washing away any human hangups, of Jews or others somehow stuck on these words being associated with a terrorist shouting them. Simply, ”God is great!” — prayer as performance — for Hashem to witness, and then for us humans to witness too. Building bridges of religious beliefs was one key to creating peace — I loved Rav Froman’s unforgettable performance prayers.

And this week, as we watch the amazing performative speeches of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, we feel his incredible courage too — as he speaks eloquently and loudly enough to attract attention, and thus move the hearts of thousands of people around the world to his cause.

We are editing a new version “A Third Way” now — and you can host a screening/discussion of it: we want to bring it into the world again, because it may be yet another crucial time here in the Holy Land. Young West Bank Israelis, wearing their tallises, terrorize Palestinian villagers almost weekly — invading their villages, smashing cars, throwing rocks into homes that then sometimes give children concussions.

Emboldened, the passionate young Jews even sometimes burn the cars of Israeli supporters of the Palestinian villagers. And of course, it’s a terrible cycle of violence, with many Israeli victims as well, on both sides of the Green Line.

And solutions? In the end, our fragile Israeli government coalition, learning to get along after the rotten Netanyahu reign — assiduously avoids any new paths towards meaningful change outside the Green Line.

How can we change course, amidst all this suffering? Froman reminded us that traditionally God has many names in Islam, and “salaam” (“peace” in Arabic) is one of them. One key way to nourish peace is to meet face-to-face with your “enemy”: another example of Froman’s chutzpah was of course his friendship with Yasser Arafat, and maybe even more challenging, his relations with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual founder of Hamas.

With Yassin (on left) on a Gaza City stage (courtesy Harvey Stein)

There is a whole section in our movie, on the relationship of Rabbi Froman and Sheikh Yassin (including Froman’s sometimes brutally honest communications with Yassin). Seeing this section on Froman and Yassin, one synagogue in the United States said “no thanks” — they didn’t want to screen the movie for their congregation.

There are so many sensitivities around Hamas, I understand this, and around interacting with Palestinians who sometimes choose violence. Change is very hard, here where so much blood has been spilled on both sides.

I’ve been talking with a friend of mine who lives in a settlement, trying to get him to invite me to present a “Third Way” screening event for his community. He messages me with a hundred versions of “no thanks”.

I want him to see the scene in “A Third Way” where Rav Froman speaks to a large audience in a Judean settlement near his. Froman introduces a practice he says Reb Nachman himself taught: he holds his two hands up, and says we must bring together the two sides – whether the sides are “left and right in Israel, Israel and the goyim nations, man and woman, heaven and earth, everyday political chatter and words of Torah about peace”. And then with a big smile, Froman leads everyone in the room in slow repeated clapping together. Again, we prayed as one.

In an Israeli synagogue in Gaza, 2005 (Courtesy: Igal Hecht)

And lastly, I want to show my friend the footage of Rav Froman going to Gaza in 2005: Froman went to Gaza to protest the evacuation of Jews living there: in tears, he saved a Torah, as two Israeli soldiers gently pulled him out of the synagogue they were about to destroy. Froman simply believed that no one should be kicked out of their homes – not Jew, not Palestinian. He prayed for all of us.

Our new impact campaign includes the possibility of mixed Arab/Israeli screenings (on zoom or in-person) where simultaneous Arabic and Hebrew subtitles will be on screen. This bilingual campaign will launch with a zoom screening, hosted by the Abrahamic Movement, this May — it already has participants signed up from Bahrain, Hebron, and elsewhere.

With Ziad Sabateen (courtesy Harvey Stein)

With our screening events, we want — as Froman did — to try to connect the activism on the ground, with the political realm: in “A Third Way,” Froman’s Palestinian protégé, Ziad Sabateen, relates how in one of their many meetings, Arafat and Rabbi Froman agreed about a 2-state confederation as a goal, with Arafat proposing that Froman would be the “Minister of Israelis” living as residents in Palestine.

We want “A Third Way” to be a jumping off point for audiences to discuss aspects of such a confederation (like in the EU) — where Israeli citizens could remain as residents in Palestine, and a certain number of Palestinian citizens could return to their former home towns of Jaffa, Haifa, or elsewhere. It is an idea for resolving our conflict which is now finally getting some major press, including the detailed proposal by Yossi Beilin and Hiba Husseini. These new ideas are refreshing – after the prevalence of the stale old “divorce style” 2-state solution.

Courtesy Shira 🙂

Of course a confederation would necessitate the building of more trust between the sides — exactly what Rav Froman was so good at. And there are a thousand ways that we citizens can also help build bridges of trust, for example, by simply inviting for lunch a member of the “other side” (trading recipes replacing “peace plans”).

On a larger scale, what courageous Israeli rabbi living in a darn settlement 😉 would now match Rav Froman’s innovative and abundant chutzpah, ready to be the prayer leader, the public face of this brand new potential reality? Any volunteers?

About the Author
Harvey Stein is a filmmaker and video journalist, originally from New York City, now living most of the year in Jerusalem. He is now re-launching his feature documentary , "A Third Way - Israelis and Palestinians as Neighbors", about the unique Rabbi Menachem Froman and his protégés, both Israelis and Palestinians. He is also almost finished with his new impact feature documentary, "Green Rebel", about the Israeli-American solar energy visionary, Yossi Abramowitz, who is bringing commercial solar fields to African nations . Harvey believes that digital media can be a crucial force for positive change in these tough times. You're welcome to follow his work and contact him for any reason.