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Breslov’s masters came to life in Froman and Shagar

The late Rabbi Menachem Froman personified Rebbe Nachman's archetypal Master of Prayer
Master of prayer and master of the field. The late Rabbi Menachem Froman (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Master of prayer and master of the field. The late Rabbi Menachem Froman (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Last summer, to mark the fifth yahrtzeit of my teacher Rav Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) zt”l, Ben-Gurion University Professor Haviva Pedaya wrote of him in “Makor Rishon.” She poetically compared him to the “Baal HaSadeh” – the “Master of the Field” from Rebbe Nachman of Breslav’s teaching of 1806 “And Boaz Spoke to Ruth” (“Lekutei Moharan” 65).

Who is this cosmic gardener that Reb Nachman spoke of? He is the gardener who tends a magnificent field of delightful flowers and shrubs, knowing how to care for each according to its own specific needs. But that isn’t his true greatness, for that is the task of all competent gardeners. This master sees beyond the fence. He is acutely aware of the suffering of those plants that find themselves outside of the perimeter of the garden, that long to be within, but cannot. Who are these plants? “They are the holy souls who grow there…wandering outside of the garden awaiting their rectification so that they can also enter and find their place.”

Pedaya explains that the master of the field is the unique spiritual leader of each generation, who, like Reb Nachman himself, not only inspires the insiders but works to develop a language that speaks to the outsiders as well. In doing so he expands the perimeters of the garden, including those who had hitherto felt themselves alienated and excluded. In Pedaya’s understanding, Rav Shagar played that role in our generation. He created a new religious language that took into account not only Hassidic thought and the system propounded by Rav Kook, but also incorporated existentialism and post-modernity. In doing so he took responsibility for a large contingent of mostly young and religious Israelis who felt estranged from the mainstream religious Zionistic discourse of their community, and brought them into the field, where he could water them and care for their pained souls.

Last week, I wrote of the death of Rav Menachem Froman zt”l, who was a dear friend of Rav Shagar’s, despite their incredibly different styles and natures. Both were by and large part of the same community, both involved in the world of the Hesder yeshivot. In that post I described Rav Froman as a “Baal tefila,” a master of prayer, as in Rebbe Nachman’s story of the same name. At the time, I was thinking primarily of his ecstatic style of prayer, but after a week of introspection I would like to share another insight.

Master of prayer and master of the field. The late Rabbi Menachem Froman (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Master of prayer and master of the field. The late Rabbi Menachem Froman (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Reb Nachman told the story of the “Master of Prayer” (“Sipurei Maasiot” 12) to his followers in 1810, less than a year before his own untimely death. This master, unlike the Master of the Field, is not a gardener from within, who is wise enough to also look outward and see those souls that need to be brought inside. The Master of Prayer (who, one must stress, is a universal, not a particularly Jewish figure — like most of Rebbe Nachman’s fictional heroes) is the ultimate outsider. He is a counterculture leader, living on the edge of society, gathering around him dedicated followers who like him are committed to a spiritual lifestyle in which prayer and the service of God are the ultimate values. His way stands in stark contrast to the materialistic values of civilization in which money is all that matters and human worth is measured by the balance in one’s bank account.

The Master of Prayer and his group are in constant opposition to the complacent materialism of society, and they make occasional forays into nearby towns to convert new believers to their cause, ultimately bringing rectification and spiritual redemption to all of society.

Rav Shagar (photo credit: courtesy)
Rav Shagar (photo credit: courtesy)

Rav Menachem zt”l was also the “Master of Prayer” in this sense. Throughout the yeshivot and towns of Gush Etzion and the Hebron Hills, one could identify his followers, young hippie-style religious people whose beards, long payot side curls and ecstatic Breslavian style of prayer set them apart from the seeming complacency of bourgeois settlement life. Like him, they were often to be seen with a volume of the Zohar or the works of Rebbe Nachman in hand, and they served as a gentle reminder to the rest of us about the true spiritual values of serving God with joy and simplicity. Needless to say, this also led to much conflict, and like Rav Shagar, Rav Menachem was also subject to scathing criticism from his own community, and not only for his political beliefs. Yet, men of truth, like Rav Shagar, Rav Menachem and their mentor Rebbe Nachman, follow their own unique paths even in the face of scorn and ridicule.

Unfortunately, they also seem to die before their time.

Long ago, the scholar Joseph Weiss pointed out that Rebbe Nachman always writes about Rebbe Nachman, and the same has been said regarding Rav Shagar. Rav Froman was more of an actor than a writer, and it is interesting in this context to note that Professor Zvi Mark has written of Reb Nachman’s understanding of religious devotion as a kind of theater of the absurd. Perhaps in our generation, in addition to his role as “Master of Prayer,” Rav Menachem also played a leading role on a novel and fresh religious stage. We will continue to pray and study with joy while we await the curtain rising on the next “Master of the Field” and “Master of Prayer.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Zvi Leshem directs the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. He is the author of 'Redemptions: Contemporary Chassidic Essays on the Parsha and the Festivals'. Many of his articles can be accessed at https://nli.academia.edu/zvileshem