Introducing: “Strange Brew”

I have begun a new video DocuCommentary series on my Meet MythAmerica youtube channel:
STRANGE BREW: An examination of what is behind the weird symbiosis of GOP Politics, Big Business, and Evangelical Christianity during the presidential administration of Donald Trump, which is affecting a wide swath of US issues including the climate change and ecological crises debates, economics, public education, civil rights, and social justice.
The link to Part 1 of the series is below. This introductory video draws from some of the material I included in the introduction to my blog series on “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows” which began back on January 3, 2017. This new video series initially summarizes and expands on some of that material, but leads quickly to fresh new information right out of today’s news. I believe my 30+ years of intensive research into “homegrown American religion” that I share on my Field Guide to the Wild World of Religion website has led me to a unique perspective on the interplay of all these forces.
The link to Part 2 of the series is in the Documentation section below the video screen on Youtube. I hope you will join me on a wild trek through a Strange New World.
Posted in youtube videos | Leave a comment

God’s Era

The latest entry in my blog series on the StarrTrekking blog, on Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows, is now available.

Click the link to read “God’s Era.”


Posted in Religion in the News | Leave a comment

Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows

I have not added material to this blog in a long time, as I have had other blogs and websites that have been vying for my attention.

But an astonishing wild and woolly religious story has been playing out just under the surface of American current events for the past year. I have been covering this story as a series of entries on another of my blogs, but I think it is now time to take this Wild World blog out of mothballs, dust it off,  and share my discoveries on here also!

In fact, this latest saga surprisingly contains some of the same elements and same players as the last blog series that I completed here on Wild World way back in 2012! It is just that this time around, the Three Ring Circus is MUCH bigger, MUCH more sinister, and the stakes MUCH higher.

Without remembering what I called the series on here in 2012–“Strange Bedfellows”… I even incorporated the Strange Bedfellows theme into the title of the new series! But instead of it being just about various individuals at the fringe of the Wild World of Religion being “strange bedfellows” among themselves, this time around a whole menagerie of strange bedfellows from that same religious fringe aligned themselves around a candidate for the presidency of the United States. And eventually they became aligned around (and potentially strongly influential in some of the decisions of) the same man as he entered the Oval Office and became the de facto Leader of the Free World! A few photos to give you a small taste of what’s been included so far in this series…





paulagray   paulablack






You can read about this unfolding story on Wild World’s “sister blog,” a blog I call StarrTrekking.  (My middle name is STARR…yes, spelled with two RRs…and thus the pun in the name of the blog.) Clicking the link below will take you to the introductory blog entry to the series. At the end of that entry, you will find a link to the next in the series. Just like on Netflix or Hulu, you can choose to “binge read” all the way through the entries up to the latest one. Or you can take your time and read one at a time over a period of days. There are currently five parts to the series, with more to come. But be sure to start at the beginning with…

Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows (Introduction) 

If you find the material of interest, I hope you will remember to SHARE the link with your friends on FACEBOOK and other online outlets. 

I will post a notice and a summary on this blog each time the Donald Trump’s Strange Bedfellows series has a new entry. Click on the FOLLOW button at the top right of this page and fill in your email address if you would like to be notified when a new entry is available on this blog.

Posted in Religion in the News | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Strange Bedfellows, Episode 7: The Crowning Touch to the Saga

(Be sure to read the earlier episodes in this series before you get to this one: 1: The Black Bapticostal Bishop, 2: Yogis, Swamis—and Rabbis, 3: Have Shofar, Will Travel, 4:  Have Torah, Will Travel, 5: Doin’ the Torah Wave, and 6: Revisiting the Black Bapticostal Bishop.)

If you’ve followed this whole saga to this point, you will remember we started with the introduction of Eddie Long, the Black Bapticostal Bishop. (The term “Bapticostal” was coined by some wags who wanted to indicate an unusual mash-up of Baptist and Pentecostal.) And traced the story of his recent infamy in the matters of finances and sex.

Also introduced was the Torah-toting “Rabbi” Ralph Messer, alleged specialist in teaching the “Hebrew Roots of the Christian Faith.”

The names of both of these men were not well-known outside their own circles … until that fateful day of January 29, 2012 when their paths crossed at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in the Atlanta area in a strange spectacle. Even then, they would have likely remained out of the limelight if it weren’t for the Viral Video of said spectacle that was posted on Youtube. Before it was yanked off Youtube by New Hope via complaints of “copyright infringement,” it was seen by millions around the world. (And it can still be seen elsewhere, anyway … see the link below. Closing the barn door after the horse is out is never a successful effort.) And what did those millions see on their computer screen?

Dip into the middle of the recording and there is a strange sight indeed. Rabbi Ralph appears to be waving at Bishop Eddie.  Big ‘n’ burly Eddie, wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl and holding a big Torah Scroll, is being tippily held aloft in a chair by four grimacing men. (It was almost painful to watch those fellows hoist the Big Bishop up initially!) And then Ralph and the men march Bishop Eddie all around the stage! (I literally held my breath wondering if they would make a misstep and drop him!)

What on earth was going on in these pictures?

To find that out, you have to go back to the beginning of the video clip on Youtube.

Evidently, as a visiting speaker at New Hope, Rabbi Ralph talked for a while about various aspects of Hebrew Roots. He mentioned that he was a Jew, with “dual citizenship” in the US and Israel, and that in the name of the Jewish people … and God … he was going to bring a blessing to New Hope. And then he launched in to staging a “ceremony” for the New Hope audience in which he declared their Bishop a King. (Sounds like a cross between checkers and chess …).

A Torah scroll was brought out on stage, which RR declared was “312 Years old,” and a “Holocaust scroll” that had been found near the Auschwitz concentration camp in WW2.  He waxed eloquent about supposed “Jewish lore” regarding Torah scrolls. Supposedly 90% of the Jews in the world had never “seen, touched, or approached” a Torah scroll, and only one with Great Authority could read from it. Torah scrolls were allegedly made from “39 lamb skins” … which he indicated was a deliberate reference to the 39 stripes Jesus’ received before His crucifixion. Pulling off the velvet covering, he commented, “I’m going to pull off the foreskin of this,” evidently implying he was “circumcising” the scroll! He then mentioned Jesus “walking into the Temple” and approaching a Torah scroll. This must have been a garbled reference to the synagogue in Nazareth, since the Temple’s interior was not a place of meeting where Torah scrolls were kept. All the while he kept up this patter, he was very pointedly implying that every word was revealing deeply important spiritual things about the “Hebrew Roots” of the Christian faith.

The only problem was, almost every word was nonsense. (See the list below of comments by a Hebrew scholar about RR’s patter.)

After “circumcising” the scroll, he ordered some assistants to unroll it about six feet or so … and, bringing Bishop Eddie to the center of the stage, Ralph had them “wrap” Eddie in the scroll!

As Eddie approached, Ralph bellowed forcefully, “He is a King! God’s blessed him! He’s a humble man, but in him is kingship. In him is royalty. In him was the Land of Israel. In him was a K chromosome of that of Konem (?) Kohenim. He was brought through the slaves, raised up in a city, and God now wants to release a new anointing.”

With Eddie inside the scroll, Ralph began shouting again. “He is sealed to come out with a new anointing! The kingship within him, the POWER within him, is gonna come out. It doesn’t matter where you go, now how you try to attack him. You CAN’T attack him. He’s sealed!… wherever he turns the power of God is there!”

Then he had them roll the scroll back up. He put back the “foreskin,” and had a female assistant come out and drape a “Jewish” prayer shawl around Eddie’s shoulders. He had Eddie sit down on a royal red leather chair, and as the Torah was handed to him, Ralph intoned, “He is now positioned in a seat of … position of … power and authority. … He is now given the Constitution of God as a King.”

And then RR ordered four assistants to lift B.E. up in the air on their shoulders. (Insisting they “represent the four corners of the earth.”)  And as he was paraded around the stage, Ralph declared that Eddie was no longer a commoner, but a king! The crowd roared its approval. Eddie admittedly looked a bit bewildered, as if he hadn’t been “filled in” ahead of time about the ceremony plans. Back at center stage, Ralph roared that “He’s no longer a commoner. He’s not on the earth, he’s raised from earth into a heavenly realm!”

Throughout the whole rigmarole, Ralph kept implying very strongly that all of this folderol was “Jewish custom” related to the crowning of the ancient Kings of Israel. It is quite likely that most in the audience, ignorant of the customs of ancient Israel … or modern Jews … soaked it all in as The Gospel Truth. But the truth was there was no precedent for any of this in Jewish history or customs related to kings.

I suppose at the end of the morning’s church service that day, both Ralph and Eddie thought this was going to be just a fleeting ceremony that would be soon forgotten. If so, they were badly mistaken. The service had been recorded, and someone chose to put the recording on Youtube. Within days the firestorm began.

The whole thing had offended not just those out in the public who thought it insane to be bestowing such “honor” on a man who had recently paid millions of dollars of hush money to cover up allegations that he was a sexual predator.

The bizarre use of the Torah scroll in this setting had deeply offended the whole Jewish community in the greater Atlanta area, and eventually Jews and Rabbis all over the country who came across the freakish video. The fact that Rabbi Ralph was identified by some as a “Messianic Jewish Rabbi” enraged the real Messianic Jewish rabbis of the country, who felt he gave them a bad name. And even Hebrew Roots leaders from across the nation very speedily went public with strong criticism that both his fanciful teachings (much of it made up out of whole cloth) and his use of the Torah as a gimmick in such an outlandish way brought reproach on the Hebrew Roots movement.

An Assistant Professor of Hebrew Scripture and Homiletics at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia wrote up a detailed rebuttal of 27 of Messer’s claims in the video in a list published on the web by the Huffington Post. Here is a selection of a few from that list. See the whole list on the Huffington Post website.

  • The claim that Holocaust Torahs cannot be insured “because there are no more” is patently false. They are regularly insured as are other one of a kind objects d’art, i.e. the works of Picasso.
  • The Torah cover is not a “foreskin.” Hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualization of the Torah reduces the holy Torah to a problematic phallic symbol — God’s? or Long’s? — and categorizes the most destructive behaviors associated with New Birth ministries in recent years. Grammatically and symbolically, the Torah is feminine in Hebrew and is personified as “She,” as in “She is a Tree of Life,” in Prov. 3:18.
  • The Temple in Jerusalem was not a synagogue or Beth Midrash, where Torah scrolls were kept and studied.
  • The Torah wrapper is not referred to as a “belt of righteousness.”
  • The tree in the vision in the book of Revelation whose “leaves are for the healing of the nations,” (22:2), is a fruit tree — not a Torah scroll — and the text does not say that there are “39 leaves” as claimed in the video.
  • The claim that “only one of great authority” is given a “finger” to touch the scroll is patently false. Any bar or bat mitzvah, girl or boy, woman or man, who has completed the rite of passage, can chant the Torah according to the (minhag) custom in their congregation. Torah scroll pointers, called “hands,” (yadayim), not “fingers” are common gifts and possessions in Jewish families and communities.
  • The claim that 90 percent of the Jews in the world have “never seen, approached or touched” Torah scrolls is utterly without foundation. The Torah is taken out of the Ark during Shabbat and other services; it is processed through the assembly twice where people reverence it (Her!) by touching and kissing it/Her.
  • The frequent references to significant numbers may be an attempt to mimic the Jewish mystical tradition of Gematria that elicits meanings from numbers and their contexts. The speaker [Messer] is devising his own system without reference to any of the classical texts in Judaism, frequently by simple free- and word-association.

After the firestorm of complaints from Atlanta area Jewish rabbis, Bishop Eddie Long issued a public apology to anyone who was “offended” by the incident, indicating he sure didn’t mean to disrespect the Torah or Judaism. And he added that he didn’t really think of himself as a King, even though he had done nothing to stop the events as they played out in his church that morning.

Rabbi Ralph later issued his own long-winded video “explanation” of what had happened, falling all over himself trying to explain that when he said he was declaring Eddie a “king,” and had him carried on the shoulders of those men and paraded around to the cheers of his congregation …  he didn’t really mean it. Sort of. Kind of. (I’ve not seen RR offer any explanation for all the many phony, invented “Hebrew Roots” statements he made during the event.)

Bottom Line

As Ralph got ready to wrap up Eddie, he stated, “I have dual citizenship in Israel, on behalf of the Jewish people, the land of Israel, and the God of Israel, I wanna make a presentation.”

Usually when one says that they come “on behalf of” someone else, they mean that that “someone else” has asked them to be a spokesman. But it would seem from the response to the video by “the Jewish people” that he certainly wasn’t speaking on their behalf, much less the “land of Israel,” during that “coronation” ceremony.

And I am personally positive that he was not speaking on behalf of, in the name of, nor at the request of the God of Israel.

The Bible is very clear about not “taking the name of the Lord in vain.” I am convinced that Rabbi Ralph stepped WAY over that clear line in this instance.

If you’d like to see the whole ceremony, it is available online here.

(Be patient … it may take a while to load.)

Posted in Religious personalities | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Strange Bedfellows, Episode 6: Revisiting the Black Bapticostal Bishop

(Be sure to read the earlier episodes in this series before you get to this one: The Black Bapticostal Bishop, Yogis, Swamis—and Rabbis, Have Shofar, Will Travel,  Have Torah, Will Travel, and Doin’ the Torah Wave.)

When we last met Black Bapticostal Bishop Eddie Long of Atlanta, his rising star in the Black Bapticostal galaxy was becoming a tad tarnished.

In 2009, his ministry was one of six that came under scrutiny of a Senate investigation into the finances of megachurch/megaministry pastors or televangelists, questioning if and/or how much they might be using non-profit ministry funds to finance personal lavish lifestyles.

In October 2011 a number of the parishioners in his 20,000+ New Birth Missionary Baptist congregation were bringing suit against him for persuading them to invest in what ended up being “little more than a fraudulent Ponzi scheme.” At least a million dollars of their retirement savings had been wiped out in the fiasco that began in October 2009 when Bishop Eddie had introduced them to a financial con man.

But by October 2011 this Ponzi Problem, and even the Senate investigation, had turned out to be minor blips on the Problem Radar for Bishop Eddie. You may remember from Episode 1 of this series that B.E. (married to second wife Vanessa, and the father of four sons) had been prominent for years in the anti-gay movement: “In 2004, he led a march with Bernice King to her father’s Atlanta grave to support a national constitutional amendment to protect marriage ‘between one man and one woman.’” So imagine the surprise of his supporters and admirers in September 2010 when they awoke to media reports of the following, as chronicled on Wikipedia:

On September 21 and 22, 2010, Maurice Robinson, Anthony Flagg, and Jamal Parris filed separate lawsuits in DeKalb County Superior Court alleging that Long used his pastoral influence to coerce them into a sexual relationship with him.

On September 24, Spencer LeGrande, a member of a New Birth satellite church in Charlotte, North Carolina, filed a similar suit, making him the fourth man to file a lawsuit claiming sexual misconduct by Long. The plaintiffs state that Long placed the men on the church’s payroll, bought them cars and other gifts, and took them separately on trips to destinations such as Kenya, South Africa, Turks and Caicos Islands, Trinidad, Honduras, New Zealand, and New York City. The lawsuits stated that Long would “discuss the Holy Scripture to justify and support the sexual activity.” Flagg’s suit claims that Long presided over a “covenant” ceremony between the two of them; Flagg’s attorney said that the ceremony was “essentially a marriage ceremony, with candles, exchange of jewelry, and biblical quotes.”

Long denied the allegations through his attorneys and spokesman. In a prepared statement, Long said, “I have devoted my life to helping others and these false allegations hurt me deeply.[…]But my faith is strong and the truth will emerge. All I ask for is your patience as we continue to categorically deny each and every one of these ugly charges.”

The allegations were that Long had begun showing a very special, personal interest in each of them when they were in youth programs of the Church before they were of “legal age” for sex in Georgia, but had then waited until they were of age to actually make the sexual advances. A few days after the fourth man’s accusations were filed, Long spoke on a Sunday morning to his congregation:

There have been allegations and attacks made on me. I have never in my life portrayed myself as a perfect man. But I am not the man that’s being portrayed on the television. That’s not me. That is not me.

By the counsel of my lawyers, they have advised me not to try this case in the media. I am not gon’ try this case in the media. It will be tried in the court of justice and dealt with in the court of justice and please understand because that’s the only place I think I’ll get justice, but being in the hands of God.

Please hear this. Please hear this: I’ve been accused. I’m under attack. I want you to know, as I said earlier, I am not a perfect man. But this thing I’m gon’ fight.

And I want you to know one other thing. I feel like David against Goliath, but I’ve got five rocks and I haven’t thrown one yet.

He punctuated with emphasis his plans later that day:

At a media conference afterward, Long made a short statement with his attorney by his side but did not take questions.

During the brief press conference, Long said, “I am going to fight, fight very vigorously.”

But something happened between September 2010 and May 2011. Long never did toss even one those rocks (an obvious reference to David’s “five smooth stones” readied against Goliath.) Nor did he fight … not vigorously, and, in fact, not at all. As the Wiki article linked above notes:

 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on May 27, 2011, that the lawsuits were settled out-of-court; terms were undisclosed. Later reports indicated that although not a plaintiff, there was a potential fifth accuser who participated in the settlement discussions.

Yes, indeed, there was a fifth accuser.

In the midst of the case, just as a settlement was being discussed, [Centino] Kemp, who was never a member of the church and lived in Florida and North Carolina, appeared in Atlanta, joined the suit “unofficially,” and received $94,000 without ever officially becoming an “accuser,” Fox 5 reports.

Kemp had never been a member of the church, but claimed a six-year sexual relationship with Long.

In May of 2011, an out-of-court settlement was reached between Long and his accusers in which each was to receive undisclosed sums of money as long as the case was not discussed. Sources estimate the cost of the settlement to have been around $15 million.

Yes, Kemp joined the private discussions “unofficially,” but never filed suit. Yet still got some “settlement money.” Many wondered why his presence would have such influence. Others didn’t wonder at all, especially after seeing Kemp’s photo…

And the photo of the Tatoo on Kemp’s wrist…

One source says Centino Kemp, who was raised in the Bahamas, met Bishop Eddie Long years ago during a visit to New Birth while he was a teenage student in a Florida college.

The relationship meant enough for him to tattoo Eddie Long’s name on his wrist, followed by the words, “Never a Mistake, Always a Lesson.”

Early on in the scandal, most New Birth Missionary Baptist parishioners were adamant that their bishop couldn’t possibly have been involved in any same-sex hanky-panky. That position became a little harder to defend when the lawyer for the accusers soon released some interesting photos that Bishop Eddie had sent to the young men via smartphone—

It’s a little difficult to picture most Baptist pastors feeling a need to send Spandex Beefcake pics of themselves in their bathroom to young male parishioners. Especially a pastor who seemed to love really, really modest clerical robes …

Evidently his wife Vanessa (shown above) thought that a bit difficult too, especially after the settlement with the accusers. In December 2011, she filed for divorce. It’s not possible to get inside the mind of a woman in such circumstances, so it’s not possible to conclude why, a few months later, in February 2012 she withdrew the filing.

Maybe remembering those pathetic faces Eddie often put on at church during the height of the scandal finally made her feel pity.

Then again, she withdrew her filing “without prejudice” … meaning she could re-file it any time at will.

Given Bishop Eddie’s lack of candor about this exceedingly compromising set of circumstances, from start to finish, his next entry into the Internet Circus World via a viral Youtube video came as a real surprise to most folks. The video, made on January 29, 2012, at a New Birth church service, showed a bizarre ceremony in which pseudo-Messianic Jewish Rabbi Ralph declared the “Kingship” of Bishop Eddie “Spandex Beefcake” Long.

Strange Bedfellows indeed!

Stay tuned for the Rest of the Story of this Dubious Duo in the next episode of this saga.


Posted in Religious personalities | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Strange Bedfellows, Episode 5: Doin’ the “Torah Wave”

(Be sure to read the earlier episodes in this series before you get to this one: The Black Bapticostal Bishop, Yogis, Swamis—and Rabbis, Have Shofar, Will Travel, and Have Torah, Will Travel)

One of my favorite 1970s movies (after Star Wars:A New Hope and Raiders of the Lost Ark) was the Frisco Kid. Although one of the stars was Harrison Ford, it wasn’t as heart-poundingly exciting as those other two movies. Nor was it terribly profound. It was just a rollicking, heartwarming portrait of an odd friendship. For those who may have missed it, here’s the quicky version of the plot from Wikipedia.

The Frisco Kid is a 1979 movie directed by Robert Aldrich. The movie is a Western comedy featuring Gene Wilder as Avram Belinski, a Polish rabbi who is traveling to San Francisco, and Harrison Ford as a bank robber who befriends him.

Aldrich was a long-established director by this time, having directed such classic movies as The Dirty Dozen and the Flight of the Phoenix. Wilder was an established actor, most recently famous for the 1974 spoof films Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. And of course there was Harrison, who had come a long way in a short time by then from his movie debut in a supporting role in the 1973 film American Graffiti.

Rabbi Avram Belinski arrives in Philadelphia from Poland en route to San Francisco where he will be a congregation’s new rabbi. He has with him a Torah scroll for the San Francisco synagogue. Avram, an innocent, trusting and inexperienced traveler, falls in with three con men, the brothers Matt and Darryl Diggs and their partner Mr. Jones, who trick him into helping pay for a wagon and supplies to go west, then brutally rob him and leave him and most of his belongings scattered along a deserted road.

Still determined to make it to San Francisco, Avram fends for himself on foot for a while, spends a little time with some Pennsylvania Dutch (whom he takes for Jews at first), and manages to find work on the railroad. On his way, he is befriended and looked after by a stranger named Tommy Lillard (Ford), a bank robber with a soft heart who is moved by Avram’s helplessness and frank personality, despite the trouble it occasionally gives him. For instance, when Tommy robs a bank on a Friday, he finds that Avram (an orthodox Jew) does not ride on the Sabbath—even with a posse on his tail. With some luck and lenience, however, they still manage to get away. While traveling together, the two also experience American Indian customs and hospitality, disrupt a monk order’s vow of silence with an innocent gesture of gratitude, and learn a little about each other’s culture.

While stopping in a small town not too far of San Francisco, Avram and Tommy encounter the Diggs brothers and Jones again and take back what they have stolen from Avram. In revenge, the three bandits follow them and ambush them at the Californian beach. Avram experiences a crisis of faith when he is forced to shoot Darryl Diggs in self-defense, but it is Tommy who brings him back to the path by reminding him that he still is what he is inside. When Matt Diggs, the sole survivor of the ambush, prepares to kill Avram in revenge and Tommy springs to his friend’s defense, Avram regains his composure and courage and exiles Diggs from San Francisco. The story ends happily with Avram marrying one of the daughters of the head of the Jewish community, with Tommy attending the ceremony as his best man.

I was really excited back in 1979 when The Frisco Kid was advertised, because it would give me a chance to see Harrison again! So one fine day my eight year old daughter Ramona and I set off to the theater to see it.

However, it was almost 20 years later before I actually GOT to see it!

Ramona and I got our popcorn and settled into our seats to watch the previews. We were both feelin’ fine, having a cheery mother/daughter outing. And then the previews were over and the feature film started. Within the first twelve minutes of the film, you were introduced to lovable little Avram, grew to find his bumbling gentleness endearing—and then watched him be beaten to a pulp in the back of a fast-moving covered wagon by one of those con men mentioned above. Now mind you, this film was touted as a hilarious comedy. But it sure didn’t start out very humorously.

About that time I looked over at Ramona and she was looking odd. She mumbled to me that she wasn’t feeling very good. I looked back up at the screen. A bleeding Avram was on the floor of the wagon, and the bad guy started grabbing all his worldly goods one by one, giving them a quick once-over, and tossing most out the back of the racing wagon. Finally he picked up an object wrapped in a cloth, and unwrapped it … revealing the Torah Scroll. He shook his head in scorn at it, pulled off the silver crown-shaped medallion on a silver chain that was hung around it and put it on himself like a necklace. He then grinned at what he obviously just considered cowboy bling, and carelessly tossed the scroll itself out of the back of the wagon.

At that instant, Ramona tugged at my sleeve and spoke more forcefully, telling me that she felt faint. Reluctantly, as I was engrossed in the movie plot, I ushered her out to the lobby. There she sat down on the floor, put her head between her legs, and fainted for a few seconds. When she came to, I gathered her up and we headed home. In later discussions she expressed that the images on the screen of the gentle Wilder being treated so horribly, and especially his reaction of horror to the Torah being tossed, just overwhelmed her emotions.

Ramona had been brought up understanding what Jewish people believe, and knew what a Torah Scroll was, and its significance to them. At age eight, I’m not sure exactly how clear all of it was in her mind theologically, but she sure understood the emotional component of the faith.

Even after seeing the movie finally in later years, I didn’t fully focus on the role that the Torah scroll played in the movie. I was therefore fascinated by this article about the movie that I found today on a Jewish webpage of the “Kosher Comedy Community” titled “25 Essential Jewish Movies.”

The Frisco Kid makes sure to stress and remind that we are also watching the perilous but ultimately sanctified journey of a Sefer Torah [Torah scroll]. In fact, the scrawny, meekly robed Torah scroll which was given to Avram to deliver into the eager arms of a modern, wealthy San Francisco kehila [community], is likely the most compelling, enigmatic character in the film. While Tommy  is a hollering, fuming patented Harrison Ford cliché, and Avram, while gracefully and memorably portrayed by Wilder, is nothing more than well executed extended shtick, it is the Torah which infuses an exceptional ruach chaim [spiritual life] into what otherwise would have been an amusing if inelegant affair.

Throughout the film, Elias and Shaw make sure that the Torah remains an integral focal point, not just lifeless cargo being hauled from Europe to America. Whether cruelly abused and degraded, or functioning as a divine protector, the Torah, and surely the God it stands for, is depicted with an awesome reverence and represented by a overwhelmingly sacred mystery. To that end, The Frisco Kid is, all pratfalls and tuchus [rear-end] jokes aside, the quintessential “Torah “movie.

See the clip from the movie when Avram retrieves his scroll after being thrown from the wagon himself:

There are many movies about Torah observant Jews, some good some bad, but Aldrich’s movie allows the Torah to speak for itself. And its voice is silence, its dress is modest, but its effect is reverberatingly powerful.

Yes, we see and respect Avram for refusing to ride a horse on Shabbos until the sun goes down (which is not exactly halachically correct [according to Jewish traditional legal understanding]), even though a posse is in hot pursuit. But we’ve seen such things before. However, when Avram is tied to a stake and being lowered into burning embers as an Indian Chief holds the book aloft threateningly inquiring whether Avram would sacrifice his life for Torah, and Avram answers he would and closes his eyes (which, again, is not exactly halachically correct), that is something special.

See this dramatic scene with the Indians:

Wrapped up in a chaotic, strange, and dusty film whose existence defies all logic is something we as Jews vaguely recognize as eternal.

I share all that to emphasize that the average Jewish rabbi—even a fictional Jewish rabbi in a comedy movie—treats Torah scrolls with the greatest respect and care.

And I emphasize that so that you will perhaps understand how radically different today’s leading actor in the Strange Bedfellows series behaves. As mentioned in an earlier installment, “Rabbi” Ralph Messer is often invited to speak to large charismatic Protestant congregations to introduce them to the “Hebrew Roots of the Faith.” It is obvious that the invitations come specifically because he is promoted as a “Messianic Jewish Rabbi,” so surely he knows all about Judaism and its profundities.

So have a look at how HE treats the Torah in the video clip below, using it as part of a gimmick one Internet wag dubbed “The Torah Wave.”

This is typical Rabbi Ralph. He claims to “collect” Torah scrolls, particularly ones “rescued from the Holocaust.” (He seems to imply that they were found in ditches or shallow pits outside Auschwitz or other concentration camps, where they were “hidden” by Jews before they were incarcerated … an idea spurned by some Jewish historians.) He evidently brings along a scroll to many of the presentations he gives, sometimes giving one away to the pastor of the ministry he is visiting.

And as you will see, he talks about the scrolls at times in a very flippant way … for instance, describing his Scroll of the Day at the event shown in the video with the comments, “This particular scroll is not a Holocaust scroll, but this baby is my favorite—I’ll tell you what!—because this is an Ethiopian scroll. It’s just short of 400 years old.” Somehow I just cannot picture Rabbi Avram holding up his beloved scroll in the movie and exclaiming to the Indians—“Have a look at this baby—ain’t it grand!”

I can only assume RR is mentioning this as his favorite scroll at this particular event because … he is speaking at an African-American congregation. And Ethiopia is in Africa. He later mentions that this event is taking place on Simchat Torah… the day after the biblical Feast of Tabernacles, which translates from the Hebrew as “Rejoicing of the Law.”

Have a look…

Don’t forget, he was claiming this scroll is almost 400 years old, but the most he would say as it is flipped around the room was “be careful you don’t tear it.” He is definitely encouraging them to finger it and lift it over their heads with their bare hands … oily fingers and all.

And at one point he says, “On Simchat Torah we do this traditionally, on Simchat Torah.” The implication of that statement, of course, is that “we” means “we, the Jews” … since he regularly identifies himself as a Jew … without ever coming out and defining what that means.

But this is not true. Such an event would never take place in a Jewish synagogue on Simchat Torah or any other day. Jews who have watched this video have been aghast at the way the Torah is being treated … as one truly Jewish Messianic put it about Messer’s Torah tricks, “The Torah is not a prop, like a banner in a charismatic worship service, and Judaism is not a toy box for Christians to rifle through.”

But rifle through it he does. As he performs this sort of schtick, RR keeps up a running patter of what his audience assumes are “facts” about “Hebrew/Jewish Roots.” For instance, on this tape you hear him claim that a Torah Scroll is created from “39 sheep skins,” and connect that to the 39 stripes Jesus received in the beating before His crucifixion, as if there is some sort of deep, deliberate, spiritual and prophetic “Christian” significance to the details of the construction of a physical Torah scroll. But this claim about the number of skins is not true. It’s a Hebrew Roots Urban Legend. I don’t know if RR borrowed it from another pseudo-rabbi, or invented it out of whole … parchment.

As we will see in a later episode in this series, he has a whole lot more Urban Legends where that one comes from.

But before we get to that, in the next episode of this series we are going to re-visit that Black Bapticostal Bishop we met in the first installment.

(By the way, Ramona herself finally got around to watching The Frisco Kid once she was an adult—and much more jaded about sitting through movie violence. And she knows that Avram got back his beloved Torah Scroll—and got a pretty wife too in the end! Frisco Kid is now one of her favorite classic movies.)

Posted in Religious personalities | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Strange Bedfellows, Episode 4: Have Torah, Will Travel

(Be sure to read the earlier episodes before you get to this one: The Black Bapticostal Bishop, Yogis, Swamis—and Rabbis, and Have Shofar, Will Travel. )

Back in the 1800s in the US, a number of Christian organizations attempted active evangelism efforts to convert Jews, and to pull together Jewish people who had accepted Jesus Christ as savior into congregations for fellowship and worship. Depending on the theology of the group doing the pulling, these congregations may have been identical to the average non-Jewish churches—meeting on Sundays, observing Christmas and Easter rather than biblical holydays such as Passover and Yom Kippur, and ignoring concern about such matters as eating pork. Or, on the other hand, they may have primarily maintained their Jewish customs and traditions, including meeting on the seventh day Sabbath, avoiding pork and shellfish, celebrating the standard Jewish holydays… and just added belief in Jesus as the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.

Historical records indicate some success for a few of these movements at least for a time during the 19th century. But by the early 20th century there was a very small presence of such congregations in the country.

One of the main groups involved in such evangelism was the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America.

In the 1890s, immigrant Jews who converted to Christianity established the “Hope of Israel” mission on New York’s Lower East Side while retaining Jewish rites and customs.In 1895, Hope of Israel’s Our Hope magazine carried the subtitle “A Monthly Devoted to the Study of Prophecy and to Messianic Judaism.” Hope of Israel was controversial: other missionary groups accused its members of being Judaizers, and one of the two editors of Our Hope magazine, Arno C. Gaebelein, eventually repudiated his views, and, as a result, was able to become a leader in the mainstream Christian evangelical movement.In 1915, when the Hebrew Christian Alliance of American (HCAA) was founded, it “consistently assuaged the fears of fundamentalist Christians by emphasizing that it is not a separate denomination but only an evangelistic arm of the evangelical church”, and insisted that it would be free of these Judaizing practices “now and forever”.

The HCAA changed its name to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America in 1975. And it seemed to have strayed from being totally free of what had earlier been labeled “Judaizing practices,” as by the 1970s many affiliated congregations were openly retaining their Jewish customs. The MJAA website makes it clear that this is totally acceptable these days:

Should Jews really attempt to assimilate into churches and forego their Jewish identity when they choose to put their faith in the Jewish Messiah? Messianic Judaism answers, “No!”

As Yeshua Himself embraced His Jewishness, Messianic Jews seek to embrace theirs, by meeting in congregational communities with other Jewish believers and by maintaining a Biblically Jewish expression of their faith. Every congregation is different, but this expression often means worshiping in Hebrew, following Mosaic Law, dancing as King David did before the Lord, and keeping Biblical holidays such as Pesach, Sukkot, or Shavuot.

Also important is Messianic Judaism’s ministry to both the Jewish community and the Christian body of believers. Messianic Jews are part of the larger Body of Messiah throughout the world, and Messianic Jews hope to help all believers in Yeshua to better understand the Jewish roots of their faith. Finally, Yeshua declared that no-one can comes to the Father – the God of Israel – except through Him (John 14:6). Messianic Jews seek to share this way, this truth, and this life with their Jewish brothers and sisters.

The HCAA (later MJAA) was for many years the primary organized voice of Messianic Judaism in the US. In 1979 it was joined by another active, organized group, the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations.

The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) envisions Messianic Judaism as a movement of Jewish congregations and groups committed to Yeshua the Messiah that embrace the covenantal responsibility of Jewish life and identity rooted in Torah, expressed in tradition, and renewed and applied in the context of the New Covenant. Messianic Jewish groups may also include those from non-Jewish backgrounds who have a confirmed call to participate fully in the life and destiny of the Jewish people. We are committed to embodying this definition in our constituent congregations and in our shared institutions. …

The UMJC is a family of congregations working together to initiate, strengthen, and multiply like-minded groups. For nearly 25 years, we have been instrumental in establishing congregations that honor Yeshua as Messiah and maintain the rich traditions of Jewish worship and family life, in such diverse Jewish communities as Pittsburgh, Hartford, CT, Boca Raton, FL, and Almaty, Kazakhstan, in Central Asia. With the help of friends and supporters like you, we are continuing this effort as this grass-roots movement for Jesus as Messiah spreads among the Jewish people throughout the world.

For the purposes of this blog entry, it is useful to know what the UMJC defines as a Messianic Jewish congregation, eligible for affiliation with their organization:

…The applying congregation shall have at least 10 Messianic Jewish members* (By definition, a Messianic Jew is a Jewish person who has repented and received Messiah Yeshua as his or her own personal atonement.)

Note that these congregations are intended to primarily actually BE Messianic JEWISH. That is, made up of people who have a family background in the Jewish culture. It is true that both the MJAA and the UMJC do accept into fellowship people without such a background, non-Jews, who are attracted for whatever reason to want to become immersed in the Jewish-style worship and study found in affiliated congregations.  But the prime directive of both from their inception has been to reach out to Jewish people, bring the knowledge of Jesus as the Messiah to them, and if they accept Him as savior, bring them into the fold of a Messianic Jewish congregation. They hope to convince them that they can become a believer in Jesus the Messiah (Yeshua ha Mashiach) and yet remain truly Jewish.

But something unexpected has happened in the past couple of decades. More and more people who at one time labeled themselves as “Christian” have decided that something was missing in their worship life, and in their Bible study. And many have concluded that what was missing was an understanding and embracing of what is now commonly called the “Hebrew Roots of the Christian Faith.”

In the earliest years of this phenomenon, it would have been typical for such people to seek out Messianic Jewish congregations and rabbis to feed their interest. But once it became obvious that there was a market for such teaching and practice, a whole “cottage industry” has grown up to promote “Hebrew Roots teachings.” And a significant proportion of those offering to feed this interest are now people with no “Jewish roots” in their own lives at all. They are former Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and more who have done their own independent study into these matters and hung out a shingle claiming the title “rabbi.”

The general public, however, is usually oblivious to this distinction. If someone comes to some small town in Alabama to offer a three-day set of seminar sessions on Hebrew Roots, and calls himself Rabbi Yehuda (whose original name was Billy Bob Cracker), the local newspaper will often feature a little write-up about him, dubbing him a “Messianic Jewish Rabbi.” Such teachers seldom bother to set the record straight. Having the exotic aura of a Jewish rabbi, complete with headcovering, prayer shawl, and maybe even blue tassels hanging off his belt loops, affords him greater credibility with the crowds than admitting he is actually just Billy Bob from Biloxi, a former Baptist with a new stage name. You might say this is a bit like the pseudo-Hindu gurus we discussed in an earlier segment of this series…

Frank Jones from Brooklyn is now “god-man Adi Da,” Fred Lenz was called “Zen Master Rama,” a former New York housewife Joyce Green calls herself “Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati,” Mike Shoemaker became “Swami Chetananada” and Donald Waters became “Swami Kriyananda,” just to name a few.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with teaching about the Hebrew Roots of the Christian faith … IF by that one means explaining Jewish customs in the time of Jesus in a way that will make Jesus’ actions and teachings clearer. Or explaining the spiritual significance to Christians of the Holy Days and Feasts that were introduced by God in the Old Testament, such as Passover and Pentecost, and how they clearly point to Jesus.

Then again, one doesn’t need to be a “rabbi,” Messianic or otherwise, to teach about these biblical things. Almost any good Bible commentary will offer extensive insight into such matters. The NIV Study Bible, for instance, includes a chart clearly outlining the significance of the annual biblical Feasts and Holy Days as they relate to Jesus. The chart includes a listing of Old and New Testament scriptures related to these observances. Many reference works on “Bible times and customs” clearly cover such topics as phylacteries and Temple sacrifices and how first century Jews observed the Feast of Tabernacles.

But admitting one got one’s teachings from Today’s Handbook of Bible Times & Customs from the local Christian book store doesn’t build an audience for these pseudo-rabbinical types. It is important to keep that aura of exotic, esoteric knowledge that many naïve Christians assume “only a rabbi could know.” So to make sure they are a viewed as a cut above the rest, many of these fellows tend to, putting it politely, embellish reality a bit. Or maybe a lot more than a bit.

Before I go on, let me make it clear that not ALL speakers/teachers/writers who label their ministries “Hebrew Roots” are guilty of this sort of deception. You can see an extensive overview of this movement on my Field Guide website, that sorts out the various types of leaders and teachings in this movement. I merely suggest here … let the buyer beware.

This is particularly significant because the Hebrew Roots movement has moved from the fringes of Christianity in recent years to a spot center-stage. Particularly in Charismatic circles. Hebrew Roots teachers thrive on Jan and Paul Crouch’s Trinity Broadcasting Network. And around the country, charismatic pastors often invite Hebrew Roots rabbis as guest speakers in their churches. Some authors have even decided that the Hebrew Roots movement is the “Fourth Wave” of the Charismatic movement. (The first wave was the early Pentecostals, the second the “mainstreaming” of Pentecostal ideas becoming the Charismatic movement, the third was the “signs and wonders/power evangelism/modern apostles and prophets” movement.)

And thus we arrive at the focus of this blog entry about Strange Bedfellows: “Rabbi” Ralph Messer.

As with many such teachers, Rabbi Ralph isn’t very forthcoming about how he arrived at the title Rabbi. There is no question that he was not brought up Jewish—best I have been able to track down is he was a Catholic altar boy in his youth. Nor did he study in any sort of Rabbinical School, Messianic or otherwise. He says nothing about his religious background, education, or training on the website of his ministry, “Simchat Torah Beit Midrash.” (Hebrew words Ralph defines as “The Joy of God’s Teaching and Instruction/House of Study.”) The only background on the site is this: “Prior to entering the ministry full-time as a Pastor and Teacher – “Rabbi”, he was a Regional Vice President for a Fortune 500 company, specializing in Accounting, Business Administration, and Finance.”

Regional Vice President/Rabbi Ralph has become a fixture in some Charismatic/evangelical circles, where he travels around at the invitation of pastors of large church congregations to instruct their flock in the topic of Hebrew Roots. I’ve heard some of what Rabbi Ralph says at such meetings. Perhaps sometimes he shares “truth” from the Bible. But from what I’ve heard he seems to dabble a lot in sharing … nonsense, posing as truth. Particularly posing as “Jewish” truth. In so doing, he’s got himself in a lot of hot water with actual Messianic Jews, with Orthodox Jews, and even with some other Hebrew Roots teachers.

RR seems to specialize in indulging in a schtick (a Jewish term for a sort of stage gimmick) that involves bringing a Torah Scroll along with him to Christian meetings and using it as a flashy prop to punctuate his message. Sometimes he claims the scrolls were “rescued from the Holocaust” and/or that they are hundreds of years old.

A Torah Scroll is a handwritten copy in Hebrew of the first five books of the Bible, inscribed on treated animal skins (parchment) that are sewn together and rolled up and covered with a case (mantel) that is usually made of velvet. Producing such a scroll in modern times may cost from $20,000 to $40,000 and take up to a year and a half of work by a trained sofer (scribe.)

In a regular Jewish synagogue, the Torah Scroll is then placed in an “ark” at the front of the synagogue and brought out on worship occasions. Synagogues may have one or more Torah Scrolls in their ark.

At times when the Torah is brought out for reading, it is common for it to be paraded, still in its case, around the room. As it passes, those nearby will touch the case with their hands or perhaps with a prayer book or the corner of their prayer shawl, and then kiss their hand or the object, as a gesture of love and respect. The scroll is then returned to the front of the room, placed on a table, and opened. The ones doing the reading do not touch the scroll with their hands, as the skin oils would eventually deteriorate it. Instead, they use a little hand-shaped pointer called a yad (“hand”) to move across the page as they read. At the end of the reading, the open Torah is lifted and turned toward the congregation, and then rolled up, shrouded in its covering, and returned to the Ark.

I share all that to let you know that the average Jew treats Torah Scrolls with the greatest respect and care.

Rabbi Ralph has a different style, which will be examined in the next episode in this series.

Posted in Religious personalities | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments