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.)

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