Gene Wilder and the Theology of Avram Belinsky

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Gene Wilder was not a religious Jew, but he once played one. In the under-rated classic The Frisco Kid (1979) Wilder plays a young rabbi, Avram Belinski, from Poland who is sent to America in the mid-1800s to transport a Torah to a San Francisco synagogue.  Belinsky ends up having a series of misadventures in the Wild West while befriending a tough but kind cowboy played by Harrison Ford.

Belinsky is presented as an un-armed man in a world armed to the teeth. As has been argued elsewhere, Belinsky is a holy shlemiel, a “wise fool” whose innocence and purity of heart (as well as his faithfulness to Shabbat, Torah and Jewish values) save him from pickle after pickle throughout the movie. All of this is somewhat surprising in a late 70s comedic Western. The film’s non-Jewish director, Robert Aldrich, surely deserves credit for this as well as the screenwriters- Michael Elias and Frank Shaw.

The Frisco Kid contains a hidden theological gem in a scene where Belinsky and a Native American chief discuss the nature of the Jewish God. In the preceding scene, which is excellent for its own reasons, Wilder and Ford are captured by a Native American tribe while trying to rescue Wilder’s Torah scroll, which has come into their hands. After they are tied up and brought before the tribe, the Chief comes to inquire who they are. Wilder at first greets him by talking in a condescending pidgeon english, prompting the Chiefly to comment wryly, “You don’t speak english very well.”

Ford breathlessly explains to the Chief, “He’s a holy man Chief, speaks to the spirits every morning and every night, and he’s so good and kind and gentle, just a sweetheart of a man. Why, even when we robbed a bank and the posse was chasing us, he wouldn’t ride on Saturday, no siree, because that’s his holy day he didn’t want to make the spirits angry.”

The Chief asks Wilder what he calls the scroll he has come to rescue, and after the Chief successfully masters Wilder’s yiddishe pronunciation of “Torah” he asks Wilder, “Will you trade your horse for Torah?” Receiving a “yes”, he continues,  “Your horse and your boots? And all of your clothes, and everything else you own?” Wilder replies “yes” each time, prompting the Chief to ask, “Even your knife?”

Wilder says he has no knife, eliciting gasps from the crowd and a curious awe from the Chief. “If I give you back Torah”, the Chief asks, wanting to test his captives spiritual mettle, “Will you purify your soul through fire?”

Wilder ascents and is lowered into the fire, preparing for his death. At the last moment, before he begins to burn, the Chief calls it off and returns to him his precious Torah scroll. “Rabbi With No Knife, you are a brave man”, the Chief concludes. To Ford he cannot resist the aside, “You who talk to Indians like little children, you have a big heart, though not as big as your mouth”. The chief lets them both free and later that night over a celebration where Wilder admires the Indigenous dancing for its freiliche qualities, the Chief pursues the question with him of whether “your God can make rain”. Wilder says his God can make rain, but doesn’t.

“Why not?”, the Chief asks.

“Because that’s not his department!”, cries Wilder in exasperation.

“But if he wanted to he could?”, the Chief presses.

“Yes.”

“What kind of God do you have?!”, the Chief says in bewilderment.

“Don’t say “my God”, he’s your God too!”

“Don’t give him to us, we have enough trouble with our own Gods!”

“But there’s only one God!”, Wilder replies.

“What does he do?”

“He can do anything!”

“Then why can’t he make rain?”

“Because he doesn’t make rain!”, cries Wilder. “He gives us strength when we’re suffering, compassion when all that we feel is hatred, courage when we’re searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness, but HE DOES NOT MAKE RAIN!” Wilder’s sentence is punctuated by a thunderclap and a downpour of rain.

“Of course,” says Wilder, “Sometimes, just like that! He’ll change his mind.”

This hilarious scene portrays a surprisingly deep and moral theology. The God Belinsky speaks of is not a God who is called upon in a quest for power or security. In Belinsky’s theology what is wanted is not land, not safety, not power, not even external peace, but rather moral courage, compassion, and wisdom, and these are the things that God grants.

In Belinsky’s theology the prayer that God answers is the prayer to be more of a mensch. In Belinsky’s view, the prayers that God wants are not those for peace, for protection, or even for healing, but rather those for being kinder, more brave, more wise. As another famous Jew once said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness,  and all other things will be added unto you.”

 

To My Fellow Canadian Jews: Vote Harper Out

Jews For Harper?

Is there a Jewish way to vote? For those who think that Jewish identity is merely a historical or familial reality, the answer would be no. For those who think that there are certain ethical dispositions and even obligations that follow from Jewish history and culture, the answer is “yes”. I believe that both our spiritual history (as the caretakers of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible) and our cultural history (as experiencing first-hand injustice and oppression as a dangerous “other” in many lands and time periods) suggest, and perhaps mandate, that we “defend the widow and the orphan” (Isaiah 1:17), “love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19) and “pursue justice” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Further these are obligations not only within our own community, but outward facing obligations directed towards the societies we sojourn in. As the Torah says, we are to “seek the good of the land where I have sent you (Jeremiah 29:7)” and “be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6)”. Another ancient voice ignored in the past but heard finally today calls us to guard and serve the earth (Genesis 2:15) as God’s stewards.

In light of the above, it is both of great importance that we vote in the coming election and who we vote for. Some voices in the Jewish community will argue for voting for Harper and the Conservative party, mostly on the grounds that Harper has been a staunch friend of the state of  Israel, an embattled country who many Jews everywhere love deeply. Some also no doubt believe that Harper is authentically good for Canada, in most cases on the ground of his economic policies (and on that see: http://t.thestar.com/#/article/opinion/commentary/2015/09/17/harpers-economic-record-the-worst-in-canadas-postwar-history.html). I would like to argue that in fact it is un-Jewish to vote the Conservatives in for another term, and Jews should do whatever they can to vote him out of office.   

As we survey the current Canadian landscape, both metaphorically and literally, one cannot help but shudder. Canada was recently ranked last on environmental protection. In every area we are failing to protect our land for further generations: we are not curbing carbon pollution nearly enough, we are depleting our forests and oceans, and polluting land, air and sea. Harper has consistently sided with business against the environment, a decision which is tantamount to siding with today’s economy against tomorrow’s children (for discussion see: “Crimes Against Ecology: Is the Harper government guilty? You be the Judge”. Alternatives Journal Nov 2013 http://www.alternativesjournal.ca/policy-and-politics/crimes-against-ecology). To sell the air, water, and earth of your children to pay for today’s wealth and comfort is, to put it mildly, not a Jewish value. 

Harper has reduced funding in the science and the arts, impoverishing Canadian culture and weakening the people we need most to navigate many of today’s most pressing problems: our scientists. Beyond merely reducing funding Harper has in fact actively censored Canada’s scientists (Lindsay Abrams, “World’s researchers to Canada: Stop censoring science!” Salon, Oct 21 2014 http://www.salon.com/2014/10/21/worlds_researchers_to_canada_stop_censoring_science/). In reducing the cultural richness and scientific progress of Canadians Harper is in contradiction with the Jewish valuation of arts and knowledge. 

Harper is often seen as a hawk on the issue of foreign terrorism and tyranny, but is this true? Harper claims to protect Canadians from terrorists, yes. His Bill C-51 and his caution towards immigrants should both be greeted with skepticism, however. Bill C-51 also dangerously increases the governments ability to spy on and control its own citizens, activities Harper has shown a marked fondness for. Harper’s  “immigrant caution” is also yet another way of protecting the “haves” from the “have-nots”. What are his true motives, given his government’s over-all pre-occupation with autocratic power and protecting business interests and the rich (Harper’s main supporters)?

Further eroding the image of Harper as “champion of democracy”, the Harper conservatives have sold weapons to human rights violators who kill their own citizens (like Saudi Arabia), defunded the Canadian military to an incredible extent, and drastically reduced Canadian involvement in UN peacekeeping. Though he may be a staunch friend of Israel’s, he has also been a staunch friend of China, whose human rights record continues to be terrifying. Claims that Harper is a “principled statesman” are laughable, unless the principles in question are “make the rich richer” and “seduce important domestic voting blocs” ( see “Harper’s Foreign Policy: Make The Rich Richer” Yves Engler, Huffpost Blog, May 27 2013). One gets the feeling that Harper favors a “circling the wagons” approach to Canadian foreign policy. Where Canadians were previously known for championing international action to protect the vulnerable and further democracy and human rights Harper has largely dismantled that legacy.

Another major policy area where Harper’s government has failed is with regards to First Nations (see “Chiefs urge aboriginal people to vote against Harper government” Gloria Galloway, Globe and Mail Jul 8 2015). As a recent article in the Globe pointed out, the murder rate on some of our reserves is higher than in Somalia, the suicide rate highest in the world. Some reserves lack running water and proper sanitation- conditions a reporter recently called “medieval”. These issues, as well as the just resolution of treaty violations, are a moral obligation for all Canadians. As Jews it is unacceptable for us to sit idly by while so many human beings struggle to recover from the trauma of colonial genocide and ethnocide in dilapidated shtetls while we pretend that they don’t exist.The Harper government has shown a serious lack of vision in this area, and there is no indication that it is a priority for them- in fact an embarassing number of Conservative candidates have been caught showing attitudes ranging from callousness to outright racism. It’s time to listen to Mrs. Universe (the actual person, Ashley Callingbull- see “Mrs Universe calls for First Nations to vote out Harper” Peter Edwards, Toronto Star Sep 1 2015 http://m.thestar.com/#/article/news/canada/2015/09/01/mrs-universe-calls-for-first-nations-to-vote-out-harper.html)). Or if not her, then try Blue Rodeo (“Stealing My Dreams”, http://youtu.be/y3C1SWVquXA).

In addition to the above the last several days have seen Harper cynically play on Canadians fear and bigotry to put the “niqab controversy” in the limelight, winning more votes and support in the process. He has even gone so far as to create a hotline to report “barbaric cultural practices”. Directly following the Conservatives attack on the niqab, there has been an outbreak of public attacks against Muslim women wearing niqabs (http://www.nationalobserver.com/2015/10/05/opinion/harpers-race-card-gambles-womens-safety). Shameful, Mr. Harper.  

The Canada the Conservatives have created is a Canada of oil sands, widening divisions between First Nations and other Canadians, censorship, defunded science and arts, and a future for our children bargained away for the sake of today’s wealth (for some) and a superficial prosperity. David Suzuki recently commented that a re-election for Harper would be “a disaster”. As Jews called to care for justice and the stewardship of the earth entrusted to human beings by God, we must help vote out this government. 

 

 

 

                 

Hanging Gays: Former Chief Rabbi of Russia says Yes. Some thoughts.

One could say quite a lot about the following summary of a hostile secular Russian interview of a priest, Rabbi and Imam. The rabbi does not aquit himself well, to put it mildly. The article (when it discusses hanging gays and IS execution of homosexuals) raises the following question for me: those who oppose secular rights for nonstandard gender behavior, or who advocate censuring it in religious terms, or those who practice it, often back up their claims with speculations about the possible negative social effects of allowing or sanctioning nonstandard gender behavior. The challenge they should all consider is this: we see before our eyes the extreme individual and social dangers of censuring or making illegal these behaviors: ostracisation, psychosocial suffering and even disintegration, and all too often: jail, fines, dangerous medical meddling, beatings, humiliation, and murder. So the burden of proof on those who claim that sanctioning these behaviors will lead to individual or social suffering is great.

PS: some of you may be thinking that this is not a matter for subjective opinion or reasoned argument, but rather of scriptural authority. On that please see here: https://mgindin.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/all-a-horrible-mistake-the-bibles-supposed-condemnation-of-homosexuality/

The article in Tablet:

http://tabletmag.com/scroll/191547/a-chief-rabbi-of-russia-supports-those-who-hang-gays?utm_source=tabletmagazinelist&utm_campaign=060f61fa0f-Monday_June_15_20156_15_2015&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c308bf8edb-060f61fa0f-207210889

“New atheism produces another curiously incurious book”

New Atheism Produces Another Curiously Uncurious Science v. Religion Book

 

Interesting

Why the King James Version of the Bible Remains the Best