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.
“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.”
This post was originally featured on my Jewish philosophy website, Talis in Wonderland.