The Absurdity of Paper Prayers at the Western Wall
In 1974, when Henry Kissinger was pressuring Golda Meir to make concessions in the interest of peace in the Middle East, Golda took him to the Western Wall. Kissinger stood there and was visibly moved. He started to pray. According to an old joke, Kissinger said, “Dear God, I want to thank you for enabling me, a penniless German Jewish refugee, to succeed beyond expectations in the free United States of America.” And Golda said, “Henry, that is a lovely prayer.”
Kissinger continued “Dear God, please protect my patron Richard Nixon and enable him to withstand the political trials he is undergoing.” And again, Golda said, “Henry, that’s a really nice prayer.” Finally, Kissinger turned back to the wall and said, “Dear God, please imbue Golda Meir and her cabinet with the common sense to make concessions and not be stubborn in the pursuit of Israeli interests.” And Golda glowered at him and said, “Henry, remember, that’s only a wall you are talking to!”
I was reminded of that joke in London last week. There were pictures in the press of a prominent a British born Conservative party politician of Muslim parents, Sajid Javid. The photos were taken of him on a visit to Israel, with a kipah on his head, putting a piece of paper into a crack in the Western Wall.
Sajid Javid is a remarkable, multi-talented man. Thanks to his own hard work and brilliance, he has risen high in English political life. He supports Boris Johnson in the race for leadership of the Conservative party. And if Johnson becomes prime minister, Javid is hoping to get one of the top jobs.
I have absolutely no problem with praying. Why, I do it myself! It’s the paper in the Wall that I have problems with. The impression is that this is important in Judaism, when it is, more often than not, just a simplistic if not superstitious ritual. Furthermore, any notable politician visiting Israel is made or encouraged to carry out this performance of the paper in a crack of the Wall, as if this is what defines Israel as a Jewish state and is crucial to the Jewish religion.
What must any reasonable non-Jew think about Judaism if it promulgates this charade of sticking a piece of paper into a wall as a crucial part of its tradition? And it’s no answer to reply that all religions do stuff like this. I know they do. But I expect better from mine. If people think that this is the way to communicate with God, do they think God actually reads the paper rather than their minds? Or that God has to read a request in order to understand it or respond to it?
Sure, writing charms on wood, stone, or paper goes back way before Judaism ever appeared. And although the Talmud rejects superstitious practices as pagan, it is prepared to bend the rules if they work. If you are interested in the origins of such practices, I highly recommend reading Yuval Harari (yes, he of Homo Sapiens).
The Kvitel is a piece of paper that you give to your Rebbe or Chacham’s secretary with your name, the names of your family, and anyone or anything else you want the holy man to know. The secretary hands it to him just before your audience. He may or may not look at it, and then, usually, he gives you a blessing. All Chasidic dynasties do this, and given their massive expansion and influence on Judaism today, you might even say it has become mainstream.
Chabad Lubavitch makes a huge to-do about placing such Kvitelech at the grave of their late much-missed Rebbe. I was recently telling an important Chabad figure how much I admired the Rebbe, and why I thought he was the most impressive Jew of the last generation. To which he replied, “Have you visited his grave?” And when I said that I was not much of a grave visitor, he offered to put a piece of paper there for me and seemed absolutely shocked when I politely declined.
I have visited the Wall countless times over the years, and prayed there often. I recommend midnight when it is not too crowded. I love the sense of being close to the past, to the very stones my ancestors saw and touched. But I have never put a piece of paper there. The whole idea strikes me as ridiculous. Although I do not underestimate the importance of the placebo effect or the psychological benefits of symbolism, what I object to is that this particular piece of theater has now become the most recognizable face of my majestic religion — and that this pantomime is how Israeli leaders or rabbis hope to impress the outside world. And, incidentally, I do not understand why we have to treat the whole area as if it were a synagogue.
I can understand visiting Yad Vashem or graves of notable people and treating them with reverence. Even Karl Marx has one. History is important. Very important. But Judaism has far more significant ways of impressing people than bits of paper. That a marginal, minor ritual should be elevated above all others and that this is what every visiting dignitary is encouraged, if not pushed, to perform is, in my humble opinion, an insult to the grandeur and spiritual integrity of Judaism.
And while on the subject of irrationality: Why does a non-Jew have to wear a kipah altogether even in a synagogue — let alone a historical site? According to Jewish law, there is no such obligation. Indeed, why do Jews visiting the Wall have to put one on either? We have elevated minutiae to become accepted norms, instead of interesting phenomena!
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.