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No privacy for Obama's prayer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 25, 2008 - On Thursday at dawn, Sen. Barack Obama wrote a letter to God. He sandwiched it between the ancient beige stones of the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. Shortly after he left, a seminary student rummaged through the Wall, which contains the detritus of worshipers' dreams, and managed to pull out the senator's note.

Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, is considered to be Jerusalem's holiest site. The wall is on the Western side of the Temple Mount, a site that also features the Muslim mosque al-Aqsa. The wall's importance grew from its existence as a symbol of mourning for the second Holy Temple. The wall was built to support Herod's renovation of the temple in 19 BCE. In the First Roman Jewish War in 70 CE, the temple and all of Jerusalem burned. But the Western Wall was spared from destruction.

According to a letter Rabbi Shraga Simmons wrote for Aish.com, the tradition of putting notes between the Wall's stones began in the 18th century. A man named Azulai left Morocco for Israel, charged with putting his rabbi's note in the Wall. Originally, Azulai did not fare well in Israel. One day, he was successful, and a local rabbi asked him what prompted the change. They realized that during Azulai's lonely days in Israel, he put the note in the Wall, and afterward became a renowned scholar. Interestingly enough, this story ends with the rabbi prompting Azulai to remove the letter from the wall. The letter prayed for Azulai's success, and since then, it has been believed that the Wall has a special connection to God. Prayers that lie between its stones are considered to be closer to God than the ones uttered elsewhere.

Millions of people put letters in the wall, so its crevices fill quickly. When this occurs, the letters are removed and buried below ground along with other holy objects that are no longer in use.

Many worshippers from all over the world forgo the privacy that is usually assumed in prayer. Online and fax services print out notes from worshipers who cannot be in Jerusalem, and deliver them to the Wall's crevices.

"The idea of someone violating the privacy of the Wall is like someone taking a letter out of a mailbox and deciding that letter should not go through," said Mark Shook, a rabbi of Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Creve Coeur. "Severe federal laws make it a crime to take a letter out of a postbox."

The note's content -- Obama asks for God to protect his family -- is not controversial or especially noteworthy. Yet its acquisition may be. The Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv posted a picture of the note on its website, in what many religious figures call a violation of Obama's privacy. On the other hand, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot published an article on Friday saying that it had obtained the note but chose not to print its contents. More controversial figures have visited the Wall, but their notes have not been extracted and published.

The Associated Press reprinted the letter, and said that an Obama spokesperson did not verify or deny it. But the handwriting matched Obama's entry in the Holocaust memorial Yad VaShem's guestbook and was written on stationery from his hotel. AP noted that the publication of the letter "drew fire."

On Ma'ariv's website, commenters who wrote in Hebrew largely scorned their news source for exposing the prayer. One even called the revelation a "chutzpah." All local religious leaders and ethicists queried agreed that rummaging through people's personal prayers and publicizing their contents is unethical. But each one emphasized different considerations, caveats and tensions involved in the situation.

Rabbi Gabriel Munk, principal of Orthodox school Block Yeshiva High School pointed out many fables about Western Wall notes falling out and connecting lost family members. But, he said, "I don't know of anyone who has directly pulled a letter out of the wall. It's out of question, inappropriate." Munk added that Ma'ariv should have "known better," speculating that Ma'ariv probably printed the letter to boost sales: "Anything scandalous is good for newspapers."

When informed about the publication of the letter, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation said "It's such a private thing I don't even want to know what it says. I love him and I trust him and I'm sure whatever he prayed for was the right thing." Talve added that though it was "not OK" for the student to remove the note from the wall, "there will be angels out there that make sure that Obama's prayers come true."

Both Talve and the Rev. James Morris of Lane Tabernacle said that their congregations have mechanisms analogous to the wall. In Talve's synagogue, congregants put notes in a wall, and when a person travels to Israel, he or she brings them to the Western Wall. In Lane Tabernacle, congregants put notes in a prayer box. Morris, who deems the publication of the letter a violation of privacy, puts personal attention to requesting his congregants' prayers from God, but "I don't share them, I don't post them, I don't put them in the newsletter."

Patricia Rice, a journalist who has covered religion, has traveled to Israel and said, "This does seem to be an invasion of a man's effort to connect with God. I would think that because this has been stolen, that it will make many more people very hesitant to leave a prayer in the wall."

With Obama's status as a public figure, there has been speculation on blogs that the prayer was a campaign prop. Regardless of Obama's intentions, many say that the  politician knew -- or at least should have known -- that everything he says, writes or does could end up under public scrutiny.

"Obama isn't writing that prayer to have it distributed publicly, and I certainly think that people's prayer life, like their sex lives, are personal matters," said the Rev. Steve Lawler, an Episcopal priest and ethics consultant. But, he added, "It's just part of what you get by being in that role. It shouldn't be completely surprising."

Lawrence Schiffman, Ethel and Irvin A. Edelman Professor in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, also said that the publication of the note should not be surprising. Schiffman said that, while the incident is "unethical," by running for office "you announce that everybody should invade your privacy. Especially in Israel, given the situation in terms of Obama trying to disprove whatever ridiculous negative picture of him circulated by rumors, that isn't about the election."

Stuart Yoak, a business ethicist at Washington University, broke down the situation into two layers: First, that "it's a violation of that confidentiality with God." Second, Yoak said that in terms of Ma'ariv's publication, this situation is not so different from the usual obligation of journalists to balance their obligation of distributing information to help the public with judging what is private or irrelevant. "These issues touch on serious concerns about values that we all have," Yoak said.

Shook said that the values of the situation reflect larger concerns about the Wall's significance. "The whole idea of being in a position to secure access to the Western Wall of the ancient Temple, the ability to control access to it, was part of one of the most important aspects of the Six Day War. Israel would demonstrate power of access for all religious communities. It is a sacrilege to take someone's prayer out of the wall."

Ma'ariv could not be reached by phone prior to the publication of this article.

Joy Resmovits, a rising junior at Barnard College, is an intern at the Beacon.