Thursday, July 31st, 2008
An interesting footnote to Obama’s letter in the Kotel is not only how relatively new the custom is, beginning in the 1700s, but how dramatically the concept of the Kotel has changed in that time period.
For much of history, the rabbinic sense was that the Kotel had Temple-level sanctity and therefore the Wall shouldn’t even be touched by human hands (as the Temple Mount may not be trod or touched), let alone touched by anyone’s scraps of paper, even if written prayer. The Kotel was considered a site of mourning for the Temple’s destruction, and the tradition of first-time visitors to the “Wailing Wall” was to tear clothes and recite sorrowful Psalms, not write personal letters. (One can’t imagine a politician being asked to rip his expensive suit but that was, for many years, far more of a tradition than writing personal notes).
The 18th century was marked by a rise in chasidic-kabbalist influence emphasizing the ability of the dead to intercede with God on behalf of the living. Chasidim would send written petitions not only to holy men but even to their graves (as Chabad chasidim most famously still do), and the holiest “grave” of all, the ruins of the Temple, became a place for similar written petitions. The chasidic custom was to leave the letters at the grave, like the custom of leaving a stone, a physical remnant of the supplicant, and so notes were left at the Kotel, as well.
The Chabad custom is to rip the notes (to better ensure privacy, as clearly was not the case for Obama at the Kotel), and eventually burn the notes – turning the physical paper into spiritual, as the smoke heavenly ascends.
The rabbinic authorities at the Wall (who gather the notes out of the wall twice a year, before Rosh Hashana and Passover) bury the accumulated notes, as if a worn-out Torah or prayer book, acknowledging the notes’ sanctity, even if the notes were (like Obama’s) not written by a Jew, not written in Hebrew, and do not contain God’s formal name. In either case, the notes at a rebbe’s grave or at the Temple’s grave might as well have been written on parchment.
When the Jews were driven from Jerusalem in 1948, the Kotel was still “the Wailing Wall.” A place for notes, yes, but mourning, too. Then the Wall and its grounds lay fallow. A historical change was in the offing and the area needed a “shmitta” abstinece, of sorts, or the time a bride and groom don’t even see each other in the days before their wedding.
The Wall was liberated in the Six-Day War and it felt like a wedding. It was neo-messianic liberation, with the shofar being blown on the Temple Mount itself.
Almost no one felt the need to “wail” or mourn anymore, not with the first return of Jewish sovereignty over the Wall since the Romans. The custom of stuffing notes and letters into the Wall resumed, but with a 180-degree twist. The Wall became a place not of mourning but of answered prayers, a symbol of renewal and survival.
The lesson? Don’t let anyone tell you that Jews “always did things this way.” Jews think they always left notes at the Wall. They didn’t. And the Jews who thought it proper to mourn, they thought that was as “authentic” as it could get. And it wasn’t that either.
The only thing that stayed the same was that God is always listening and He always reads His mail.