Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Barack Obama’s Kvitel

It takes real Chutzpa to do what this Yeshiva student did. After the Obama entourage left the Kotel Plaza, he snuck over to the Kotel and dug out Obama’s Kvitel selling or giving it to a news organization.

Last week during his public relations tour of the Middle East Barack Obama did what every other dignitary does when visiting the State of Israel. He put a Kvitel into the Kotel. For those who don’t know what a Kvitel is - it is a note usually given to a Chasidic Rebbe asking for blessings or specific prayers to God on an individual’s behalf. In this case the notes are written directly to God and tucked into the cracks of the Kotel. This is a custom that I believe originated with Chasidim and has gained wide acceptance by many non Chasidim, non religious Jews, and even non Jews.

Not that I think there is any value in writing a note to God and sticking it into the Kotel. In fact I am opposed to this practice since it tends to undermine it structurally when you have thousands of people stuffing things into its cracks. There are some Poskim - and if I understand correctly, Rav Ahron Soloveichik was among them - who feel that it is even forbidden to touch the wall or be anywhere near it. According to them people violate Halacha just by being there.

But even putting that aside, does anyone think that putting a piece of paper into a crack in a wall - no matter how holy that wall might be –is any better than direct prayer to God? It is said that the Shechina – God’s holy presence – has never left. But so what? Does God need all his requests in writing? … folded and placed into a wall?

Be that as it may - Barack Obama put a Kvitel into the Kotel. He took a sheet of stationary from the King David hotel and wrote a brief prayer asking God for forgiveness and guidance. I’m pretty sure this was more of a PR stunt than anything else. Last time I checked Kvittlach (plural for Kvitel) was not a Christian religious practice. But all politicians do it. Even the Pope did it. It makes for great TV.

When the Pope did it, it was immediately taken out and put into an Israeli Museum, if I recall correctly. I believe his message - written on official Papal stationery - was a wish for peace.

I doubt that the contents of Obama’s note was meant to be kept private. I actually heard a report on the radio saying that his campaign had always intended to make it public. And why wouldn’t they? It was a great note that showed Obama to be a man of religion, and deep humility.

The problem, however is not the motives of the Obama campaign. It is the audacity of a Yeshiva student to once again to do something that makes Orthodox Jews look bad.

I just don’t understand what motivates people like this. What do they think they accomplish? How do they think this looks to the world? Are they not concerned that Yeshiva students will be seen as petty thieves - or uncaring exploiters of opportunity? Would he have done that if the note were inserted by a Chasidic Rebbe, or any Frum Jew?

He called it a prank and apologized. Fine. I’m sure that very few Yeshiva students would have done something like this. They probably realize that there is Chilul HaShem involved.

But the story should not end there. We need to ask why he felt it is OK to do that to a non Jew and at the same time would never consider doing that to a religious Jew? Was it to embarrass Obama? To show that religious Jews don’t support him? What was he thinking?

And how many people feel this is OK even if they wouldn’t have dared to do it themselves? How many people smirked when they heard about it?