General Topics

Paper in the Wall


In 1974 when Henry Kissinger was pressurizing 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. He 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 Milhouse 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 kipa 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, 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. So that I guess he has every reason to follow Kissinger and pray for his patron at the Wall. 

I have absolutely no problem with praying. Why, I do it myself! It’s the paper in the Wall 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 all the time. 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 responds 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”). His earlier book is called “Jewish magic before the rise of kabbalah.” It you will cure you! But it is indeed Kabbalah and its child Chasidism that has given this paper request act significance and exposure today.

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.

Lubavitch Chabad make 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 ever ever 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 do 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 kipa 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!

8 thoughts on “Paper in the Wall

  1. Lord Ian Livingston of England said:

    “Whilst the Israeli Defense Forces are not
    perfect, the obsession of focusing on them
    despite being the most moral and professional
    army in the Middle East is very strange.”

    SOURCE: Ten Baroness Tonge
    Pilloried at House of Lords Session She Initiated
    on Israel’s Treatment of Palestinian Children

    by Benjamin Kerstein, 2019 July 8

  2. Mr. Stephen M. Flatow [an attorney in New Jersey
    and father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an
    Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995] said:

    “…Israel ended its rule over 98 percent [98%]
    of the Palestinian Arabs back in [year] 1995.

    It is the Palestinian Authority that rules them.

    The gang [of political Far-Leftists and Progressives
    and Socialists] knows that Israel does not rule the area.

    So why do the Progressive Networkers persist in
    promoting the fantasy that Israel rules over the Arabs?

    Because demonizing Israel as the occupier galvanizes
    their followers. It gives them something to be upset about…”

    SOURCE: Ten Jewish groups unite
    against Israeli democracy
    by Stephen M. Flatow

  3. Mr. John Rossomando said:

    “[IUMS Trustee Sheikh Hassan Ould] Aldo
    and the [Muslim] Brotherhood use language
    similar to what Hamas used in its original charter,
    which rejected any peaceful coexistence.

    To them, Palestine is part of a waqf,
    a holy Islamic trust, that no person can negotiate away.”

    SOURCE: Muslim Brotherhood,
    Hamas: No Peace as Long as Israel Exists

    by Mr. John Rossomando, 2019 July 1

  4. I can’t compete with Mr Cohen’s comments above, but I agree about the notes in the Kotel. I would be very interested to hear more about the origins and history of the kipa. Shabbat Shalom.

    1. I suspect that the origin of the Kipa was that in hot climates people who went out covered their hair. Men and women. But the Priests in the Temple covered their heads with a Migbaat which in modern Hebrew means a hat!
      And I guess that was the original association between head covering and sanctity.The Talmud , reflected the Graeco Roman fashion for uncovering heads. So that was behind the Talmud references to rabbis not walking out without covering their heads to symbolize God was above ( in contrast to Roman society).
      Both non Jewish Royalty and Clergy covered their heads.
      In the Sephardi and Ashkenazi world head covering was de riguer. And consider that in the UK and USA wearing a hat was considered necessary even during the 1950s.
      The small kipa we have nowadays is a modern phenomenon.

  5. I have read about 2 ‘scientific’ experiments on praying for the sick. In the 1st survey, praying for the sick was found to help them recover. In the 2nd survey, there was no effect on those bring prayed for. But at least in the Jewish element of this experiment, the sick were not prayed for; instead a note with their name on was placed at the Western Wall.

  6. Thank you for your comments.
    I do respect alternative medicine and “faith healing” in certain situations.I know too that there is a placebo effect. And I know that praying can help those who pray feel better because they feel they are doing something.
    I also know that giving sick people hope can under some circumstances help them fight the disease and that mental attitude can have a significant impact on recovery. although this is limited to certain kinds of ailments and certain degrees of severity.
    But an objective scientific study to the effect that prayer alone can deal with any serious illness strikes me as fanciful as well as suspicious. I would want to see it before I could it any credibility at all.

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