A Niche of a Prayer in a Vulnerable Place

photo by David Katz/Obama for America

photo by David Katz/Obama for America

Yes, I read the prayer Barack Obama left at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. I was angry it was stolen, and by a seminarian no less. I was angry it was published. But I read it. I read it because I am a voyeur too, because I am struggling with how to pray and wanted to see how someone with Obama’s rhetorical skills might try to talk with God. I wasn’t kidding myself. I knew this wasn’t a truly private communication. In our age of celebrity nothing is truly private for those who would be president, so he must have known that the Wall might not be the only place it would be published. Still I wanted to listen in, take some measure of Obama the man. So, yes, I read the prayer he left at the Western Wall.

Last March I was in Jerusalem researching a new book on the world’s religions. It was a business trip, tax-deductible. But I felt drawn in a not-so-professional way to the Kotel, as locals call the Wall. On my first day in Jerusalem, a Jewish friend and I took in the plaza scene in the front of the Wall: black-hatted ultra-Orthodox men with their covered-up-and-silent wives; young modern Orthodox guys with colored kippas and tzitzit (fringes) hanging out over their cargo pants; and Christian hajis from Korea and Nigeria and the United States. (You will know they are Christians by their nametags.  Jews and Muslims rarely take guided tours of the Old City.)

On my way down to the Wall I donned a paper kippa, which kept getting blown off, as if the wind or the God stirring it knew I wasn’t really Jewish. The real Jews were reading from prayer books, rocking back and forth, giving their plastic chairs (the kind you find at K-Mart) a workout. My friend, a male convert from Trinidadian Presbyterianism whose circumcision is still ahead of him, asked me if I wanted to pray. “Not yet,” I said, since I was desperate to pray but wanted to do so later, in private, away from his eyes.

On his recent trip to the Middle East, Obama arrived at the Wall shortly after 5 a.m. on Thursday, July 24. It was still dark. He wore a white skullcap under a clear moon. He listened to the Wall’s official rabbi, Shmuel Rabinovich, read the 122nd Psalm: “Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem . . . Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May those who love you be secure.” Then he approached the Wall, placed his hand on a stone, bowed his head, and placed his prayer in a crack.

The Wall is, in addition to a repository of prayers, a repository of stories. It is hard to imagine a more vulnerable place of power than this portion of the Jerusalem Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. I don’t know if that is why I kept returning–to reckon with this odd combination of power and vulnerability. But I kept going back, every day of the week I was in Jerusalem.

Although I have largely forgotten how to pray–because I have largely forgotten how to pray, I wanted to pray at the Wall. I was intrigued by the bobbing and weaving of these people and their prayer books, the intimate orchestration of the solitary davener accompanied in his intimacies by others here and there until all seemed attuned to the same notes, rising to the same crescendos, falling into the same denouements. I wanted to find my own posture before God, my own voice.

On my last day in Jerusalem I felt ready. Unlike Obama, I didn’t have to endure hecklers or paparazzi or seminarians intent on stealing my private prayer. I wandered from my hotel in East Jerusalem through the Damascus Gate into the Old City, down the Via Dolorosa, and then out of the Old City and up the Mount of Olives. “Every place here has a story,” a friend had told me on my first day in Jerusalem, and atop the Mount of Olives I took some of those stories in. The storytellers were Nigerian Pentecostals, and proud JPs (Jerusalem Pilgrims) all. Someone was filming them offering brief testimonies about their experiences in the Holy Land, their smiles wide with pride, their backs to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher of the Christians, the Temple Mount of the Muslims, and the Western Wall of the Jews. The woman I remember best looked into the camera with more conviction than I can ever remember mustering myself and said, “For my entire life I have heard stories about Jesus and Mary. Today I saw where Mary was born. I saw where Jesus was crucified. And now I know that each and every one of those stories is real.”

I have no idea what sort of reality came over Barack Obama when he was standing at the Wall, preparing to give over to God a scrap of paper laden with his prayer and embossed with the logo of the swanky King David Hotel, but I find it hard to imagine that awe was not included in the mix. Yes, the place is segregated by sex. Yes, it is a tourist trap. And the mystic in me knows if God is anywhere then God is everywhere. But it is nonetheless an awesome place, testifying in blood and stone to the human propensity to colonize the unknown, populate it with words.

It is also a place that invites a reckoning–in words and actions–with our own admixture of power and vulnerability. To be human is to live between able and unable, to know (as that Serenity Prayer goes) that there are things you have the power to change and things you have the power only to accept. To be president, however, is to know that you live between bombing and getting bombed. This is not a knowledge I would wish upon anyone. But for those who possess it I am grateful for a place such as the Wall.

Like Obama, I prepared my prayer in advance, carried it with me up past the Garden of Gethsemane and down past what is reputed to be the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world. I wish I could say it was a prayer of gratitude. It was not. This might be my last visit to the Wall and there was no way I was not going to ask for something. So I gathered up the names of the thirteen most important women in my life. (Thirteen is my lucky number.) Mother and sister and daughters and ex-. A woman who broke my heart. Another who taught me to dance. Yet another who taught me to be human. I asked for one thing (in one word) for each. I said these thirteen prayers quietly to myself. Breathed in a name, breathed out the hope that she would find hope or healing in whatever I was wishing upon her. Then I folded up the paper and tried to find a place for it in the wall. This is harder than you might imagine. Real estate is precious in the Old City, but none more so than at this location, where every crack seems to be preoccupied with a prayer not your own. But after some folding and shoving and refolding and more shoving I found a niche for whatever part of myself I was pressing into this prayer.

As I was leaving I saw a man sweeping up prayers expelled from the wall by wind or rain or the impress of gravity. There were hundreds of prayers exiled to his clear plastic bag–petitions in Arabic and Hebrew and English and other languages I cannot even recognize. And because I am a Religious Studies professor and a human being I was sorely tempted to reach in and pull out a few dozen or so, read them for signs of the times, or for their prurient delights. What unbearables do people bring to this place? What loves and losses, confidences and confessions? But I did not steal any prayers.

Which is why I will not say here what Obama prayed for. If you need to know that you can find it here, though I recommend you leave that URL to itself, and Obama to his God. I will say that Obama did not pray for any of his ex-girlfriends. And that his prayer, at least to my ears, fell a bit flat. Reading it didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know about Obama, or for that matter, about praying.

My consolation is that what really happens at the Wall cannot be contained in the words put onto paper or into stone. It cannot be stolen by a seminarian or published by a newspaper. Even in our age of celebrity some things are not accessible to photographers or editors, or even writers such as myself.

If I were to return to the Wall today, I would leave a prayer for both Obama and McCain. I would pray that each would listen to what the Wall has to say about power and vulnerability, and the delicate and dangerous dance between them. Some things are possible; some things are not. At least for me, that is what transcendence means: the significance of any human being, however large, is dwarfed by the mystery of the millions of things we will never fully understand, not least the practice of prayer itself.

Stephen Prothero teaches at Boston University and writes books, including God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, published by HarperOne. His latest is Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).