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God’s Mail, E-Mail, and the Alpha-Male

Last week, a minor political scandal unfolded around the note that Barack Obama put between the stones of the Kotel when he visited the Wall during his tour of Israel. Dug out from between the stones by a yeshiva student, and printed in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz, the rabbi in charge of the Kotel, condemned the newspaper and their violation of Obama’s privacy, saying “The notes placed between the stones of the Western Wall are between a person and his maker. It is forbidden to read them or make any use of them.". The yeshiva student apologized for his actions, saying it was “kind of a prank.” Ma'ariv spread some rumors that Obama had leaked the contents of the note before he even went to the wall, but that seems to have been proved false. Ma'arivs third helpful contribution was the following sentence, printed the following: "In any case, since Obama is not a Jew, publishing the note does not constitute an infringement on his right to privacy." There are a few issues here. First of all, publicizing someone’s private letter, whether it’s to God, Santa Claus, or their Uncle Ralph, is inappropriate. Rabbeinu Gershom, a rabbi living 1000 years ago in Mayence, issued a prohibition against reading anyone else’s personal mail, and that prohibition still stands today. I would have to look at the text of the prohibition to see if it seems to extend to everyone’s mail, or just the mail of other Jews. Regardless, stealing the letter and publishing it are in very bad taste. On the other hand, Obama should have and probably did know that this would happen, and had he released his note ahead of time, he may have been able to avoid all of the brouhaha that has surrounded this story. Or he may have wanted the brouhaha. Remember, when the Pope visited the Wall in 2000 he made his note public, and wrote it in English. He also, like Obama, prayed at the Wall. Written prayer is not to be taken lightly, and I’m appalled at the craziness surrounding this letter, but it doesn’t really shed any light on Obama’s character or qualities. His note was perfectly PC, and earnest in a not-too-creepy way. If he has any secrets, confessions or great sins, he may have brought them up in his spoken or mental prayer at the Wall, but it’s hard to believe he’d be stupid enough to commit them to paper. If we learn anything from this it should be about privacy—our own, and what we expect from others. We want emails to be private, some phone calls, letters from our employers, and medical information. But who among us hasn’t forwarded a few personal emails to friends wondering about the subtext, or spoken about a private matter while walking down the street surrounded by strangers who could hear every word? Google says that complete privacy doesn’t exist, and maybe they’re right, but if there’s anything in the world that remains private, shouldn’t it be personal prayers?

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