What bothers me is Barack Obama used his reverence as a political tool to net votes from Israel backers. Photo By Tara Todras-Whitehill / CP Photo
The year after I lost my mother, I went to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and placed a prayer there.
That was very unusual behaviour for me, as I was a borderline atheist at the time (some days I still am), but I needed a strength I didn't have. I need ed to say, "God, this is too much for me, and yet I have to go on."
All prayers, if they are truly pray ers, ask the antithesis of action and pride. All prayers ask for peace.
Saying this, I don't find myself offended, shocked or any of the emotions I gather I am supposed to feel as a Jew about Barack Obama's Wailing Wall prayer note being leaked to the press last Thursday, July 24.
There is an aspect of this "story," however, that offends me, but it isn't that the private and sacred was made public. Rather, a public and insincere act was treated as though it was private and sacred.
The image of Obama's prayer at the Wall was meant to convey his commitment to Israel's interests, not to be soft on "terrorism" and to wrest the support of influential U.S. Zionists away from the Republicans.
What was actually written on the note he stuffed, as tradition dictates, into a crevice between the stones is irrelevant and as sincere as a water-boarded confession.
But none of that ought to be particularly shocking, since (drum roll) Obama is a politician. What bothers me is how we understand prayer in this culture and how that understanding enables a presidential candidate to use prayer as a political tool, as both symbol and action, when it is neither.
The idea of praying to God in the Jewish context is an engagement with grief and faith. The Hebrew Bible is a story of loss, exile, oppression and suffering. If we think of prayers as wishes, as expressions of the desire for an action to occur, the Old Testament reads like a series of unanswered prayers.
Instead, I see it as a manual on how to grieve, how to tolerate the intolerable, how to move through, though not past (since it is unsurpassable) pain. We do not pray symbolically, to make a display of faith to impress God or, in Obama's case, to impress Zionists.
Nor do we pray as an equation: faith in exchange for a desired act of God. In Obama's case, he was "praying" to become president.
Prayer, as W.H. Auden's said about poetry, makes nothing happen.
We pray when there is nothing that can be done, and thus it is an act of surrender and humility. It is an act of faith not that tragic circumstances will be reversed, but that we will find meaning in them.
When Obama made his symbolic gesture during a 24-hour stopover in Israel, minus an hour-long visit to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, he was signalling his adoption of Israel's vantage point on the occupation of Palestinian land, and he did so because he wants to be president. Whatever Obama believes seems increasingly subordinate to that goal.
German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said that "God himself comes and stays a while / when the world of torn and cut people starts to humble him."
God was not at the Wailing Wall that day, and I suspect hasn't been for a long time. It doesn't matter what it literally said on Obama's note; if anyone recognizes a phony prayer, let us pray, it is God.
Toronto poet Jacob Scheier is the author of More To Keep Us Warm (ECW).