Sunday, July 27, 2008

Obama: Does he have a prayer?

Prayer Notes in Western Wall
(Image from Wikipedia)

Since this is a Sunday morning, let's talk about prayer . . . Barack Obama's prayer.

While Obama was visiting Jerusalem's Western Wall, he followed the tradition of leaving a written prayer in one of the cracks between the stones. According to Wikipedia:
There is a much publicised practice of placing slips of paper containing written prayers into the crevices of the Wall. The earliest account of this phenomenon is recounted by the Munkatcher Rebbe and is recorded in Sefer Tamei Ha-minhagim U'mekorei Ha-dinim. The story involves Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar who died in Jerusalem in 1743. A certain man came to him in great distress after he had become so destitute that he couldn’t afford to buy food for his family. The Ohr Ha-chaim wrote him an amulet in Ashuri script on parchment and instructed the man to place it between the holy stones of the Western Wall.
This passage cites page 270 of Avraham Yitzchak Sperling, Sefer Tamei Ha-minhagim U'mekorei Ha-dinim; Inyanei Hilula D'Rashbi (Jerusalem: Shai Le-morah Publishing, 1999). My Hebrew's not very good, but "sefer" means "book," "tamei" looks to be related to the word for "taste" ("taa'm"), "ha" is the definite article (the), "minhagim" looks to be the plural for the nominalized form of the verb "nahag" (conduct), "u" is the conjunction "and," "mekorei" is the nominalized form of the verb "karaa" (call), and "dinim" is plural for "judgment" ("din") . . . I think. Anyway, this is the title of the Hebrew text translated into English as The customs and ceremonies of Judaism, their origins and rationale, which was first published in 1890 by Avraham Yitzchak Sperling, a rabbi.

The main point is that this custom of slipping written prayers in the cracks between the stones of the Western Wall goes back only about 300 years, so far as we know.

While these prayers don't have the 'sanctity' of long-established tradition, they are considered a sanctioned practice and to be respected as private. Despite the custom of respecting the privacy of such prayers, curiosity apparently overcame one Jewish seminary student present at the wall when Obama placed his prayer in a crevice, for this student removed the prayer and passed it along to Israel's second-largest newspaper Maariv (Hebrew: מַעֲרִיב‎, lit. Evening), which published a photograph of the prayer on its front page.

Ordinarily such a prayer would be private, but since the milk got spilled when the cow escaped the barn, I might as well join other 'journalists' and publish Obama's prayer:

Obama's Prayer
(Image from Sense of Events)

For those who have difficulty reading cursive, Yahoo! News has conveniently provided this prayer in print form:
Lord -- protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.
This is a pretty good personal prayer. Did Obama expect this 'private' prayer to be made public? Maybe not. It doesn't strike me as the sort of prayer intended for public consumption. This prayer does, of course, offer up the words of a very public man, and his words reflect his position and his concerns. As prominent as he is -- and given the historic significance of who he is -- he and his family will need protection. I won't speculate on what his "sins" might be -- if he gets elected in November, all of those sins will soon become very public -- but his asking for God to guard him against pride and despair is excellent, and very understandable for one in his position. Asking for wisdom to do what is right and just is also good.

But asking to be an instrument of God's will? That's asking for trouble, isn't it? Admittedly, this is a typical expression in prayers offered up by evangelicals, but I can almost hear Obama's critics cite these closing words as evidence for Obama's supposed messianic complex. While I don't think that Obama has a messianic complex, I do worry a bit about any political leader -- especially one who might become president of the United States -- considering himself an instrument of God's will.

It sounds kind of familiar.

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At 8:35 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

It would be disturbing, if Barack Obama would have said this during his interview about faith.

Was it because Obama is Christian, that the seminary student thought it not disrespectful to pull his prayer from the wall? Did he think he might find an Islamic prayer?

At 3:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking as an agnostic follower of Buddhism, I don't see how any committed believer in monotheism can not consider himself or herself an instrument of God's will. One does not check one's faith at the door when one leaves the house. One is circumspect in discussing one's faith publicly, but faith is always there. Do you not consider yourself an instrument of God's will, Jeffery?

As for the veiled comparison to George Bush, recall that Jimmy Carter, too, is an evangelical Christian who talked openly about his faith while in public office, yet he was a very different president with very different policies and worldview compared to Bush.

At 4:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, I hadn't thought about a religious motive to the Jewish seminary student. I just assumed that he was curious . . . but now, you've given me something to think about.

By the way, I wonder if a Muslim would place a prayer note in the Western Wall. That might be considered un-Islamic.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi (are you really 92!), most evangelicals that I know believe that they can align their wills with God's will or they can resist and be at cross-purposes with God's will. There's a sort of rough Arminianism of evangelicals at the practical level.

However, either way, according to evangelicals when they've got their thinking caps on, God's will triumphs because everything that takes place happens according to God's will because God's will expresses itself in two ways: God's ordained will and God's permissive will.

Take sin, for instance. The typical evangelical -- or any Christian, presumably -- will argue that God did not ordain sin, for sin is not God's will in that sense, but the same evangelical will also argue that God has permitted sin within a world that ultimately expresses God's purposes.

Obama, I suppose, prays his prayer to be an instrument of God's will because, like most evangelicals, he believes that his will can be at cross-purposes to God's will.

As for my own instrumental status . . . well, this blog, which expresses my 'willfulness', is more likely tolerated by God's permissive will than by God's ordained will.

"o anaginoskon noeito"

"Let the reader understand."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:50 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

I agree with you. So incisively put. Being an "instrument of God's will" has led to some dangerous actions.

At 5:51 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

What kind of instrument? That's the question.

At 6:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, my view is that we have too many individuals and groups these days claiming to be instruments of God's will.

Of course, if the 'instrument' is feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and other charitable works . . . I have no objection (so long as those 'instruments' are alse helping the unfortunate to care for themselves, too, rather than reinforcing dependency).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I might beg to add an ever so slightly different take.

We have so many individuals claiming to know the Will of God that whatsoever they do, they are simply performing God's Will. (In their opinion.)


At 7:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, they're undoubtedly mistaking God's permissive will for God's ordained will.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:45 AM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Regarding those who mistake permissive for ordained will: how are they, or the rest of us, supposed to know which is which?

At 3:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good question, Malcolm. As far as I understand the distinction, it's intended to exculpate God for the evil in the world. So, one gets free-will defenses, full-fledged theodicies, and the like that talk about possible worlds good enough for God to be justified in actualizing even though some evil will arise in these worlds.

I suppose that the rule of thumb for the believer is that if one has to commit evil to attain some good result, then one is not acting entirely within the ordained will of God.

The problem that I see is that nearly all of our choices seem to entail some bad thing happening somewhere to somebody.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:51 PM, Blogger Malcolm Pollack said...

Works out well for God, too. No matter what awful thing happens, he's off the hook.

At 4:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Right. It's either that or believe that God is tainted by evil or impaired by incompetence . . . assuming that one maintains a theistic position.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes God {and oftentimes the Devil} gets blamed for one's own personal desires and plans.
I recall when John Kennedy was running for President, there was a lot of concern about his Catholicism. But after he became President, it wasn't ever an issue.
Baptists, from the time of Roger Williams down to the present, have always maintained that there must be a separation of church and state.
One's personal religious beliefs are important, but they should be private, as much as possible, and shouldn't interfere with the public welfare when public decisions are made.

At 9:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, the minister here at Seoul International Baptist Church made a similar remark about private belief and public policy.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:10 AM, Blogger Al-Ozarka said...

I thought I had posted a comment word verification!

From what I've been hearing, Obamessiah was happy to authorize the printing of his prayer in the Israeli press.

At 6:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'd heard that recently, but it hadn't been confirmed. I suppose that we'll be hearing more in time.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:08 PM, Anonymous Taamei Haminhagim said...


>> According to Wikipedia: There
>> is a much publicised practice
>> of placing slips of paper

From my experience, I strongly recommend against using WPedia as a source for Judaism. I can count hundreds of voices which are plain wrong.

Regarding Taamei Ha-Minhagim, your guess of translation is quite good. The title means the explanation of the Jewish traditions which are found in the holy books (many of them in Talmud and Zohar).

At 2:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for visiting . . . and for confirming my translation. My Hebrew isn't very good.

As for Wikipedia, I never trust it for anything technical, scholarly, or complex, so you're right to advise skepticism. I find that it's a good resource but a bad source. I usually double-check unless the information seems well-known . . . but even that is risky.

Jeffery Hodges

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