Howard Mortman, author of the book When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill, likes to say that more rabbis have prayed before the US Congress than before the Knesset in Israel. That is an easy fact to prove, since the US Congress opens almost every session, both in the House of Representatives and the Senate, with a prayer, something not done in Israel’s Knesset.
While the official chaplains of the House and Senate are Christian, prayers are often offered by guest chaplains of many religions, including many rabbis.
Offering a prayer in the House is a special time of pride to me as a rabbi, because along the walls of the chamber are 23 marble bas-relief portraits of famous lawgivers admired by the Congress and the American people for contributions to the principles of law. Standing just below the Speaker of the House, the guest chaplain looks directly across to the portrait of Moses. The others in the collection include Maimonides, but all the others face to the right or left, while the face of Moses, the only one not in profile, looks directly at the speaker of the House — or the chaplain standing there to offer words of prayer.
Besides the rabbis, guest chaplains have been Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist (including the Dalai Lama), and Native American. Rabbi guest chaplains have even included some from Israel, including Israeli Chief Rabbis Shlomo Goren and Yisrael Meir Lau.
Some American citizens object to the appearance of chaplains and prayers in Congress on the basis that it violates some sense of a separation of church and state, although that phrase appears neither in the US Constitution nor in the Declaration of Independence. The body of the Constitution itself includes only one reference to religion, that there should be no religious test for government office. However, the First Amendment outlines five freedoms, and for religious freedom the statement is that Congress shall pass no law establishing religion, neither shall it pass any law prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Despite historic debate, court cases have decided that neither the military chaplaincy nor the traditions of chaplains in Congress violate these precepts. Interestingly enough, when it comes to the military, the court in 1985 decided that, in a way, the military chaplaincy is actually a remedy to the threat of unconstitutionally prohibiting the free exercise of religion to military personnel stationed around the world in sites often far from churches, synagogues, mosques, or temples, or at least from those that offer opportunities for religious support in English. Chaplains restore the balance of religious freedom, so long as their goal is to help provide for the voluntary free exercise of religion on the part of personnel of all faiths. Military chaplains understand they must care for all, including those who choose to affiliate with no religion. But for those who do, chaplains do all they can to ensure that opportunities for voluntary free exercise of religious needs lie within their grasp.
Courts have considered the constitutional status of congressional chaplains, as well — from a different perspective. For one thing, the writers of the Constitution had chaplains offer prayers to their sessions even as they wrote the First Amendment religious guidelines, a proof of sorts that these writers saw no contradiction. For them a moment of prayer was far from the creation of an established church. But debate about the practice would lead to a 1983 case where the Supreme Court — with some dissenters — would agree this historic tradition that predates the Constitution and the Congress poses little danger to the fabric of religious freedom in our nation. As an aside, it is worth pointing out that a 2019 court case rejected the efforts of atheists in American to claim their right to offer words in place of prayers before official sessions. The tradition was a prayer, the courts affirmed: some words of faith before the representatives rolled up their sleeves to deal with human secular concerns.
The current chaplain of the Senate, the Rev. Barry Black, and the chaplain of the House, the Rev. Margaret Grun Kibben, are both retired Navy chaplains — in fact, both retired Navy chiefs of chaplains, former Rear admirals who served as the highest ranking military chaplains in the US Naval forces. (US Navy chaplains regularly serve personnel in the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and sometimes the Merchant Marines — and in today’s world of military service just as often might have positions where they provide support and counsel to other branches as well, including Army, Air Force, and Space Force.) Their prior military service provided them with ample opportunity to prove their sensitivity to all, both those who call themselves religious and those who do not.
On the 8th of August, I had the honor to serve as guest chaplain for the 20th time. The 18th time, I made sure to wear a tie adorned with the word “chai.” This time I wore a tie with the colors of the Ukrainian flag, a nod both to the fact that the White House is trying to increase our aid to the defense of that nation, and to the fact that I would mention the brave fighters of the Ukraine in my prayer.
My prayer began with historic memories of war linked to this month of August, and then the current wars that rage both in Ukraine and in my US home, wars of a different kind.
But then my words became a prayer for the leadership and the leaders that we so desperately need — in peace as well as war. Although I spoke of leadership in the US as I addressed American leaders here, I pray my words be heard by leaders elsewhere, too.
Almighty God, this month is filled with memories of war:
Guns of August 1914: the First World War. A war to end all wars, we prayed. How wrong we were.
Bombs of August 1945: unleashed on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, built to win — and end — a second global war, and usher in a time of peace…that never came to pass.
In Ukraine, brave citizens fight back since Russia has let slip the dogs of war, while here, a different war: shootings in our schools, shops, sites of prayer.
In politics we find peace and common ground elusive. Compromise now seen as weakness, as some views drown out our neighbors’ fears.
We need leaders brave enough to lead the way they thought they would before they came to power; who remember dreams of who they’d be if they only had the chance.
Great heroes helped us win world wars. May heroic leaders help unite us to seek peace at home.
And may we say, Amen.