The Constitution guarantees separation of religion and state, so what is God doing in Congress? Howard Mortman answers that question and more in his fascinating and entertaining compendium of Jewish prayers on Capitol Hill, When Rabbis Bless Congress.
Congress opens each session with a prayer offered by a chaplain or guest chaplain. Mortman, communications director for C-SPAN, goes back to 1860, when the first rabbi delivered the opening prayer and takes us to the present day. Mortman explains that Congress has opened with prayer since the beginning of our Republic, when Benjamin Franklin suggested “that each session start with a prayer for heavenly help,” to which Alexander Hamilton allegedly replied, “we don’t need foreign aid.”
Mortman not only includes important and amusing anecdotes, but does for rabbis delivering prayers what Bill James did for baseball: His book is loaded with statistics you never thought you needed until you read them: The 613th Jewish prayer in Congress was delivered by a woman rabbi, nearly one-third of the 441 rabbis from over 400 synagogues who opened Congress have been New Yorkers, six rabbis who survived Auschwitz have opened Congress, 10% of the rabbis cite Isaiah, three rabbis didn’t mention God…the stats and facts go on and on. If you want to impress your friends at kiddush or win some bets after Shabbat, this is the book for you.
In William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well, Zinsser says that “If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show up in what you write.” Mortman’s book proves that Zinsser was right.
When I spoke with Mortman about how he wrote this book, he told me that he went “through the C-SPAN archives for video and the Congressional Record and tracked down and created a database of every rabbi who ever prayed in Congress, what he or she said, where they are, where he or she is from, who sponsored them, and was that sponsor Republican or Democrat.”
The one constant he found was that the opening prayer is the moment when “there’s no arguing, there’s no rivalries, there’s no boisterousness, just straightforward praying to God in the chamber.” But aside from a lot less mention of Jesus by rabbis, the prayers offered by Jewish and Christian chaplains do not differ significantly in substance.
“Last year,” Mortman told me, “over 100 of the prayers involved COVID in some way.” During the 1960s, many involved Vietnam or civil rights and asked for God’s help in addressing these issues. But there were very few delivered by Jewish clergy that Christian clergy could not have delivered, in part because many Christian clergy cite Jewish scripture, particularly Isaiah, Amos, and Micah. What was significant, he said, “was simply the fact that it was a rabbi, and Jews are a small percentage of the country.”
But what about Israel? Mortman writes that rabbis rarely mention Israel and that “those looking to advocate a narrative that Jews have disproportionate influence over US Congress policy toward Israel won’t find much supporting evidence among the words of rabbis who’ve prayed there…of the 571 prayers delivered by rabbis between Israel’s May 14, 1948, independence and February 5, 2020, 38 (under 7%) included implicit or explicit mention of Israel (or the Middle East). And among those, virtually none advocated policy.”
Mortman told me that his book proves that America “is not a Christian nation, because if it were a Christian nation, you wouldn’t have had 400 rabbis pray in the virtual epicenter of democracy. And we’re not talking just rabbis: Hindus, Buddhists, and the Dalai Lama have prayed in the Senate, which reflects the diversity of religion in America.” The stats themselves show healthy bipartisanship–to the extent it’s possible to tell who invited the Jewish clergy, 200 were invited by Democrats, 115 by Republicans, and one–Rabbi Jonathan Sacks–was invited by an Independent, Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
When Rabbis Bless Congress is a book you can read straight through or jump around depending on your interests. Regardless of how you read it, it’s a book you should read and a book you’ll enjoy.
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