Between policy debates and competing political agendas, Congress is not exactly known for being a place of peace, except when members pause for a moment of prayer before each session.
Today, Howard Mortman, director for communications at C-SPAN and the author of the book “When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill,” joins the show to discuss the rich tradition and history of prayer—specifically, the prayer of rabbis—on the floor of Congress.
We also cover these stories:
- The Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects a case filed by the Trump campaign, which contested 20,000 ballots cast in the state.
- An intensive care unit nurse in New York became one of the first people to receive the coronavirus vaccine.
- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says the city should be prepared for another COVID-19 lockdown.
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Virginia Allen: I am joined by Howard Mortman, director of communications at C-SPAN, and author of the book “When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayer on Capitol Hill.” Mr. Mortman, welcome to the show.
Howard Mortman: Thank you. I appreciate your interest. Thank you very much.
Allen: Prayer in Congress. Now, that is not something that’s talked about too often, but you have a really unique window into, really, all of Congress, the many facets of Congress. So, as a director of communications for C-SPAN, how much time do you spend watching or on the floor of Congress each week?
Mortman: Yeah, that’s a great question because that is my job. I’m the communications director, which means I work with the media and I have to be familiar with everything we cover at C-SPAN. And we cover a lot of Congress. We cover the floor of the House and the Senate and hearings.
So as a result of that, I’m not in Congress itself. In other words, I’m not in the press gallery. We have a producer for that. But my job is to watch what’s happening on the floor constantly. So I’m always aware of what’s going on in the House and the Senate.
Allen: Wow. I mean, that’s such a unique position and one that very, very few Americans have to literally be constantly just very aware of what is happening on the floor of Congress day in and day out.
So your book “When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayer on Capitol Hill,” with all of your knowledge of Congress and everything that you have seen, why was prayer, and even more specifically the prayer of rabbis, the thing which has so impacted you to the point that you said, “I need to write a book about this”?
Mortman: That’s a great question. So I love that question. The big picture, as a result of me spending so much time watching Congress, you see a lot. You see fights and debates and acrimony and anger, but you see something that’s really unique in the political process. And that’s the beginning of each session of the House and each session of the Senate begins with a prayer.
And as a watcher of Congress, it always just struck me just looking at that and saying, “This looks like nothing else that happens during the day.” It’s quiet. You’re really addressing the prayer, you’re addressing God, basically. And it’s the first thing Congress does every day. Even before they have a Pledge of Allegiance, they have a prayer.
And the prayer’s offered typically by the House chaplain or the Senate chaplain. So just as a curiosity, as a novelty almost, the whole concept of opening each session in prayer, just kind of struck me as something, “This looks like nothing else.”
So as part of my job, I’ve watched a lot of Congress. I’m always intrigued by the whole concept of prayer. Here’s when the story gets a little narrower. …
So again, in Congress, there is an official House chaplain and there’s an official Senate chaplain. Both are taxpayer-funded positions. They have staff. There are occasions when the House chaplain or the guest chaplain aren’t there and they have a fill-in chaplain, basically. And they have what’s called a guest chaplain. And so that’s like a sub-level of this opening session prayer are the guest chaplains, the fill-ins on every so often on vacation.
Now, one level below that, on occasion, much rarer, but it does happen, there are rabbis. And the reason that I’m interested in the rabbis is I’m Jewish. So I kind of perk up on the odd occasion that there was a rabbi who was filling in as a guest chaplain, filling in for the regular chaplain. And that’s basically where my story begins.
Allen: We are talking with Howard Mortman, author of the book “When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill.”
So on average, you say that combined between the House and the Senate, there are about 170 times a year when there is prayer on the floor. So how and when did this tradition begin, rabbis, pastors, other faith leaders praying aloud on the floor of Congress?
Mortman: You know what? I love that question because the tradition of prayer goes back to the very beginning. I mean, the very beginning of Congress, the first thing they did was appoint a chaplain and prayer began in the Continental Congress. Benjamin Franklin was an advocate.
So this custom, this tradition goes back to the very beginning of America’s legislative branch. And even before they completed the Bill of Rights, there was already a prayer opening Congress.
… What looms over this whole story is the whole church-state issue. And there are advocates of this practice. There are people who don’t like prayer opening Congress. [In] response to that, first of all, it is protected by several Supreme Court cases that Congress can open. And it all goes back to the very beginning.
But more important for my purposes, I don’t care about that. This is not a church-state study. It’s not a church-state book or argument. Since we’re talking about the very beginning of Congress in this tradition, I was surprised when I started writing this and start[ed] doing research how little there had been written about this tradition in general of prayer in Congress, how little, looking at this from an historical perspective, there was.
Again, there might’ve been the odd arguments for and against the practice, but no one really dived in and looked at, in my case, who these rabbis are and what they said.
So fortunately, even though 100, and as you mentioned correctly, roughly 170 times a year Congress opens and prayer, of those, maybe seven times a year there’s a rabbi who does it. But there was enough for me going back over 160 years to complete a study of this and really catalog all the rabbis.
Allen: Well, and it is such a beautiful book, and you’ve done such an amazing job doing just that, cataloging all of these events, these beautiful, beautiful prayers.
You wrote in the book that as of February of this year, 441 rabbis have prayed to open congressional sessions. And I know that you talk about many of those rabbis in the book.
Are there specific instances of prayers, whether that you researched or that you have personally seen, that really impacted you and that stand out in your mind as being really special?
Mortman: Yeah. You know what? What I love, the prayers that I really enjoy reading are those that really reflect their times. The broad sweep of history. Many of these prayers that are given by rabbis, and I kind of have to include the non-rabbis in this view of history, because a lot of the prayers that are offered every day encompass in some way what is going on in the world around them.
But limiting just to the rabbis part, who were the essence of my study, it’s messages around big moments in American history, such as the Vietnam War. And you see rabbis who are offering prayers and messages on behalf of the troops overseas. After 9/11, after terrorism, you see a lot of stronger language about greatness of America. The theme of immigration.
So many of these rabbis who are in this study are from other countries, and they come to America as part of the great immigration of the Jewish immigration, and come here and talk about how great America is and how “thank you to America” for welcoming in their families and the immigrants.
So to really answer your question, the ones that struck me the most just from a historical perspective are, believe it or not, there were rabbis who survived the Holocaust and moved to America and became rabbis and ended up praying in Congress. …
There were even a couple survivors of Auschwitz, the famous death camp the Nazis had, and some of these rabbis came to America, went to rabbinical school, became rabbis here, and ended up praying in the literal center of American democracy. And it struck me what a nice victory over Hitler in a way of being able to really assert American democracy and part of that Jewish experience.
Allen: That is so, so powerful. And when it comes to actually selecting who are these rabbis that pray, who are the reverends, the pastors, who gets to choose?
Mortman: Great question, because that really is at the core of how everything happens, how a guest chaplain is selected.
For the most part, and there will be exceptions, but for the most part, the man or the woman of cloth, the clergyman or the clergywomen, is sponsored by his or her local representative. It could be the member of Congress in the House, in the Senate. It’s the senator from that person’s state who sponsors the rabbi or the clergyman or the reverend, the minister, to pray.
It is a big honor for the clergy members to pray. It’s also a big honor for this sponsoring member to be associated. They are not donors, but they are big members of the community, esteemed members of the community who typically get associated with a member. So it’s a big honor all around.
And what’s interesting is they give, after a member of Congress typically sponsors a guest chaplain, that member gives us [a] one-minute remark floor speech after they sponsor. And that goes into the Congressional Record. So it’s part of the honor of sponsoring someone.
Now, in this great age of social media, typically the clergy member will appear with their sponsor and take a picture and they tweet it or put it on Facebook, or share video of them afterward of the prayer. So social media becomes a big component of that, of just the member being able to show their constituents that he or she has sponsored that day’s guest chaplain.
Allen: That’s an interesting facet because, obviously, that was not in existence here even just 20 years ago. So certainly something that has, I suppose, changed a bit and of course impacted every area of culture, but even just something, yeah, like prayer on the Hill.
We are talking with Howard Mortman, author of the book “When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill.” You wrote the book to really tell, in part, the broader story of Jewish history in America. So how did you incorporate that history into the book?
Mortman: Yeah, so, the two big buckets for me is the Jewish history and the congressional history. On the Jewish history, I’m not a rabbi. I think I flunked out of religious school, so I’m the least qualified to be talking about prayer. But for me, I am a history junkie. I’m a politics junkie. Working the C-SPAN feeds that.
So being Jewish, having just basic knowledge of this, has really been meaningful for me to fill in so many blanks in my own education, learning about the sweep of American Jewish history.
And again, writing this book and doing this research has been both an incredibly rewarding, meaningful, and fun experience, but also at the same time, daunting and a bit scary because no one’s ever done this before, so I’d better get it right.
So it just involves a lot of triple-checking, making sure I have the names right and I’m not saying things that are just wrong in the Jewish tradition. I don’t go out any limbs and say whether these prayers are right or wrong, but just more of just recording them and grouping them and try to make a story out of them.
At the same time, even though it’s about rabbis, I did not want this to be a Jewish book to the exclusion of non-Jews. I want people who want to learn about this incredible tradition in Congress to come away with a deeper understanding of this practice.
So I don’t want this to be seen as it’s just a Jewish book about rabbis. It’s a book about Congress and a tradition that has not been much reported on or even written about. So I hope Congress junkies and Congress lovers will embrace this project as well.
Allen: Well, it’s such a unique approach. I mean, like you say, so little research has been done on this topic, so it’s so special to have it now kind of all in one place and this new window into an aspect of Congress that has not been broadly written about.
As you were doing your research for the book, was there anything that you uncovered that was just a real wow moment or that has really impacted you personally?
Mortman: Yeah. Thank you for that. If we have a moment, I want to share just a really neat personal story about this.
So there are two parts to the research. There’s the video component, and that means rabbis who gave prayers in Congress during the C-SPAN era, which means that’s when television coverage of the House began, 1979, and in the Senate, 1986.
So there are prayers that were on national TV through C-SPAN starting in ’79. And then the other half of the prayers, roughly, are those that predate that TV era and live only in the Congressional Record. So I had to go through both the video of C-SPAN as well as the Congressional Record to really track down those prayers.
Now, part of that, for prayers that live on video, that were on TV, I put those on YouTube. So all the rabbi prayers that were given on television, I have the video for, and I have a mechanical of just putting them on YouTube as part of the research.
Now, about two months ago, I got a note out of the blue from a family of a rabbi who has since died, but his name was Rabbi Maurice Lyons. And Rabbi Maurice Lyons of St. Louis gave the prayer of the Senate back in 1994. And as part of my mechanical process, I put that prayer on YouTube. It was a nice three-minute prayer.
And a couple months ago, the family of the now since deceased Rabbi Maurice Lyons was Googling around for the anniversary of his death. In the Jewish tradition, the anniversary is called a yahrzeit. And so they were trying to find any mentions of Rabbi Maurice Lyons, and they stumbled over the YouTube that I had posted.
The family sent me a letter that when the grandson said, “My God, we found this video of our grandfather. We didn’t know he gave a prayer.” And I think he said, “We’d never even heard his voice.” And he sent a note to me saying, “This is incredible to get this YouTube of him giving a blessing over Congress.” And the Rabbi Maurice Lyons actually speaks Hebrew in the prayer.
And I wrote back to him, “This is even more incredible just to hear this kind of a personal connection with your family and what I’ve been doing as part of my research.”
So that was, for me, just to connect with this family, which probably would have never even known about this prayer or even seen video, it was just a very personal connection between that family and my work. And this was like two months ago and it just really struck me as, wow, just a beautiful moment for both of us as part of that.
Allen: That’s so powerful. I mean, just incredible to think of that personal impact for that family and how special that is for them to have that to look back on for generations to come. What a beautiful aspect to this project that you’ve taken on.
Mortman: It really came alive. I’m not an academic. I’m not a professional. I’m not a professional historian. I love history, but I didn’t study it as in terms of a research project, but it’s those moments.
And there’s a couple of other examples like that of just of descendants of rabbis or other grandchildren who say, “Hey, am I in the book or was my father in the book?” And those are really special moments when something as this precious as giving a prayer in Congress really connects with the family or the people themselves.
Allen: Yeah. I mean, it brings a whole new meaning and dimension to a topic that not many people have thought much about. So that’s just absolutely incredible.
Personally, I am such a believer that prayer is powerful and that when we think about America and the things that have shaped our nation, I truly, strongly believe that prayer is at the center of that narrative.
But I do just find it really interesting that while prayer has been removed from so many other places in our nation, that it has so soundly remained in Congress. How has prayer managed to be kept as this really sacred tradition in Congress when we’ve seen it removed from other spaces?
Mortman: Yeah. That’s a really, really solid question because prayer in Congress has withstood Supreme Court challenges, and not just prayer in Congress, but prayer in opening city council meetings, prayer in state legislative sessions. Prayer goes on in the legislative bodies, I believe, of almost every one of the states.
There are prayers that open each convention, political convention. The Republican and Democratic convention have prayers that are open. The inauguration. I don’t know … , because of COVID, for the upcoming one in January, but prior inaugurations have had prayers as part of it.
So there have been, from the beginning, folks who oppose the practice on church-state grounds, but it is very much enshrined and it’s protected in numerous cases.
Now, we’re talking about Congress here. There is no chaplain in the executive branch. There’s no chaplain of the White House. The Supreme Court doesn’t have a Chaplet, even though they do invoke God in their opening of each session. This is very much a legislative phenomenon.
One little quirk about this is there are no prayers that opened the Knesset in Israel. So if you were a rabbi in Israel and you want to pray in the legislative body, you have to come to America to do that.
Allen: That’s really interesting. I didn’t realize that. That’s so fascinating. Well, this is just incredible that you have taken the time to really comb through history, generations and generations, and put this beautiful book together. We certainly encourage all of our listeners to get a copy.
You can find it on Amazon, at your local bookstore. It’s “When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill.” It’ll make a great Christmas gift. So be sure to get a copy. And Mr. Mortman, we really thank you for your time today.
Mortman: I appreciate this so much. Thank you for the opportunity.