It is one of the ironies of the American “separation of church and state” that the United States Congress, since its very beginning, has employed and used tax dollars to pay for chaplains to minister to the elected officials and congressional staff members who work on Capitol Hill. While only two non-Protestants have been employed by Congress in those two hundred thirty years—one Catholic each in the House and Senate—a long-standing program bringing guest chaplains to Congress has more closely reflected American religious diversity. Since the early years of the Republic, clergy from Christian, Jewish, and (more recently) Muslim congregations from around the country have been invited by sitting members of either the House or the Senate (or occasionally, both) to offer the opening prayer to a day’s legislative session in either chamber.
In When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill, Howard Mortman presents a panoramic view of the book’s titular rabbis, nearly 450 from over 400 different synagogues and Jewish organizations. With some congregations and their rabbis represented more than once, between 1860 (the year the first rabbi addressed Congress) and the spring of 2018, these men and women delivered 613 prayers (an auspicious number representing the number of mitzvot in the Torah) to the House and Senate combined. Mortman, the communications director for the C-SPAN, brings to these rabbis’ invocations a lifetime of journalistic experience and what would seem to be not a little research. Organized descriptively—initially of the rabbis, then by the content of the prayers—this work covers the corpus of rabbinic liturgical appearances before Congress in a way that, though lacking much meaningful citation, seems to present the topic comprehensively.
Despite the subtitle, Mortman’s work is not a story but a breezy survey of the kinds of things rabbis have said when leading members of Congress in prayer. Arranged in no particular chronological order and often accompanied by distracting digressions (for example, a recounting of the use of biblical passages in public addresses by Jewish and non-Jewish members of Congress, [287-289]), the blessings of hundreds of rabbis are rarely plumbed for anything more than surface meaning. Each of the rabbis delivering the prayer is identified (certainly by name, but also usually by congregational affiliation) but their prayers are often presented as bulleted excerpts, verbatim and often in clusters of two or more. This gives the volume the cut-and-paste air of a writer who feels compelled to include every possible example of a topic rather than strategically selecting specific examples to examine closely. In search of useful segues and a light atmosphere, at times Mortman is prone to allusions that border on cultural insensitivity (questioning why legendary Jewish baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax has yet to join references to Washington, Lincoln, and current Presidents in any rabbi’s prayer, 262; comparing religious conversion to driving in traffic, 271; noting that Christian clergy, who have been the predominant religious tradition among the guest chaplains, bring with them “lots of Jesus,” 294.) And in his enthusiasm for his topic, he often overlooks the fundamental differences Jews and Christians bring to the structure and meaning of prayers, the fact that Christians also lay claim to sacred texts he identifies almost exclusively with Judaism, and the reality that Christians come to that text with an entirely different theological understanding of it.
Not entirely without merit, this volume is quite literally filled front to back with snippets of stories about the men and women rabbis who have led members of the House and Senate in prayer and the men and women who have invited and served as their one-day congregants. Among the hundreds of rabbis and their congregations identified by name, this reviewer was able to locate references to two rabbis with whom he is personally familiar; regular synagogue attenders of similar or more advanced age who read Mortman’s work are likely to have the same experience. While the work is of little research or pedagogical use, it would make a pleasant gift for a rabbi or bar / bat mitzvah candidate.
Eric Michael Mazur is the Gloria & David Furman Professor of Judaic Studies atVirginia Wesleyan University.
Eric Michael Mazur
Date Of Review:
May 28, 2022
Howard Mortman is communications director for C-SPAN, the public service providing television coverage of the U.S. Congress. A veteran of Washington, DC, media organizations, he has observed Congress from positions at MSNBC, National Journal’s Hotline, Broadcasting Board of Governors, and New Media Strategies. He graduated from the University of Maryland.
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