The genesis of prayer opening each session of Congress goes back to the beginning of Congress and has survived challenges under separation of Church and State. Today, we look at a book that chronicles Congressional prayers: “When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers and Capitol Hill” by author and CSPAN Director of Communications Howard Mortman.
Sharyl: Was coronavirus one of the most persistent themes ever evoked from what you saw in congressional prayers?
Howard Mortman: So, coronavirus and COVID became a huge theme in almost every prayer, particularly in the House, and also in the Senate, starting in late February, and even till today.
CSPAN Video: we pray for all of those who have been affected by illness and disease that they may find healing and comfort in this time of uncertainty
Mortman: It was the kind of volume of prayers you don't normally see unless there's a war, World War 2 you can go back and see. World War One, almost every prayer, in some way, invoked our boys fighting overseas. Totally unheard of for a disease to have this kind of prominence in prayers, but it was definitely prevalent throughout the year
Sharyl: A recent controversy happened when Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, a minister, he ended an opening prayer on the first day of the new Congress by saying, "Amen and awomen," as if to make the gendered word amen fair. But amen isn't a gendered word.
Sharyl: And to reiterate, you said this, but amen is a Hebrew word that means "so be it."
Mortman: Essentially so. Yeah. He has said he was just trying to create a pun.
Sharyl: Because there's a record number of women in Congress?
Mortman: Yeah. Exactly right.
Sharyl: So, he said he was referring to that.
Mortman: Exactly right. I'm not a seminary person. I'm not one to judge the prayers, but you don't see that kind of anger at a prayer in Congress, unless it's something that divisive that was said.
Sharyl: Tell us about Rabbi Maurice Lyons, who you mentioned in your book.
Mortman: Part of what I did was put every prayer by every rabbi that's on video on YouTube. The earliest one I could find was 1985. C-SPAN began in 79, when we started broadcasting Congress.
CSPAN Video: “... help us to cope with the forces of human nature.
Mortman: Out of the blue, a couple of months ago, after the book was published, I got an email from the family of Rabbi Maurice Lyons of St. Louis. And Rabbi Maurice Lyons gave the prayer in Congress in 1994 in the Senate.
CSPAN Video: “I too humbly pray grant O Lord to each of our beloved senators a discerning heart to understand between right and wrong
Mortman: I got a note from the family saying they found this YouTube just Googling his name. He had died, and they're marking the anniversary of his death. They had never seen the prayer before. His grandkids had never even heard his voice before. They sent me a note saying how wonderful it was to see this video. So it was just a really neat moment of just where, through the wonder of a video and archiving, you can peer into the past, and really bring it alive today.
CSPAN Video: “...and in conclusion I rejoice in pronouncing over this esteemed legislative body the ancient priestly benediction very Hardy shemesh Morocco yada shampo novela of a Hunico historian overly obvious aim lahar Shalom”
Sharyl (on-camera): Mortman says during 2020, 128 Congressional prayers mentioned coronavirus. 103 in the House and 25 in the Senate.