#2: When Rabbis Bless Congress (Howard Mortman & Rabbi Tobias Divack Moss)

In our second episode of the Temple Talks podcast, Rabbi Tobias Moss speaks with Howard Mortman, Communications Director at C-SPAN and author of When Rabbis Bless Congress: The Great American Story of Jewish Prayers on Capitol Hill. This conversation (recorded in December) highlights the best of Jewish integration into the public sphere. History lovers will rejoice as Howard explains this long-standing tradition, how Jews first became part of it, and significant prayerful moments of the last 160 years. These moments, of course, take on added significance after the events of January 6, 2021. To learn more or purchase the book, please go to https://www.academicstudiespress.com/cherry-orchard-books/when-rabbis-bless-congress. Please subscribe to Temple Talks and review the show. Comments and questions can be directed to TMoss@TempleIsrael.com. Talk with us!
An excerpt from this week’s Temple Talks follows below. 

Rabbi Moss

Has the Jewish leadership of Congressional prayers increased over time? Or did we have a heyday where we were more frequent? After that first Jewish prayer in 1860, was it a long time until we got back?

Howard Mortman

That’s a great question. If you look at just the raw numbers, rabbis give prayers in Congress about seven times a year since World War Two. Now, I will throw in immediately that this year is different, obviously, because of the virus. This year, there have been just four rabbis who have given prayers. Definitely an outlier.

The heyday, believe it or not, was during the Vietnam War, when there was a real surge of rabbis giving prayers for whatever reasons, but the message of Vietnam was a part of it.

You can see it in the in the prayer itself—in the content and the language that they used. And you could almost see the swing of embracing the Vietnam War, as America embraced the Vietnam War, and then as America turned against the war, the language in the rabbis’ prayers turned against the Vietnam War. 

In 1967 in particular, probably the bloodiest year of America's involvement, you see a lot of rabbis give prayers that year, and even though you're really not supposed to talk about current events like this, it was impossible to do a prayer in that time for anybody without mentioning our troops overseas or citing Isaiah 2:4 of turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

And in fact, there were two or three rabbis who gave prayers during June ‘67 which coincided with the Six Day War in Israel, and they didn't even mention the Six Day War at all in their prayers, but did mention Vietnam, or made some implicit reference to it.

 So yes, that was perhaps the heyday or golden age of rabbinical prayers in Congress.

Rabbi Moss

Tell us about an especially eloquent or favorite rabbi’s prayer.

Howard Mortman

There is one prayer that really stuck out to me. This happened only recently and it's kind of a personal story. So I've been mechanically putting all these prayers on YouTube and creating playlists for both rabbis and their sponsoring officials. One of the rabbis I put on YouTube was a Rabbi Maurice Lyons from St. Louis, who gave the prayer in 1984 in the Senate, and he has since died.

So he's just one of the rabbis I put on YouTube and I moved on to the next one. About a month ago, I got an email out of the blue, from the family of Rabbi Maurice Lyons, from one of his grandkids, who had stumbled over this on YouTube. They were just googling Rabbi Lyons as they were marking his yartzheit, the anniversary of his death, and they had never seen this prayer before. They actually didn't know that he had even done a prayer in Congress, and some of the grandkids had never even heard his voice before.

They sent me a note saying how great it was, what a service to them to see his prayer before the Senate. I wrote back saying that's really nice but what an even greater service to me to be able to hear your reaction to seeing this.

As it turned out, it was a really interesting prayer. This Rabbi Lyons is giving a big prayer and at the end, he gave countenance and blessed and raised his hands dramatically and spoke in Hebrew over the Senate. That was so interesting to see the rabbi offer the Priestly Blessing over the Senate.

It was an amazing moment, and it came full circle so it was a very humanizing moment for me to be able to connect to the family like that.

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