On the Aleinu
The Aleinu prayer is a constant in our services, driving us forward to the conclusion of our prayers. We know how to chant it, we know that we usually do the second version on the page, and thanks to Yoni we know that we have to turn to page 591 for the final part of it. It links us from the Torah reading or dvar Torah that have gone before, to the finality of the mourners Kaddish and the end of the service. But do we have any idea of what the Aleynu prayer is all about, and are we all aware of its origins and somewhat controversial history?
The word aleynu literally means “on us”, and in this context it means it’s on us, it’s our duty to praise God as the Master of All.
Its origins are, like so many Jewish prayers, shrouded in mist. Some say that it goes back to the biblical Joshua, Moses’s successor, and he chanted it while conquering Jericho. A backwards hidden acrostic in the first four lines spell “hoshea”, his original name. Others say that the bowing part we do “veanachnu korim” is suggestive of the post-temple period, and we are kneeling in order to reenact the temple times and demonstrate our desire for their return. The prayer is certainly known by the third century CE, as a version of the aleinu is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, in connection with the sage Rav, who either wrote himself or employed the prayer in the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf liturgy.
The vision of the prayer is of a future world in which all humanity recognises that God is God and that God is One, and unites to serve God. So far so good. I wish for that day too, when everyone understands this. As such it is a prayer of unity, one that would pass the test of Singapore’s maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, passed in 1990, that enables the Government to act swiftly to “nip the budding effects of inter-religious discord”.
However, our people have suffered many darker moments in Jewish history, that make the current corona crisis seem a mere bagatelle. In this period of the three weeks, with just a week to go until tisha b’av, let us remember the 51 martyrs of Blois, France, who in 1171 were burnt to the snake for refusing to renounce their Jewish faith. And they are said to have gone to their deaths, another blood libel massacre by their Christian neighbours, not with the words of the shema on their lips, but rather singing the aleinu.
It’s not in our reform prayer book - in either version - but the traditional ashkenazi form of the prayer includes the line:
“Shehem mishtahavim l’hevel v’riq
Umitpalelim le el lo yoshia”
“For they bow down to vanity and emptiness
And pray to a god who cannot save”
In other words, everyone should follow our God, because other religions worship fruitlessly. This was inserted before “ve’anachnu korim” - the part that says but rather we worship God, the king of kings, the holy one blessed be He!
If this is too much for our modern interfaith sensitivities, you ain’t seen nothing yet! Because if you use gematria - the words “lahevel” and “variq” have the same numerical value as “yeshu umohamet”, Jesus and Mohamed. In other words, we are secretly attacking the faith of our Christian and Muslim Abrahamic and Ibrahimic cousins. And there’s more, at this point in the prayer worshippers used to spit on the ground, and it some Shuls there are even spittoons built for this very custom. It’s not 100% clear that this is the reason we spit. Another theory is that in Hebrew, the words “emptiness” and “spit” share the same Hebrew consonants, so that’s why we would . And a third approach suggests that we spit in order not to benefit from the saliva produced by speaking about idolatry. Thankfully this is not a custom that we are looking to bring back or to encourage, especially in these times of corona.
In the Middle Ages these words were censored in ashkenazi prayer books, and Frederick the great in the 18th century demanded deletion of the verse. Some prayer books used to leave a line blank in the printing, perhaps in order to let individual worshippers write in the censored line themselves. And when the reform rabbis set to work on the aleinu in the late nineteenth century, it was rewritten in a way that better suited modern attitudes to other faith communities. The two versions that we have represent this edit, as well as a more recent compromise - which is the version we generally chant together at the uHc.
So now when you next chant the aleinu, and indeed every time, you understand a bit more of its history and controversy. While the vision of religious harmony sounds woke, if everyone was aware of its history, it probably wouldn’t survive today’s cancel culture. Make up your own minds, but in order to appreciate the largely happy interfaith culture that we enjoy today, especially in Singapore, we need to understand a little bit of history and how we got there. And that includes acknowledgment of past misdeeds, including the religious intolerance of the Crusades, and the difficulties that our ancestors have faced at different times from our Islamic neighbours as well. Only then can the three great religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a real chance of harmonious coexistence, and on that day God’s name will be one, and known as one.