Sermon – On the Aleinu, and our relationships with other faiths

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 27 June 2015



There are few sections of our liturgy which are more theologically challenging, hold a more complex message, have a more difficult history, than the Aleinu, with which we will continue our service in a few minutes.


It consists of two paragraphs, neither strictly speaking a prayer.  Originally the first paragraph – Aleinu l’shabe’ach – was found in the liturgy of the Rosh Hashanah additional service, in the Malchuyot, where it declares divine sovereignty, but – one assumes in response to public demand – it, and its fellow were added to the end of every service.


The first paragraph, which we can be certain is the much older text, though who wrote it and when is unclear – many date it to the early rabbinic period, but who knows – is a powerful expression of a classical Jewish doctrine.  It articulates a Jewish particularist relationship with God, Jewish chosenness – it is our duty to praise God, for God has somehow identified us as different, we are special (and, by the way, we are also right in our relationship with God – there is only one God, our God – the God who created the world – ein od – there is no other).


In our liturgy, in the siddur that we use, this idea of a distinct Jewish role and identity is expressed in a positive way – “asher bachar banu mikol ha-amim, v’natan lanu et hatorah” – it is our duty to praise the God who “has chosen us from all the peoples by giving us the Torah”.  As a result of this, anachnu corim – we bow – because of the special duty that we have taken upon ourselves through Torah.


But this is not how it is found in an Orthodox siddur.  There we read: “she’lo asanu k’goyei ha’artzot, v’lo samanu k’mishp’chot ha-adamah, v’lo sam chelkeinu ka-hem, v’goraleinu k-chol ha-monam”: “Who has not made us like the nations of the land, nor like the families of the earth, who has not made us our portion like theirs or our destiny like their multitudes”.  Here, the duty to praise God comes from recognition of the special status of Israel when compared to other peoples.  From our not being like the other.


The earliest form of the Aleinu – still in use in many Orthodox communities – goes even further, stating also: “for they (the other nations) bow to something vain and empty, and pray to a god who cannot save”, v’anachnu corim but we bow…

That v’anachnu has a very different weight and emphasis there.


One can understand the popularity of such a message in the time of, for example, the Crusades.  However, the Aleinu became the cause of repeated indictments of Jews and Judaism during the Middle Ages.  From as early as about 1400, the Aleinu was identified by some as anti-Christian polemic.  The “something vain and empty” was understood to refer to Jesus – a case made in part by pointing to the same value in gematria of the word for emptiness and the Hebrew word for Jesus.  It didn’t help that the word for emptiness can also mean spittle, so the tradition was to spit at that point – I kid you not.  A Yiddish expression for someone who comes late to shul remains someone who ‘arrives at the spitting’.


So the first paragraph of the Aleinu has a rich, and challenging message – a positive one in our liturgy, a more challenging one in other liturgies – and for all of us, a difficult history, toed up in the complex relationship with other peoples, and especially Christianity.


The second paragraph, has generally been less controversial, but it is not without its challenges.  It is sometimes described as having a more universalist message – but it is a strange kind of universalism.  It is not a universalism in which all are seen as equally able to access a truth, but one in which we dream of the day when everyone will come to recognise the one, capital T, Truth – the truth and rightness of the Jewish understanding of God.


The second paragraph is one of hope – but it is a very particular hope.  It expresses a messianic yearning for a time when everyone is good, by which it means, when everyone worships the one God; we hope to witness the time when l’haavir gilulim min ha’aretz v’ha-elilim karot y’kareitun –


In our siddur, expressing our hope, this is (mis)translated as “when the worship of material things shall pass away from the earth and prejudice and superstition shall at last be cut off”

But literally it means – “when idolatrous abominations shall be wiped away from the earth, and idols will be utterly destroyed” – avodat elilim being the worship of literally non-gods – similar to that message of emptiness, and gilulim being a rather unpleasant word related either to pagan fertility rites or to dung or filth.


So, the second paragraph also has the potential to be read as a pretty nasty bit of liturgy, too.


Why am I talking about this today?

It is not because I want us to remove the Aleinu from our liturgy or undertake a more radical rewrite.  I have said repeatedly – in fact, pretty much every time I stand here it’s to say a variant of this – that Judaism is a broad, rich, poly-vocal tradition in which we are not asked to believe every word of some defined doctrine but to grapple with a complex and sometimes difficult inheritance.

I also may have mentioned that ours is a poly-valent tradition – a tradition where everything can mean multiple and new things – in which we are invited, legitimately, to take the ideas, narratives and yearnings of our predecessors and find new meaning, new richness, in them for ourselves.


But sometimes that exercise – the creative task of modern Judaism – is made harder by the actions of others.

Just ten days ago, the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, a Roman Catholic church on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, a modern Church, on a site where there has been a church since the 5th Century, and containing some of its remains – that church was deliberately set alight.


And written on the wall by the by the arsonists were the words from the Aleinu, “ha-elilim karot y’kareitun” – idols will be utterly destroyed.  Words with which we – we – end each of our services.


Now it’s worth noting that even the Chief Rabbi of Israel issued a statement denouncing this act. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu has ordered a genuine investigation. This shouldn’t be worth mentioning, but is actually remarkable. Because 40 other places of non-Jewish worship have been vandalized, burnt and desecrated by Jews in Israel since December 2009, for which no-one has been arrested or prosecuted.

This is one of those things about modern Israel that we tend not to hear about. And one of those things that we as Jews in the diaspora should be making a huge fuss about.


Disgusting as this, we have always been able (we shouldn’t but we’ve always been able) to say that this kind of action exists in a different religious sphere, away from our Judaism.  But when those words, words we use every service, are appropriated in this way, we cannot say that any more.

The history of the Aleinu is always difficult, but how do we even say those words this week, use them to express our yearning, when we know that there are co-religionists who understand them in a very different way, who tarnish our liturgy through their actions;

How do we recite the Aleinu when there are Jews who do not wish the animosity, hatred and mistrust that it once represented to be only history.

There are others in the ‘family of Israel’ who understand our Aleinu to say that Christianity is idol worship and we need to destroy it.  How do we reclaim those words?


This morning we must state very clearly that when we say the Aleinu this is not our message.  We do not, despite the view of one voice in classical rabbinic Judaism, view our Christian neighbours as idolators.  We do not believe that they bow down to something vain and empty.  This is not our religious view.

We do not view them as a block to the creation of a messianic age but as our partners in creating one.  And so we object, furiously to anyone claiming to speak with our liturgy who have a hope so different to our own.


When we say the Aleinu, we do so with a view to another voice in our tradition – the one that asserts that the righteous of every nation have a place in the world to come – the voice that recognises that all of us have ability to be good people, engage with God, irrespective of our faith tradition.


In a moment we will read the Aleinu.  We will read words that have been in our liturgy for over 1000 years, words with a long, challenging history – words which have meant different things to their readers in different times and contexts – words that have been understood and misunderstood as statements of tension, as well as of hope.

Those who read the Aleinu in the way expressed in the Galilee last week do not speak for us. Our prayers are not their prayers, the words of our liturgy may be – in places – the same – but their aspirations and yearnings are not ours.


This morning let us assert and affirm that our Aleinu is an Aleinu of shared existence, of a shared search for truth, and of a messianic age built by and for all the righteous of every nation.