The Problem with the Aleinu-Adoration

Sermon given January 12, 1996, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Each morning, when Orthodox and Conservative Jews say their daily blessings, the men among them recite the following prayer: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shelo asani ishah; “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who did not make me a woman.” At the same time, women are instructed to say a prayer praising God for making them “according to God’s will.” This women’s prayer encourages women to accept their fate, the same destiny which the men rejoice in having avoided.

Now, I have to admit that I have occasionally been tempted to recite the men’s blessing, praising God for not making me a woman. That occurs when I’m at the Majestic Theatre and I have to use the restroom. When the line for the ladies’ room is ten times longer than the men’s, I’ve been known to praise God shelo asani ishah, for not making me a woman.

In all seriousness, the idea of saying a prayer to thank God for not having made me a woman is offensive. It reinforces a long tradition of male superiority and the degradation of women. I am glad that our Reform prayerbook does not include the prayer shelo asani ishah, praising God for not making me a woman.

I am also delighted that our Reform liturgy has omitted another of the daily blessings from the morning service. This second prayer praises God shelo asani goy, for not making me a gentile. This negative statement implies that there is something wrong with being a non-Jew.

In reality, this second prayer has not been entirely left out of our Gates of Prayer. It’s been changed. Instead of praising God for not making us gentiles, we praise God she-asani Yisrael, Who made me a Jew. Yet we do rejoice in our heritage. We do praise God for our destiny. We do so in a positive way, without expressing a negative evaluation of other people.

Another problematic prayer in many prayerbooks is the Aleinu, also known to us as the Adoration. Traditionally, the Aleinu expresses reverence for God “Who has not made us like the gentiles of the lands, and has not placed us like the families of the earth, since God has not assigned unto us a portion like theirs, not a lot as unto all their masses.” In other words, the traditional Aleinu is basically a longer version of the morning blessing praising God for not making us gentiles. It expresses a negative view of our fellow human beings. Therefore, one would expect the traditional Aleinu to be omitted, or at least to be modified, in our Reform prayerbook.

In fact, the Aleinu was reformulated in Reform Judaism as early as 1841, when the West London Synagogue issued a prayerbook which excised the Aleinu‘s negative words. Instead of praising God for not making us like other peoples, that early British Reform liturgy praises God for choosing us from among all peoples by giving us the Torah. That prayerbook’s authors did rejoice that God has made us Jews, and has chosen us for a special mission. They affirmed the Aleinu‘s conviction that we are a chosen people. They did not, in the process, explicitly express a negative view of the other peoples of the Earth.

Some Jews, though, are uncomfortable with the idea of being a chosen people at all. Rabbi Stahl has discussed this debate in his essay, “Do Jews Regard Themselves as the Chosen People?” in his book, Making the Timeless Timely. Rabbi Stahl explains that, to some “[i]n the modern world, it seems self-righteous, arrogant, and triumphalist to claim that one’s own people is chosen. It implies a denigration of other groups,” even when stated positively.

Some Reform Jews, therefore, have changed the Aleinu completely. As early as 1874, a Reform prayerbook published in Nuremberg, Germany removed all references to the Jews as a chosen people. In the Union Prayer Book, which served American Reform Judaism, including Temple Beth-El, for the first three-quarters of this century, the Aleinu praises God for creation. That Union Prayer Book Aleinu is also found in the Gates of Prayer; it’s the English version on page 617 which we frequently sing. In no way does it suggest that we Jews are chosen.

This English version of the Aleinu is certainly not offensive. And yet, in eschewing chosenness, it does leave out an essential aspect of Judaism. As Rabbi Stahl has written: “God didn’t choose the Jewish people to confer any special privileges or benefits upon them. Rather, God wanted to impose special responsibilities and extra obligations on Jews. God elected the Jewish people to live by the Torah and to impart its values to other peoples.” The idea of being chosen is not only central to the traditional Aleinu, it is key to Judaism. Our English version of the Aleinu, while certainly acceptable, leaves out this vital component.

The other Aleinu we frequently use here is the Hebrew version found on page 620. That version was originally written for a prayerbook published by the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues in England in 1967. In it, we praise God for choosing us to make known God’s unity, and calling us to proclaim God’s sovereignty.

This particular formulation of the Aleinu has much to recommend it. It does speak of us Jews as chosen. However, instead of insisting that we were selected for special privilege, this Aleinu praises God for giving us unique responsibilities. We thank God, for we Jews have the honor of saying the Shema. Our privilege is to share with the world the truth of God’s oneness, the message that God is the Ruler of all.

We sing this Hebrew version of the Aleinu to a tune that many consider to be the “traditional” melody for that prayer. In fact, the tune was not promulgated at Mount Sinai or even in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. It was written by the Viennese Jewish composer Sulzer in the nineteenth century. Sulzer wrote it for the traditional words of the Aleinu. Fortunately, it is adaptable to the morally acceptable words we pray.

Unfortunately, most Reform congregations have chosen not to bother. Some continue the practice of the Union Prayer Book by reciting or singing the Adoration in English, which is fine. We also do that half the time, and we express our gratitude for the responsibilities of being a chosen people at other points in the service. Others, though, have made a mindless and reprehensible turn to the traditional text, with its disparaging attitude toward our fellow human beings. They have done so, not out of conviction, but simply because it is more traditional, because it works with the Sulzer melody more easily, or perhaps because the many Reform Jews who grew up in Orthodox or Conservative congregations are more familiar with the traditional text. These are thoroughly unacceptable reasons for Reform Jewish decision making.

The evidence that those who recite the traditional Aleinu don’t really mean it is clear and convincing. In the Gates of Prayer, on page 615, our prayerbook offers the traditional, offensive Aleinu text in Hebrew, but translates it into English euphemistically. Most who sing in Hebrew, praising God for “not making us like the gentiles of the Earth,” don’t even know that’s what they’re saying. The prayerbook’s editors were afraid to tell them.

To make matters worse, some more recent Reform liturgical publications don’t even include the Hebrew version that we use, which is the only one in the Gates of Prayer that states chosenness in a positive way. Ominously, our Reform rabbinical organization claims that it will be publishing an entirely new prayer book within ten years. Rabbi Stahl and I have already written to urge the inclusion of the Hebrew version we prefer. Unfortunately, the mindless return to traditionalism which grips our movement today may force its eradication.

In the end, the joke is on the mindless traditionalists, for the truth is that the Aleinu they call “traditional” wasn’t given at Sinai either. Though it may have originated when the ancient Temple yet stood in Jerusalem, the ancient rabbis recited it exclusively on Rosh Hashanah. Only since the middle ages has the Aleinu been part of all Jewish worship services. The original Aleinu text includes a denunciation of idol worship, which was removed from European prayer books hundreds of years ago and isn’t found even in the Orthodox prayer books of Ashkenazic Jews to this day.

Hundreds of years ago, leading rabbis removed words from the Aleinu that they found no longer appropriate. Their revision stuck, and the new, shorter Aleinu became known as “traditional” in Judaism.

150 years ago, Reform Jews began to reformulate the Aleinu further. They continued to rejoice in being chosen, while rejecting words that disparage others. May our Reform Aleinu, which we shall prayerfully sing in a few minutes, gain increasing favor in the sight of today’s Reform Jews. May all our prayers be acceptable to God, the Maker of all humankind, the One Who has chosen the Jewish people for service. Amen.