Why I Have Always Hated the Aleynu Prayer…Until Now

Why I Have Always Hated the Aleynu, and Why I Changed My Mind on Feb 26: A Kaplanian Struggle

Jeffrey Schein

I have a very vivid picture in my mind. My Bubbie is davening in Suwalki, Poland around 1890. As the Aleynu builds resonance and the phrase, “God has not made us like the other nations of the world” settles over the kahal, Bubbie has opened a window and spits out the window, symbolically pouring out her wrath on non-Jews, the “goyim”. No wonder, Kaplan might add. Every civilization is inclined to play the inversion game and when oppression reaches an extreme, turns the tables on their oppressors (Greater Judaism in the Making, 1960)

I have no idea whether this happened, of course. I only know that the liturgical innovation in Reconstructionist Judaism of replacing these phrases with thankfulness for having received the Torah struck a deep chord in me. We were not chosen. We need not play a zero-sum game of which people God loves best. Nothing accounted more completely for my love affair with Kaplan and Reconstructionist Judaism than his insights about this prayer.

Yet on February 26th, I found a new connection deeper than my ambivalence about the prayer. (To be fair, the Aleynu also provides the liturgical roots for the notion of Tikkun Olam.)  A fellow congregant replaced the notion of “idolaters” “with arrogance.” (In the Amidah for Purim and Hanukkah this actually happens, the Hebrew phrase being malchut zadon, reign of arrogance.) The power of this new imagery had a profound effect on me. Now I see, not my Bubbie spitting out the window, but an image of Vladimir Putin flaunting international law, human rights, and common decency as his soldiers march through Ukraine.  

I don’t know how long I will need to cling to this new insight about the Aleynu prayer. Quick pivots in meaning were anticipated by Franz Rosenzweig, who suggested that in prayer we often practice “aphoristic Judaism” and build our meaning systems around felicitous phrases and semantic nuance. I only know that Judaism as an evolving religious civilization applies not only to the macro level of Judaism as a whole, but to the micro level of our own continuously changing relationships to Jewish texts. And as with Haman, we might want to pray, yimach shmo, that the horrible things he has inflicted on Ukraine will eventually be transformed into the better world the Aleynu prayer envisions.