There I was, standing next to the Palestinian man when I said “Thank God I’m not like you.” But it felt wrong and degrading. While it was a part of the traditional Aleinu I had been saying for years, I had spent all day with this man and others, along with my fellow HUC students (back in 2004), trying to build bridges of understanding between our two peoples. After a day of discussing and debating, and most importantly, just hanging out, we invited this group of interested but reserved Palestinians to join us in maariv (our evening prayer service). The fact that many of them understood Hebrew gave me a new perspective when going through our prayers, especially when we got to Aleinu.
I’ve always had trouble with the traditional words of Aleinu. And a look at Mishkan T’filah, with the 3 other alternatives, suggests I’m not the only one. It was written in a time when one of the few ways Jews could fight back against persecution and discrimination was liturgically. It helped us to feel better about our lot by thanking God for not making us like them. But times are different now. We are one of the most successful minorities on the planet. And while there are still trouble spots and incidents, the perspective and tone of the traditional Aleinu, even before it was acutely raised in my consciousness during services following our mock “peace talks”, troubled me.
After all, there are a number of examples of Reform liturgists crafting or re-writing prayers to maintain their basic structure and context, but to reshape their phrasing. For example, in nissim b’chol yom, we no longer say “Thank you for not making me a slave” but “Thank you for making me free.” We no longer say “Thank you for not making me a woman” but “Thank you for making me a man/woman.” They are positive reframing of negative statements. Certainly the Aleinu could take this same approach: thank God for who we are as Jews, rather than for not being like everyone else.
The trouble with the existing alternative Aleinus was they were fairly awkward to say. We instinctively wanted to use the traditional chanted melody (i.e. Sulzer), but the words didn’t quite fit. Plus, there were times when the community was saying the traditional version, and I wanted to say an alternative, and the auditory dissonance was too much for me. So, I set about writing a new alternative, which both fit to the traditional melody and proclaimed my thanks for our unique role in the world.
As I see it, two of the most important roles Jews play are: (1) as stewards and guardians of the Earth, as seen in the Garden of Eden and the midrash which has God giving Adam a tour of the whole world and ends with “take care of the Earth, for if it is destroyed, there is no one after you to repair it.” And (2) as messengers of the teachings and morals of Torah to the world. Additionally, while we are a unique people, the reality is that our destiny is intertwined with the other peoples of the world. For example, global climate change doesn’t just effect some people; it effects all of us. We live scattered around the world, our lives intertwined with others.
And so, when the editors of the new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, wanted to include my alternative Aleinu, paired with a new translation by Rabbi Shelly Marder, I was both honored and humbled. Symbolically it is very powerful, since Aleinu as a prayer began in High Holy Day liturgy, and from there made its way into the daily service. To have my Aleinu be a part of something so powerful and reflective of the current state of Jewish life, is such a blessing. In this new machzor there is truly something for everyone, and I pray that my alternative Aleinu can be that something for many Jews, for years to come.
Rabbi Dan Medwin is the Publishing Technology Manager at CCAR.