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עלינו | An Alternative Aleinu by Leon Gunther

This variation in the aleinu first appeared in a d’Var Tefillah, “Lost in Translation – our Hebrew Siddur,” (ODT | PDF) given by Leon Gunther at Temple Emunah (Lexington, Massachusetts) on Shabbat, August 3, 2013.

The Aleynu prayer is recited towards the end of each and every Service. It is the climactic prayer of every Service, wherein the entire community comes together in song to express majestically our praise of God.

I’ll sing the first few lines:

עָלֵינוּ לְשַׁבֵּחַ לַאֳדוֹן הַכֹּל, לָתֵת גְדוּלָה לְיוֹצֵר בְּרֵאשִׁית
We are asked to give praise to the Lord of all, to express the greatness of the Creator.

שֶׁלֹא עָשָֹנוּ כְּגוֹיֵי הַאָרָצוֹת
וְלֹא שָׂמָנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת הַאַדָמָה
He didn’t make us like all other peoples (or Silverman:”like the pagans of the world”) ,
and didn’t place us like the families of the Earth (or Silverman: ‫”‬like the heathen tribes of the earth‫”‬)

שֶׁלֹא שָׂם חֶלְקֵינוּ כָּהֶם וְגוֹרָלֵינוּ כְּכָל הָמוֹנָם
וַאַנָחְנוּ כּוֹרְעִים…‏
He didn’t give us a portion like theirs, or a destiny like that of the multitudes.
We bend our knees…

The 2nd and 3rd sentences violate my principles. At Services I stand silent during the recitation of these lines. I know of a number of fellow Temple Emunah congregants who feel and act the same way.

I would be embarrassed for the Mak’haylah to sing the Aleynu at one of our annual Lexington Choral Fest concerts, whose purpose is for choirs of Lexington Churches and Temples to share their songs and their traditions, with each other.

Note that currently, in Israel we find Siddurim that include a sentence that used to be common world wide:

‫שֶׁהֵם מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהֶבֶל וָרִיק ,‫וּמִתְפַּלְּלִים עַל אֵל לֹא יוֹשִׁיעַ
For they worship vanity and emptiness, and pray to a God who cannot save.

Might the recitation of this phrase, three times every day be connected with the attitude of extremist Israeli Jews who have total disregard for Arabs as human beings?

Note too, that the new Maḥzor Lev Shalem of the Rabbinical Assembly repairs the English translation. It reads:

He made us unlike the pagans who surrounded us.
Unlike the heathens of the ancient world.
He made our heritage different from theirs.

We note that the translation refers to the past not the present.

Is it sufficient to modify the English translation while leaving the Hebrew intact?

I don’t feel so. Doing so feels deceptive and ignores the fact that many Jews know Hebrew and feel the meaning of what they are saying and cannot ignore that meaning.

I will now present a proposal for a possible revision of the controversial two lines of the traditional Aleynu prayer.

Here are its virtues:
1. It avoids demeaning other peoples and expresses God’s connection with all of mankind
2. It can be sung without any change in the traditional melody
3. Its message of acknowledging both our evil inclination and good inclination, is deeply embedded in our Jewish tradition.

Our power to choose is the focus of the opening of today’s parshah, “R’ey”. This message in the Aleynu prayer would express our awareness of our human frailty and our need to rededicate ourselves in our behavior at the end of each and every Service.

Let us now take a look at this alternative.

Alternative Aleynu

עָלֵינוּ לְשַׁבֵּחַ לַאֳדוֹן הַכֹּל
לָתֵת גְדוּלָה לְיוֹצֵר בְּרֵאשִׁית
We are asked to give praise to the Lord of all,
to express the greatness of the Creator.

שֶׁהוּא עָשָֹנוּ עִם כָּל הַגוֹיִם
עִם יֵצֶר הַרָע וְעִם יֵצֶר הַטוֹב
Along with all peoples,
He gave us both an inclination to do evil and an inclination to do good.

שֶׁהוּא נָתָן לָנוּ יְכוֹלֶת לִבְחוֹר
בֵּין רוֹעָ וְחֶסֶד, בֵּין חֹשֶׁך וְאוֹר
He gave us the ability to choose
between malice and compassion, between darkness and light.

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