So, the Aleinu is a complicated prayer. Like all parts of the prayer service, its history is not entirely clear, although what IS clear is that the prayer as we know (especially the Reform and Reconstructionist versions) are 20th century phenomenon. The prayer in the siddur is actually two different pieces: the Aleinu and the V’al Kein. The aleinu praises god’s majesty, and the v’al kein expresses hope that one day all idolatry and wickedness will be wiped away.
When we were planning the first service, we were completely stuck about what to do with this prayer. We didn’t want to discard it completely, because it carries emotional, physical, and sonic values. The ritual of standing, the way voices become quieter when we bend over and then rise when we rise, the way our voices come together and invite harmony at the end – these are a vital part of the liturgical value of aleinu.
AND we utterly reject the theology and the message. King/ruler/bowing down – eh. And while we love affirming the belief that a time of redemption and peace will come, we reject the idea that this redemption will be “after idolatry and wickedness are swept away” and that the image of redemption is when everyone else bows down to OUR image of god.
We tried finding poems – but reading was NOT the same as standing, chanting, bowing. We tried finding new translations, but we couldn’t find much and what we did find didn’t address our concerns.
So, as a last minute compromise, we decided to just hum the damn thing. And by “hum” we meant the “yai-dee-dai” of Ashkenazi tradition. That would keep the motion and emotion and eliminate the problem.
We described this as holding a place in the service for a dream of a time of healing to come while acknowledging that we don’t know what that will look like and don’t want to impose our own image as the default answer.
Here’s what happened – it worked. Really worked. As in tear-jerking worked.
We’ve been doing it ever since – it’s become a signature of our service.