So, the Aleynu 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. And we did that for 14 years.
But then – COVID. As it became clear that we would be online for the foreseeable future, so that we wouldn’t have the power of humming and bowing together live, we needed another option – the summing up of the service before mourner’s kaddish is too important a space to have a nearly-silent energy void. So now, in year 15, we’re experimenting with using the last paragraph’s of Marge Piercy’s long poem “Nishmat.” The images she creates resonate with many of us, especially the reality of standing in the midst of a burning world, and rather than “wiping away others” she is reaching for connection based in shared in-dwelling spirit. And the great closing of “rise and praise” invites the act of bowing that is so central to the practice of performing aleynu, so keeps the familiar emotional resonance.
So, for now, Piercy’s words are our aleynu, for as along as they serve our community. When they don’t, we’ll pivot and find some new way to express our closing hope for a way through this.