Rabbi Zahavy’s response to the question about the Aleinu prayer has led me to appreciate more intensely its place in the liturgy and the concepts it presents, not because of his answer but almost in spite of it. My opinion is that his “rooting for the home team” metaphor trivializes – unintentionally, I’m certain – the critical themes it addresses.
The authorship of Aleinu is attributed to Joshua, who led the Israelites in their conquest of what was then known as Cana’an almost 3,300 years ago. Except for the incident at Ba’al Pe’or, where they failed miserably, the people were being exposed to foreign forms of worship for the first time in 40 years, and Aleinu obviously was designed to fortify them spiritually against those influences.
The pluralists and ecumenicalists like to say that we all pray to the same God. That may be so, but when you get down to the details, each of the world’s major religions is 100 percent mutually exclusive vis-Ã -vis all the others. Believers in Judaism cannot accept Jesus as the messiah, nor Mohammed as a prophet. Christians likewise can’t accept Mohammed, nor our view of Jesus. Muslims don’t accept the Christian messiah, and they believe that Abraham’s theological legacy was bequeathed not to Isaac but to Ishmael. This irreconcilability extends to the eastern religions as well.
The Aleinu prayer reminds us thrice daily that pluralism and ecumenicalism have a very limited place in Jewish thought, even as we may view other religions as guiding non-Jews in the direction of keeping the Noahide commandments. Our survival has been compromised by persecution (the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, etc.) and by intermarriage when we get too comfortable (e.g., Persia/Media in the period between the two Temples, today’s United States). Those among our ancestors who embraced other religions were lost to us, and today’s statistics lead to the rock-solid conclusion that those who intermarry are gone in the majority within two generations.
Aleinu sends a clear message that we have to remain focused on our differences with other religions. While the prayer doesn’t specifically refer to observance, our experience tells us that this too is necessary for our survival. As the old saying goes, “the Jews kept the Shabbos, and the Shabbos kept the Jews.”