In a letter to Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy’s column, the writer questions the “confrontational tone” of the Aleinu prayer, “its proclamation that we are the only true faith and all other gods are worthless and powerless.”
But the prayer does not say that Judaism is the only true faith. It says that following the one God is the true faith. It does not deny other ways of following the one God. Certainly a Muslim or a Christian should have no problem with the prayer. (Actually, historically Christians did have problems with the prayer, but not because of the clear meaning of the current text.)
It’s a prayer that any monotheist should find acceptable. Even versions of Eastern religions-Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism-have presented themselves as monotheist, placing them within the purview of the prayer. And we should keep in mind that Judaism has a history of interpretation – so the first/obvious understanding of a passage is not the only one, or the most important.
In this interpretive vein, we even can think of the one God in humanistic terms – as the best of justice and compassion, shared by all cultures. We are vowing loyalty to the ideal of justice and compassion-whether we see this in theistic, metaphysical, or human terms.
This mode of interpretation can also be taken to the phrase, “all other gods are worthless and powerless.” “All other gods” can be seen as those that do not embody justice and compassion. If the “god” does embody justice and compassion, it can be viewed as a poetic/metaphorical version of the one true God.
In more humanistic terms too, “other gods” can be seen as goals and motivations that counter justice and compassion – e.g., tyranny and avarice.
Concerning Aleinu’s other confront-ational phrase -“â€¦who has not made us like the nations of the world and has not placed us like the families of the earthâ€¦” – that could be said by any people. All peoples are unique, not like the others, and can be thankful for their uniqueness. And all (at their best) have their contributions and ways to honor/worship justice and compassion. Actually, modern Jewish interpretations of this phrase, from Orthodox through Humanistic, have accepted this idea of the unique contributions of each of the world’s people.
In this way, concerning the call for acceptance of the one God, our attitude toward other gods, and our attitude toward other peoples, we can value the prayer as a commitment to justice and compassion, not, as Rabbi Zahavy suggests, just an overly motivated locker-room pep talk.