A letter in last week’s Dear Rabbi column expresses discomfort with the Aleinu prayer. This is a sentiment no doubt shared by many, myself included. There are of course many reasonable approaches to difficulties such as these, as we all must in some way make peace with our own doubts and insecurities. For myself, I first bear in mind the milieu in which the Aleinu must have originated. In the pagan world, the words of Aleinu certainly had a very real and practical resonance. The Jews, the first to express ethical monotheism, had good reason to see themselves as a bastion of truth and righteousness in a cruel and immoral world. The world has certainly moved on since then. The religious world has largely adopted the view of a universal ethic of divine origin. When they pray, they pray to our God.
But this does not consign the Aleinu to irrelevance. Meanings and concepts can and do change with time. While we must not, God forbid, denigrate those who sincerely worship God, the same God we worship, it is painfully all too clear that our world is not yet nearly perfected. Too often many in our society glorify and worship new idols – the pursuit of money, power, or material goods. There are too often those of all religions who profess devotion to God only to do terrible things in His name. In the face of these realities, a declaration that so many pray to a just and righteous God who made all men in His image is worth a prominent place in our prayers.
There are of course other reasonable solutions to this issue, though to me this is the best way to make sense of this ancient prayer in the context of this world in which we now live.