The ‘Aleinu Prayer starts out explaining in beautiful Hebrew that it would fit us Jews to glorify and ascribe greatness to G^d. Then it mentions that Jews stand out. Our uniqueness (“the Chosen People”) is always connected to obligation, not to privilege. Here that holy task is to acknowledge and proclaim that G^d, and our notion of Him, are exceptional. A similar sentiment we see for instance in Psalms 135 (Morning Prayers for Shabbat and Festivals) and 115 (whole Hallel for Festivals) and in Havdalah (Prayer at the End of Shabbat and Festivals).
The second half of ‘Aleinu is not to be forgotten though. There we express our hope that all people soon will stop following wicked leaders and that idolatry will vanish from the earth so that all humans will acknowledge the hegemony of One G^d and the futility of worshipping anything else. This belief in future unity in holiness we also see in the Main Prayer for our High Holidays. Our specialness as Jews is, being charged with taking the lead in spreading Monotheism but it is understood that worshipping idols (idles) fits no-one, not just Jews.
‘Aleinu leshabei’ach la-‘Adon hakol – It would fit us to glorify de L^rd of it all – is one of the most prominent Jewish prayers ever. This became clearer to me when a shidduch I once had, who had become Orthodox, told me that she came from a Reconstructionist Jewish family and that they would still say three prayers in Hebrew, Shema’ and ‘Aleinu being two of them.
On second thought, that could show the centrality of the ‘Aleinu Prayer – or it could be that they said it in Hebrew so that it wasn’t understood too well by English-speaking congregants.
Whatever that case, ‘Aleinu has survived the centuries. Originally only said twice yearly, in the longest prayer of the year, the Rosh Hashanah Additional Prayer Service, it was copied from there to conclude every Daily Prayer Service. But according to a second-hand news report, the Israeli Reform Movement now wants to alter its text. Their “disadvantage” may be that they know some Hebrew, which may have prompted their difficulty with it.
Reportedly they dislike the negativity in ‘Aleinu and its supposed disparagement towards non-Jews and dismissal of non-Jewish belief systems and want to remove that from their upcoming new prayerbook. “We don’t feel that we need to bring down others or nullify others in order to cite our uniqueness.” “To recite that ‘they bow to nothingness and vanity and pray to a God that does not save’ means that their belief is worth nothing.”
This, of course, reminds us of the Jews in Europe who were obligated to leave out the “They bow to nothingness and vanity and pray to a God that does not save,” because Christians thought that we were insulting Jesus – I would say: If the shoe fits, wear it. The precautionary omission of this sentence in ‘Aleinu is maintained throughout the Ashkenazic Jewish world until the present, except in the State of Israel where it finally was reintroduced.
(It is true that Jews are forbidden to pray to anything or anyone but to G^d. In prayer we are forbidden to address Angles, Saints, holy Ancestors, etc. Jews praying to Jesus or Maria would not only constitute a betrayal of the Jewish Tradition but it is for Jews a form of idol worship. For Jews! But not for Gentiles, who the rabbis approve to pray to additions to G^d!)
However, I totally disagree that ‘Aleinu insults Gentiles. I think that rather the new Reform objection does. ‘Aleinu makes fun of people who worship idols. And that is how you see non-Jews? In a time when the world counts over a billion Muslims, over two billion Christians and Catholics and with almost everyone else believing in Science, which is a form of Monotheism too!? When we pray for and proclaim our faith in a project that is almost complete, you come to tell us that Gentiles worship idols and we should not offend them for it? Really?
This is much like a White person telling a Black person he met three seconds ago: “You know, I loooove Jazz.” He wants to show being anti-racist but his assumption that any Black person is a representative of Black music (and all Jews play the violin so beautifully) is racist.
Last but not least, in the Netherlands a third of a century ago, they removed all traffic signs that say that you can’t turn left or right or make a u-turn. The replacement signs only show where traffic should go. That’s just nicer and more helpful psychologically, they felt in their secular worldview. (It’s the opposite in Israeli traffic that doesn’t know a concept of priority roads. At every crossing a sign says who should give priority. There are no roads that give a right of way automatically. Life goes better when we all try to live up to “our” obligations than when we all try to get “our” rights.) This pertains to the last point I wanted to make.
There is a big difference between saying “Do Shabbat and don’t violate it” and only saying “Do Shabbat.” The negative does not need to be harmful. The lack of Injunction makes it sound nicer but it takes away from the idea of how important obedience is here.
Of course, we can proclaim that we are excellent, but that is kind of stale compared to saying that we should stand out. It’s not that we compete with non-Jews. They can stand out too – in being Gentiles. But especially in our long fight against assimilation, it is not enough to say “We are a great People.” We must say that we are special. That is the difference between Jews and Gentiles. A non-Jew is perfect when s/he is a good person. But a Jew to qualify as good needs to be good and special. No special for specialness sake, to catch the eye. Rather, it is to behave as an advocate for and representative of Monotheism. By being just that, s/he’s not more, better, than a good Gentile. Rather, we’d only then be equals.
There is nothing wrong with taking responsibility – not just taking privilege – to lead all of humanity to greatness. It doesn’t mean that others would be second class, not good, not leaders, less. Jews have always stood out and that is what we should continue to do.