Aleinu: It’s Challenges and Some Responses
The story is told of the time when as Chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Louis Finklestein reached out to a leading philanthropist in the British Jewish community. The wealthy funder offered to open up England to the expansion of the Conservative Movement, on one condition: the firing of Professor Mordechai Kaplan. This donor disagreed with Kaplan’s scholarship, opinions, and especially his writings like his liturgical works. Millions of pounds sterling would quickly come, and room would be made for the fledgling new British Conservative Movement within the larger organizational
structure of British Jewry.
Many traditionalists despised Kaplan. His prayer book was thoroughly Modern and American much as it was Jewish. Changes to prayers were a regular feature of synagogue starting in the 1920’s; they found their publication in Kaplan’s Passover haggadah and then his siddur. Aleinu was among the prayers Kaplan reconstructed for a new age in Jewish civilization; he boldly dared to change the statement made right before the dramatic bending-and- bowing line. No longer did the hymn express gratitude to and recognition of God at the expense of other religions: Sh’lo sam helqenu kahem v’goraleinu k’hol hamonam/You have not made our portion like theirs nor our lot like everyone else’s. That line was removed. In its place was placed a positive statement using the familiar words of the Torah service:
Asher natan lanu Torat Emet v’hayei olam nata b’tocheinu/In that you have given us a Torah of Truth and life eternal planted within us. Then the traditional Aleinu words resumed with the bowing.
Of course, this particular statement of Judaism’s special election is not the only challenge presented by Aleinu. Centuries ago censors removed the clause in the first paragraph immediately before the bowing which declared the gentiles prayed to “gods that are emptiness and vanities, gods that do not save”. Centuries later, it is the second paragraph that triggers tensions among some modern Jews wary of religious visions built jointly on evangelical mission and apocalyptic expectations.
Kaplan’s daring liturgical changes were no less challenging to some traditionalists than the traditionalistliturgy was challenging to Kaplan. In June, 1945 a group of rabbis representing the Agudat HaRabbanim publicly excommunicated Kaplan; his siddur was burned at the end of the ritual. This ceremony was held at the Hotel McAlprin, the largest hotel in the world when built in 1912. The reaction within the larger Jewish world and in the larger American society was immediate and overwhelmingly negative. Who would have imagined that American rabbis would burn Jewish prayerbooks mere weeks after the Nazis surrendered in Europe? The Agudah quickly distanced themselves from “the unsanctioned work on an individual, not reflecting the organization as a whole.” Even so, the Agudah had made their feelings abundantly clear. Frankly, they were not alone in their distaste for Kaplan’s liturgical reconstructions;
the entire faculty of The Jewish Theological Seminary signed a letter expressing their upset at his “liturgical blasphemies” with the publication of his haggadah just a few years prior.
So, here was Chancellor Finklestein with a financial offer that promised historical impact for the
Conservative Movement, but at the expense of the academic freedom and integrity of the Seminary. I imagine it was with regret but not remorse that the offer was left on the table. There was no way that Chancellor Finklestein was going to impair the academic integrity of the Seminary for any donor, no matter how much money was at stake. He appreciated that the Seminary and the entire Conservative Movement had their joint roots in the critical study of Jewish texts and sources, guided by open and honest inquiry, and with the application of all the tools and methodologies available to further knowledge. He knew that critical and unbiased scholarship is incompatible with controls determined by the select interests and agendas of individual donors, no matter how important the positions they hold in their communities. In Finklestein’s moral calculus, the victory at the bank would have come at the cost of the Movement’s soul; he refused to prioritize political expediency over institutional integrity.
It is interesting to see what became of Kaplan’s version of Aleinu within the Conservative Movement. It was often chosen by congregations which produced their own in-house siddur throughout the 1950’s-1970’s. The first version of Siddur V’Ani Tefilati, the Masorti (Conservative Movement in Israel) siddur,presented Kaplan’s version as an alternative option in the Supplements section; it was removed from the 2nd edition. Instead, the alternative text based on a passage from the prophet Micah now appears next to the traditional Aleinu text in the main section of the siddur. In the States, Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals retains the original Hebrew passage, but refuses to acknowledge it in the translation. Kaplan’s formulation continues to be the wording of choice for many who have encountered
it in one siddur or another, within or beyond the context of Conservative Judaism. More saliently, Kaplan’s struggle will and should continue to be the struggle of any sensitive soul who takes seriously the task of responding to the challenges presented by Aleinu or any other part of our liturgy.