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The Experience of Jewish Liturgy (Brill Reference Library of Judaism:Aleinu and its Anti-Christian Character

jan peczkis|Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Experience of Jewish Liturgy (Brill Reference Library of Judaism

Contains Insights Into the Aleinu and Its Anti-Christian Character. Implications of Christian Censorship of the Aleinu,This review is from: The Experience of Jewish Liturgy (Brill Reference Library of Judaism) (Hardcover) The Experience of Jewish Liturgy (Brill Reference Library of Judaism

My review features the excellent article, by Ruth Langer, on the Aleinu [Alenu]. She focuses on the anti-Christian implications of the part of the prayer wherein Jews refer to non-Jews as ones that “bow down to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god that does not save.” (p. 156). I elaborate on this in the latter part of my review.


Author Ruth Langer dwells on the Christian censorship of the Aleinu. It happened in both Catholic and Protestant countries, especially after the widespread availability of the printing press. However, the censorship was inconsistent, and this inconsistency was true at different levels. Thus, some manuscripts were censored, while many others were spared. (pp. 156-157). Some censored versions of Aleinu left a space where the offending words were left out, while others were printed as if nothing had been omitted. Again, this practice was inconsistent, even within the different editions of the prayer book, and Langer warns against reading too much into it. (p. 161, 163). Some versions of the Aleinu changed the wording to avoid offending Christians. More on this later.

Times have changed. In recent decades, among both Israeli and increasingly American Orthodox Jews, the offending lines have been restored to their original. (p. 161).


The author also considers, in less detail, the Jewish supremacist aspects of the Aleinu. Langer begins by contrasts the dispensability of the “bow down” part and the indispensability of the “not made me a gentile” part, (quote) One element is certainly that in the aftermath of censorship, it was permissible simply to omit the sensitive line because Aleinu is fundamentally a piece of liturgical poetry and thus its situation is more parallel to that of other problematic PIYUTIM than to texts like SHE-LO ASANI GOY (who has not made me a gentile) or the Birkat ha-Minim (the twelfth benediction of the daily Amidah), both of which carry Talmudic authority and are hence required. PIYUT, in contrast, could be—and was—simply dropped. (p. 162). (On the latter, please click on, and read my detailed review, of Cursing the Christians?: A History of the Birkat HaMinim.)

Langer acknowledges the Jewish supremacist nature of part of the Aleinu, using other words, and does so in the context of Christian censorship of the prayer. This censorship usually was limited to the “bow down to vanity” part, but sometimes also encompassed the part where Jews thank God that they were not made gentiles. She writes, (quote) On occasion, censors objected to more of the text, including the statement of Jewish superiority over other nations that precedes this line… (unquote). (p. 156).

The author mentions Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, and his 1945 Reconstructionist prayer book, in the context of life after death. (p. 88). However, Kaplan also modified the Aleinu because of what he called “the asserted or implied superiority of Israel over other peoples” and what he called “the invidious contrast between Israel and other peoples”. Please click on, and read my detailed review, of Sabbath Prayer Book.


The following paragraphs are direct quotes from Ruth Langer. [THE ALL-CAPITALS IN BRACKETS ARE MINE COMMENTS. The lower-case remarks in brackets are hers]:

Aleinu is ancient, though its precise origin is obscure. (p. 148)…While the prayer may indeed have been composed early enough that Jews were contrasting themselves with polytheists, it is also not impossible that this line was a lightly veiled polemical response to Christianity’s insistence that salvation comes only through baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. (p. 149).

[FAST FORWARD TO THE 12TH CENTURY]. Evidence suggests that for at least some of them, the reference to the gods of other nations did refer explicitly to Jesus, for they elaborated on “vanity and emptiness” as follows: [QUOTED HEBREW TEXT]…The intent of insertion seems to be that other nations prostrate themselves to “a man, of ashes, blood, [and] bile, flesh [an embarrassment] of rot and worms.” This is apparently a direct reference to Jesus, emphasizing his base humanity and denying his resurrection; it asserts in graphic terms that his body decomposed like anyone else’s. The insert then continues, using terms grammatically in the plural, both masculine and feminine. These must address Jesus’s worshippers, and these terms too refute basic Christian claims, asserting that Christians are all “impure and adulterous, dying in their iniquities and rotting in their sins, decomposing in the dust, rotten with worms and maggots.” (p. 150).

[THE FOLLOWING IS AN ALLUSION TO THE 13TH CENTURY ARUGAT HA-BOSEM OF RABBI ABRAHAM BEN AZRIEL, AND THE GEMATRIA (NUMEROLOGY) REFERRING TO JESUS AND MUHAMMAD]: Both VA-RIK (lit., and emptiness) and YESHU have the numerical value of 316, leading many to understand that this prayer embeds within its language a specific anti-Christian intent. It is irrelevant whether or not this intent was original from at least the High Middle Ages, this was the meaning of the line for many Jews. In addition, to add extra emphasis to the word VA-RIK, a custom arose to spit (ROK) at this point. (p. 153). [RUTH LANGER DOES NOT DEVELOP THIS POINT FURTHER. DOES IT CLARIFY THE JEWISH CUSTOM OF SPITTING IN FRONT OF CHURCHES?]

[THE FOLLOWING TOOK PLACE IN THE FACE OF CHRISTIAN CENSORSHIP]: Many change SHE-HEM (for they) into SHE-HAYU (they used to), and some also substitute ELIHIM (false gods, idols) for HEVEL VA-RIK (vanity and emptiness), thus removing the source of the reference to Jesus and also making the entire line refer to some vague ancestral others and not to current practice. (p. 159). [A SIMILAR EXCULPATION HAS COMMONLY BEEN USED FOR THE TALMUD—BY SAYING THAT THE ANTI-GOY VERSES REFER TO ANCIENT PAGANS AND NOT TO THE GENTILES OF POST-TALMUDIC TIMES]
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