Aleinu: a Pro-choice Prayer
In my travels to various synagogues around the country and over the years, I have encountered a great deal of discomfort with “Aleinu l’shabei’akh,” a prayer that occurs toward the end of our communal worship, and proclaims that it is our responsibility to bow in acknowledgement of the following realities: we have not been constructed like other peoples of the earth; our communities feel obligated to act in particular ways that are often contrary to those around us; our piece of the pie is not the same as others’; and, we have unique baggage bequeathed to us by previous generations. Many see this as an unbelievably chutzpa-dik, holier-than-thou kind of statement. I can understand that. People struggle because they believe that being chosen has something to do with privilege. But perhaps chosenness has everything to do with responsibility, not reward.
When various household chores needed attending to in our home, I would often call upon my children to perform those tasks. Not because they were particularly skilled in this area, and there was certainly no reward involved. They were either in the right (or wrong) place at that time, and the job needed doing. They were chosen. The jobs were theirs to do, simply because they were raised in this particular family. Other families may very well function differently than ours.
The Jewish story is different than other stories of the earth. Our Torah, our travels, our tragedies and our triumphs are unique to our community. And no more or less unique than those of other religions and races and cultures. These stories and histories are our foundation. There are no better or worse stories. There is no contest. To think that we all have the same world-view, or that our values are prioritized in the same way is unrealistic. I hear Aleinu as an expression of appreciation for my community’s assumed responsibility for the betterment of the world. My entire Jewish upbringing tells me that in order to live with integrity, and in harmony with others, I must embrace the reality of our differences, and fulfill the vision that my Jewish journey has handed me.
I am obligated to repair the world. I am obligated to seek out the k’doshim b’chol yom, the holiness inherent in every day. I am obligated to take care of others, to love unconditionally, to use my words wisely, to maintain an open heart, and to have positive relationships with those around me. For all that I am expected to do, which takes up my entire life and is the real reason that I am here, I am obligated l’shabei’akh/to sing praise. In reality, the attempt to live in that way is the praise. It is the choosing to be chosen.
I think that we say Aleinu at the end of the service, with one foot out the door, so that we remember why we came to begin with – to embrace our chosenness, to gather communal strength for the journey, and to mindfully incline ourselves toward that unending sense of responsibility that is our inheritance.
“Aleinu l’shabei’akh” may be my favorite prayer of all. Especially in these troubled times. There is great work to be done.