Aleinu: God of All, or God of the Jews?
Aleinu, said at the end of every prayer service in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi liturgies since the seventeenth century, is one of the best known and least understood prayers in Jewish liturgy. Its origin is a subject of much controversy, though most probably it was written between the 3rd and 7th centuries, C.E. as the opening of the Malchiyot prayer on Rosh Hashanah. It first becomes part of the daily liturgy in 12th century France.
Lest its anti-idolatry stance be taken as anti-Christian, medieval and modern scholars have attributed is authorship to pre-Christian figures from Joshua to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. Since its terminology, thematics, and poetics fit that of classical liturgical poetry of the 5th to the 7th centuries, it is more likely related to the 3rd century amora Rav or Rav’s school,since the Jerusalem Talmud and other midrashic works consider him the author of Zichronot.
The Meaning of Aleinu
The two parts of Aleinu deal with our relationship to God in what appears to be contradictory, but is actually complementary.
Paragraph 1 – Israel’s Universal God
The first part of Aleinu expresses Israel’s exclusive relationship with God. The theological tension is palpable. The prayer begins:
עָלֵינוּ לְשַׁבֵּחַ לַאֲדון הַכּל לָתֵת גְּדֻלָּה לְיוצֵר בְּרֵאשִׁית
It is for us to praise the Master of all, to render the greatness of the Creator of the beginning.
The God of Israel, Aleinu states, is, in fact, the Master of all and Creator of the universe.
God is not presented as God of the Exodus or the covenant with the patriarchs, but pointedly the God of Creation. So why is the Master of all not worshipped by all, but only by us Jews? The answer to this question comes in two steps. The first is in the prooftext of the first paragraph (Deut. 4:39):
וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּוֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ כִּי יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת אֵין עוֹד.
For you have come to know this day and thus should take to heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other.
In other words, since no other people was made privy to such a revelation, only we (Jews), apprised of the truth of creation, are called upon to worship the one God who created all. But this answer is unsatisfying since a universal God should be worshipped universally, especially since, as the prayer has stated, only this God is real whereas all others are “emptiness” and “save not.” This tension is resolved in the vision for the future found in the second paragraph of Aleinu.
Paragraph 2 – The Future Reign of the Universal God
The second paragraph of Aleinu resolves this tension between a universal God and a non-universal worship base by pointing to a hoped for future where this will change. In order to close the gap between the God’s title “Master of all” (in paragraph one) and the limited worship of this universal God, paragraph two begins with, “therefore we hope for You, A-donai our God.” The hope expressed in this paragraph resolves the problem of the end of the first paragraph by claiming that God will move from being the God of Israel to the God of humanity.
One way the paragraph emphasizes this point literarily is by repeating the word “all (כל).”
- so that all the people of flesh will call upon Your name (וְכָל בְּנֵי בָשָׂר יִקְרְאוּ בִשְׁמֶךָ)
- to turn to You all the wicked of the earth (לְהַפְנוֹת אֵלֶיךָ כָּל רִשְׁעֵי אָרֶץ)
- all the inhabitants of the world will recognize and know (יַכִּירוּ וְיֵדְעוּ כָּל יוֹשְׁבֵי תֵבֵל)
- that to You every knee will bend (כִּי לְךָ תִּכְרַע כָּל בֶּרֶךְ)
- and every tongue vow (תִּשָָּבַע כָּל לָשׁוֹן)
- and they all will accept the yoke of Your kingship (וִיקַבְּלוּ כֻלָּם אֶת עֹל מַלְכוּתֶךָ)
Thus, the overarching theme of paragraph two is the universalizing of the worship of God from a Jewish practice to a human practice. This idea is further emphasized in the prayer by its use of four infinitive verbs “to see, to remove, to establish, and to turn,” which describe the process of global transformation. The first infinitive is for us, the Jews who are the “we” of Aleinu, to do; the last three are for God to do.
The First Infinitive – “To See (לראות)”
Our first hope is “to see the radiance of Your might (תִפְאֶרֶת עֻזֶּךָ).” This phrase alludes to the temple by evoking the verse of Psalms, כֵּ֭ן בַּקֹּ֣דֶשׁ חֲזִיתִ֑יךָ לִרְא֥וֹת עֻ֝זְּךָ֗ וּכְבוֹדֶֽך “So I beheld You in the sanctuary, to see Your oz(might) and kavod (glory)” (63:3). God’s anticipated appearance is imagined here as making the world a temple for the universal worship of God. The process is that God’s shekhinah (manifestation), which paragraph 1 locates in heaven and known only to us, becomes in paragraph 2 God’s tiferet (radiance), gloriously radiated to all on earth.
The Second Infinitive – “To Remove (להעביר)”
Once people see God’s might manifested on earth, the second infinitive of hope can take effect, namely, that God will act “to remove the idols from the earth so that the false gods will be utterly eliminated.” This hope reworks prophetic language for eliminating the false gods and their idolatry in order to establish the universal acceptance of God.
The Third Infinitive – “To Establish (לתכן)”
The third hope is for God letakein, which according to the early texts of Aleinu is spelled with a kaf not a quf, denoting “establish” not “repair.” Biblically, it applies to kingship, temple, and world. In fact, Psa. 96:10a spells out the thesis of our line, saying: “Declare among the nations: “A-donai is king, the world is stable, it cannot be shaken (אִמְר֤וּ בַגּוֹיִ֨ם׀ יְ-הֹ֮וָ֤ה מָלָ֗ךְ אַף־תִּכּ֣וֹן תֵּ֭בֵל בַּל־תִּמּ֑וֹט).” The issue, in this case, is not the stabilizing of the physical world, but the establishing of the religio-ethical world. Aleinu goes on to spell out what establishing the world in terms of divine kingship entails, namely, that God’s name will be called upon by all flesh, to whom all the wicked will turn, and to whom all inhabitants will pay obeisance.
The Fourth Infinitive – “To Turn (להפנות)”
The fourth hope is “to turn all the wicked of the earth to You” (2.5), which results from “all flesh calling upon Your name” (2.4). It is a remarkable example of turning a biblical phrase into grist for the visionary mill of Aleinu. “The wicked of the earth” occurs three times in Psalms, each time referring to their destruction, and not to their return to God. Aleinu, however, conforms to Ezekiel 33, the Rosh Hashanah piyyut Unetaneh Tokef, and to the rest of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy that prays, “evil [not evildoers] will be silenced and all wickedness [not the wicked] will dissipate like smoke.” In Aleinu, as in Rosh Hashanah liturgy generally, repentance displaces retribution. This time, it is not the repentance of Jews but of all humanity.
The Hoped for Future: Universal Acceptance of God
Were all four hopes to reach fruition, then, Aleinu (2.7a), continues (following Isa. 45:23) “all inhabitants of the world would fully realize that to You every knee must bend and every tongue vow loyalty,” as the Jews do in the first paragraph. This biblical theme is here translated into classical Rabbinic theological idiom: “and all shall accept the authority of your kingship so that You shall reign over them now and for all time.”
Unlike biblical covenantal theology, that envisions some strangers joining up with Israel wherever Israel is located (see Exod. 12:48, Deut. 29:10, Isa. 56:6-8), rabbinic coronation theology envisions the universal acceptance of the authority of Israel’s God. The goal is not the incorporation of humanity into Israel, but the extending of divine sovereignty to all humanity. Paragraph 1 divides humanity by their religio-ethnicity; paragraph 2 unites humanity by their religio-ethicality.
The vision of Aleinu is uncompromisingly universal. Like the creation narrative of Genesis 1:1-2:4a, it makes no mention of Zion, Temple, Torah, or Jewish practice. There is no epithet for the Jews only us/we, and no final judgment or conversion to Judaism, only the universal acceptance of God’s sovereignty.
Like the first U’vkhein section of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah, the universalism is epitomized in the multiple uses of kol (“every/all”). There we ask God to place His awe on all of humanity and all of creation so that all will bow before Him thereby becoming one union. The result is they will come to know the Ruler that we know.
In the Aleinu, we hope that God will eradicate idolatry and that all humanity with call upon His name. Included is every human being, every wicked person, every inhabitant, everyknee, and every tongue, for all will accept the sovereignty of God over all the earth.
Aleinu and Shema
The Rabbinic term for Israel’s recitation of the Shema verse is “the acceptance of the yoke of God’s kingship (קבלת עול מלכות שׁמים).” Aleinu’s term for all accepting God’s kingship is the virtually identical expression (2.8):וִיקַבְּלוּ כֻלָּם אֶת עֹל מַלְכוּתֶךָ. The movement from Israel’s acknowledgment of God’s rule to humanity’s is echoed in the midrashic question about the opening line of the Shema (Sifrei Deut. 31), שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְ-הֹוָ֥ה׀ אֶחָֽד “Hear Israel, A-donai our God, A-donai is One.”
ה' אלהינו, למה נאמר והלא כבר נאמר ה' אחד, מה תלמוד לומר אלהינו עלינו החל שמו ביותר
“Our God” – why does it say this? Doesn’t it already say that God is one? What does it teach us to say “our God”? Because his Name is most applicable to us.
The midrash is bothered by how the Torah can say that God is ours if there is only one God. Nobody says two plus our two is four. They give two answers. The first answer is that God was recognized by us first and to the greatest extent. But they have a second answer as well:
דבר אחר ה' אלהינו עלינו ה' אחד על כל באי העולם, ה' אלהינו בעולם הזה ה' אחד לעולם הבא וכן הוא אומר (זכריה יד ט) והיה ה' למלך על כל הארץ ביום ההוא יהיה ה' אחד ושמו אחד
“A-donai our God” – in the present world, “A-donai is one” – in the future world, as it says (Zech. 14:9): “A-donai will be king over the whole Earth, on that day, God will be One, and His name One.”
But is not God one now, asks the Talmud (b. Pesachim 50a). If God will be one on that day, then in what sense is He not in our day? The Talmud offers many answers, but the answer of the Aleinu is that God is not yet universally accepted; “One” thus entails “one for all” – a condition yet to be met.
With that point, we have come full circle. In their attempt to understand the paradox in the Shema of Israel’s God being the only God, the Rabbis look forward to future times when all humanity will accept divine sovereignty as Israel does already. As the Rabbis cite Zech. 14:9 to interpret “God is one” as “one for all,” so the Aleinu cites it to confirm its vision of universal divine sovereignty.
A Midrashic Connection between Aleinu and Shema
Later generations noticed that both parts of Aleinu begin with ע and conclude with ד, forming twice the word עד (“witness”), alluding to “By the testimony of two witnesses will the matter be substantiated” (Deut. 19:15). The last letter of שׁמע is ע, as the last letter of אחד is ד. Both are written magnified in the Torah scroll. Together, the Shema and the Aleinu bear “witness” to the liturgical shift from us as worshipers of the lord of all to all.
Conclusion: Restorative vs. Utopian Vision
Unlike most Jewish visions of the future, Aleinu is not restorative, looking to revive an ideal past; rather, it is utopian, looking to establish an ideal future. Although every knee bends to God, this is not under the threat of Jewish swords. In other words, Aleinu does not envision the Judaization of the world. Instead, it seeks the monotheization and ethicization (“to turn to You all the wicked of the earth”) of all humanity. It looks forward to the acceptance of God’s sovereignty by all humanity, which is synonymous—in Aleinu’s thinking—with the uprooting of evil.
The hoped for future is of a utopian world where all are God’s subjects. Israel is simply the avant-garde of the universal worship of God, entrusted with the first revelation of what everyone will eventually know to be the truth. That Aleinu should have become the finale, if not the Jewish national anthem, for the conclusion of daily prayer at the height of medieval religious intolerance is enigmatically marvelous.
The Text of the Aleinu
1. עָלֵינוּ לְשַׁבֵּחַ לַאֲדון הַכּל לָתֵת גְּדֻלָּה לְיוצֵר בְּרֵאשִׁית.
2. שֶׁלּא עָשנוּ כְּגויֵי הָאֲרָצות וְלא שמָנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחות הָאֲדָמָה.
3. שֶׁלּא שם חֶלְקֵנוּ כָּהֶם וְ[לא] גורָלֵנוּ כְּכָל הֲמונָם.
4. שֶׁהֵם מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהֶבֶל וְרִיק וּמִתְפַּלְלִים אֶל אֵל לא יושִׁיעַ.
5. וַאֲנַחְנוּ כּורְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים וּמודִים לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים (הַקָּדושׁ) בָּרוּךְ הוּא.
6. שֶׁהוּא נוטֶה שָׁמַיִם וְיוסֵד אָרֶץ.
7. וּמושַׁב יְקָרו בַּשּמַיִם מִמַּעַל. וּשְׁכִינַת עֻזּו בְּגָבְהֵי מְרוֹמִים.
8. הוּא אֱ־להֵינוּ אֵין עוֹד [אחר] אֱמֶת. מַלְכֵּנוּ אֶפֶס זוּלָתו.
9. כַּכָּתוּב בְּתורָתו: וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּום וַהֲשֵׁבתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ.
10. כִּי יי הוּא הָאֱ־להִים בַּשָּמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת. אֵין עוד:
1. עַל כֵּן נְקַוֶּה לְּךָ יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ:
2. לִרְאוֹת מְהֵרָה בְּתִפְאֶרֶת עֻזֶּךָ.
3. לְהַעֲבִיר גִּלּוּלִים מִן הָאָרֶץ וְהָאֱלִילִים כָּרוֹת יִכָּרֵתוּן.
4. לְתַכן עוֹלָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁ־דַּי וְכָל בְּנֵי בָשָׂר יִקְרְאוּ בִשְׁמֶךָ
5. לְהַפְנוֹת אֵלֶיךָ כָּל רִשְׁעֵי אָרֶץ יַכִּירוּ וְיֵדְעוּ כָּל יוֹשְׁבֵי תֵבֵל.
6. כִּי לְךָ תִּכְרַע כָּל בֶּרֶךְ תִּשָּבַע כָּל לָשׁוֹן.
7. לְפָנֶיךָ יְי אֱ־לֹהֵינוּ יִכְרְעוּ וְיִפֹּלוּ וְלִכְבוֹד שִׁמְךָ יְקָר יִתֵּנוּ.
8. וִיקַבְּלוּ כֻלָּם אֶת עֹל מַלְכוּתֶךָ וְתִמְלֹךְ עֲלֵיהֶם מְהֵרָה לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.
9. כִּי הַמַּלְכוּת שֶׁלְּךָ הִיא וּלְעוֹלְמֵי עַד תִּמְלֹךְ בְּכָבוֹד.
10.כַּכָּתוּב בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ: יְי יִמְלֹךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.
11. וְנֶאֱמַר: וְהָיָה יי לְמֶלֶךְ עַל כָּל הָאָרֶץ. בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִהְיֶה יי אֶחָד וּשְׁמוֹ אֶחָד.
- It is for us to praise the Master of all, to render the greatness of the Creator of the beginning.
- Who did not make us like the nations of the lands, and did not set us like the families of the earth.
- Who did not set our portion as theirs nor our destiny as all of them.
- For they bow to naught and emptiness and pray to a god who does not save.
- But we bend, bow, and give thanks before the king over the king of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
- Who spans the sky and founds the earth,
- Whose dwelling of glory is in the heavens above and whose manifestation of might is in the supernal heights
- He is our God, there is no other. True! He is our king, there is none besides Him
- As it is written in His Torah: “And you shall know today, and take to heart,
- that A-donai is the only God, in the heavens above and on earth below. There is no other” (Deut. 4:39).
- Therefore we put our hope in You, A-donai our God:
- to see soon the radiance of Your might;
- to remove all idols from the earth so that all false gods will be totally eliminated;
- to establish the world as the kingdom of God so that all the people of flesh will call upon Your name;
- to turn to You all the wicked of the earth (indeed) all the inhabitants of the world will recognize and know
- that to You every knee will bend and every tongue vow.
- Before You, A-donai our God, they will bend and kneel, thereby rendering glory to the honor of Your name.
- And they all will accept the yoke of Your kingship so that You will reign over them soon and forever,
- for kingship is Yours, and forever and ever may You reign in honor.
- As it is written in Your Torah: “A-donai will reign forever and ever” (Exod. 15:18).
- And it is said: “A-donai will be king over the whole Earth, on that day, God will be One, and His name One” (Zech. 14:9).
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Prof. Rabbi Reuven Kimelman is Professor of Classical Judaica at Brandeis University and rabbi of Beth Abraham Sephardic Congregation of New England, Brookline, MA. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in religious studies. He is the author of The Mystical Meaning of ‘Lekhah Dodi’ and Kabbalat Shabbat’ and the forthcoming The Rhetoric of the Jewish Liturgy: A Historical and Literary Commentary on the Prayer Book. His audio course books are The Hidden Poetry of the Jewish Prayer Book and The Moral Meaning of the Bible.
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