Participating in daily services online, as I’m now doing to say Kaddish for my sister, makes me think more deeply about prayers I have been saying all my life and often take for granted. The Aleinu is the second last prayer in Jewish services, followed by the memorial Kaddish prayer. Aleinu, to me, is the most political prayer in our liturgy, because it speaks of desired changes in governance. Its melody is majestic and upbeat, something of a contrast to many of the other Ashkenazi tunes in the service.
The Reform Jewish version of the Aleinu contains the following English translation:
Let the time not be distant, O God, when all shall turn to you in love, when corruption and evil shall give way to integrity and goodness, when superstition shall no longer enslave the mind, nor idolatry blind the eye.
I have said these words for as long as I can remember praying. But I confess that I found them, taken literally, somewhat quaint. The US, where Reform Jews outnumber their Conservative and Orthodox brethren, has historically ranked reasonably high on international league tables for transparent and clean government and its science has been world-leading. The story for Canada would be similar, though higher on transparent and clean government and not quite world-leading on science. When reading this prayer, I thought that there were other policy priorities, such as the environment and international cooperation, that were more important than fighting corruption, superstition, and idolatry.
But the policies of the Trump Administration and behavior of President Trump changed my thinking. I began to consider these words metaphorically, rather than literally, and in the context of the Trump Administration. From this point of view the prayer makes perfect sense and is completely relevant. Conflict of interest, self-dealing, and attempts to put the President and his family above the law have been its hallmarks. The Administration has attacked environmental science and tried to cast doubt on epidemiology and Trump himself has recommended unproven cures for Covid-19 such as hydroxychloroquine and ingesting bleach – all of which are instances of superstition. The Administration has consistently worshiped mammon, wealth narrowly defined as GDP without any concern for global warming, for the pollution of air, soil, and water, and for equality in the distribution of income and wealth.
I should say that I find the word evil in the prayer less compelling and less concrete than corruption, superstition, and idolatry. The evil the Trump Administration does is the result of its corruption, superstition, and idolatry as well as many other transgressions not referred to in the Aleinu, such as xenophobia.
In the conversation that followed one of our services, I mentioned my interpretation of the Aleinu to the minyan, and one of the members, who is Brazilian by background, added that it also fits the Bolsonaro Government perfectly. I think he’s completely correct and would argue – indeed have argued in blog posts and articles about right-wing populist governance – that corruption, superstition, and the idolatry of mammon all are intrinsic features.
So, from now, when I say the Aleinu prayer, I will read this portion of it as a critique of the Trump Administration. The ultimate value of prayer is that it leads to action. In future posts, especially as the US election approaches, I will write about action that non-Americans such as myself can take to bring about political change in the US.