A call to restore Isaiah's words

What do you do with books you know you’ll no longer be reading?
Sell them? Donate them to your local public library? Gift your favorite Jewish institution with any appropriate volumes?
I admit to being “guilty” of all the above. But when I do the last of those three, the act sometimes becomes an exchange. Case in point: on a recent visit to The Legacy at Preston Hollow, I came away with a 40-year-old treasure which spoke to me in language appropriate to our rapidly approaching High Holy Days.
This large-format paperback is Bechol Levavcha — With All Your Heart, written by Harvey J. Fields and published in 1976 by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union of Reform Judaism). In it, Rabbi Fields provides trenchant commentaries on all the traditional Shabbat morning prayers, designed to promote understanding of the words in order to enhance their meaning as individuals say them during worship services.
I found myself turning page after page and finding gem after gem. I had never seen this volume before, but during its time — which was when the now-itself-obsolete Gates of Prayer appeared as the new replacement for the venerable old Union Prayer Book — this must have been a most valuable tool for teaching upper-level high school and adult education classes.
Let me share with you my most important discovery as I read through everything packed into these scant 178 pages (which include illustrations, transliterations, glossary and bibliography as well as text!): It’s a remarkable story of the Aleynu, which ends virtually every Jewish worship service as we bow our heads and bend our knees in reverence to the One God. But Rabbi Fields intrigues us:  “Seldom do we come across a prayer which is ancient, has brought persecution and death upon those who used it, and has become a symbol of a people’s courage and bravery.  The Aleynu is one of those rare pieces…”  So how did all this happen?
Nobody knows exactly who wrote this prayer, but most Jewish scholars agree that it originated in Maccabean times, and that its unknown author was referencing the Greco-Syrians’ worship of idols and their attempts to make Jews abandon their worship of One God.   The words clearly anticipate a time “…when all evil will be removed from the earth — when false gods will be completely destroyed.”
Meant to be a hopeful prayer, it began — then, as now — with “It is our duty to praise the Lord of all, the Creator of the universe.” But then, it continued with “He has not made us like the nations of other lands … for they bow down to vanity and emptiness, and pray to a god that cannot save.”  These words were derived from the writings of Isaiah, which of course were differently interpreted after the coming of Christianity.
And it was some Jews themselves — the earliest to embrace Jesus as messiah — who accused the words of slandering the beliefs of their new religion. The fact that Isaiah predated Jesus by more than seven centuries made no difference.
So the Aleynu caused Jewish grief then, and in the Crusades, and in the Inquisition, until finally, at the start of the 18th century, “the Prussian government censored the Jewish prayer book,” Rabbi Fields tells us.  And since that time, those “offensive” words have never been returned to our worship!
Rabbi Fields encourages his readers/students to compare the words of Isaiah, a fearlessly outspoken opponent of idol worship, with those deleted from the Aleynu, and asks if we might, or should, consider putting the latter back into a new prayerbook today.  But his “today” was 1976. Two Reform movement prayer books have been issued since he wrote Bechol Levavcha, and those original words are still absent.
All of us will bow our heads and bend our knees many times during the High Holy Days. As we do so, we might want to consider his question for ourselves.

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