Should Jews Stop Reciting the Messianic Alenu Prayer?

Haaretz columnist Carlo Strenger recently wrote a strong op-ed reeling against religious messianism in Israel. He called it the, "Decline and fall of Israel’s Messianic politics" which he sums up thus, "Ultimately, Israel’s sane majority that wants peace and democracy rather than war and theocracy will wake up and break the destructive stranglehold of those who wish to make the country a theocracy."

In the heat of his argument Strenger, more freely than he ought, interchanges millenial, messianic and apocalyptic religious activism. Yet he does make his point clear. He prefers less messianism and more realism for Israel. Hence his wishful title.

Strenger gets a bit bleary in his logic when he argues, "The question is, what price will Israel have to pay until its citizens realize that four decades of messianic politics are threatening to destroy the down-to-earth, realistic vision of being free people in our own country?" Indeed does he realize that he lapses into an apocalyptic tone of his own with a narrative of imminent destruction? He confirms that he suffers from a futurist narrative by later saying, "Unfortunately, many Israelis as yet prefer disregarding the reality that international pressure will soon exact a heavy price that we all want to prevent." That is his apocalyptic story and he is sticking to it.

Yet, this messianism that Strenger fears is a core component of Judaism and one which we do not downplay in our religious practices. In fact we recite the overtly messianic and triumphalist Alenu prayer in the synagogue three times daily, over 1000 times a year. The message of this prayer is clear that theocracy is the desired destiny for Israel and the entire world:
...Therefore, we place our hope in You, LORD our God, that we may soon see the glory of Your power, when You will remove abominations from the earth, and idols will be utterly destroyed, when the world will be perfected under the sovereignty of the Almighty, when humanity call on Your name, to turn all the earth’s wicked toward You. All the world’s inhabitants will realize and know that to You every knee must bow and every tongue swear loyalty. Before You, LORD our God, they kneel and bow down and give honor to Your glorious name...
If Strenger is serious about his call for a decrease in messianic extremism within the religious camp, he ought to be negotiating with the leadership to temper their incitement. Well yes, okay - it is prayer, not incitement. And the chances of any liturgical change are close to zero, given the conservative nature of the religion, especially in its fundamentalist Orthodox version.

But if they are serious and informed, should not the liberal activists be demanding specific and explicit things from the religious leadership? Shouldn't they be asking that Alenu be removed from the daily liturgy, or at least, that it be clearly emended or interpreted so that it not serve to foster extremism?

One could argue that prayer is a strong substance, like a strong drug. It should be controlled by experts and the dosage should be adjusted so that people do not get too much. That could be harmful.

Perhaps for starters Strenger should approach the rabbinate and ask that they remove the Alenu from the daily evening prayer. Then over time, if that seems to help temper extremism, he could next ask that the daily afternoon Alenu be cancelled. It might eventually be enough to have Jews recite the prayer just twice a year in the Rosh Hashanah Additional Service, where it originated in the history of liturgical growth.

We say to those like Strenger, if you oppose a political program that you attribute to religion, get yourself a specific plan to confront it within the mechanisms of the religion. And then see what you can do to get that adopted. After all Strenger claims to have the franchise on the Zionist, "down-to-earth, realistic vision." We say he ought to prove his realism with a plan.

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