Jewish liturgy is the expression of the hopes, fears, joys and sorrows of the Jewish people, and the Aleinu, the best-known concluding prayer, is a very good example.
Composed when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, and originally recited only on the High Holy Days, it became part of the daily liturgy after the ‘blood libel’ massacre of the Jews of Blois, France, in 1171.
From that date, and following repeated expulsions and massacres, the Ashkenazim began to understand the phrase ‘for they bow down to vanity and emptiness’ as referring to their Christian neighbours.
Further the word ‘emptiness’ was identified with Jesus, since in Hebrew the word ‘emptiness’ and Jesus’ name have the same (gematria) numerical value. At those words, the praying Jew would spit on the ground.
It was not until the decree of Frederick I, Emperor of Prussia, that this offending phrase was removed from Ashkenazi prayer books in 1703. It only returned recently.
With the establishment of the state of Israel, some modern Ashkenazi rites have reintroduced the phrase.
Indeed it was cited in defence of those who attempted to burn down the Christian pilgrim site, the Church of the Loaves and the Fishes in the Galilee.
Liberal Judaism has been a champion of interfaith dialogue and affirms the value of living in a multi-faith community amid diverse people. In modern Liberal liturgy, the Jewish people are perceived to have a role, but not a superior one.
Thus the Jewish people are called to ‘guard the Land’ or ‘teach Torah’, but as far as Liberal Judaism is concerned, it does so as part of God’s plan for a diverse humanity – all of whom have an integral and important role to play.
Danny Rich is senior rabbi of Liberal Judaism