During Musaf, three great themes are explored – Malchiyot, God’s Sovereignty; Zichronot, Divine Remembrance of our Deeds; and Shofarot, the Messianic Redemption. The introductory hymn to Malchiyot is Alenu, attributed to Rav (3rd cent. Babylonia) but probably written earlier.
The first paragraph is nationalistic. It speaks of the special responsibility God gave to the Jewish people.
The second paragraph is universalistic, yearning for the day when all mankind will acknowledge the King of all Creation.
The prayer skilfully interweaves Biblical and rabbinic allusions, using a form of parallelism that constantly offers two ways of saying things. The first paragraph, for instance, is structured thus:
1. It is our duty to praise the Lord of all, to ascribe greatness to the Creator of the Beginning,
2. He made us unlike other nations on earth, with a lot unlike theirs and a destiny unlike all their multitude.
3. Original text: They bow down to vanity and emptiness, and worship a god that cannot save.
We bow down, worship and acknowledge the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He;
1. He stretched out the heavens and established the earth;
2. His glory dwells in the heavens above, His majesty in the loftiest heights.
3. He is our God, there is no other: He is truly our King, there is none beside Him;
It is written in His Torah, “Know this day and take to heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath: there is no other” (Deut. 4:39).
The second paragraph is messianic. It prays for tikkun olam, the “repair of the world”, and yearns for mankind to be one and to call on the name of the One God who created heaven and earth (Zech. 14:9). It is not necessary for everyone to become Jewish, but all will worship the Jewish God.
Alenu has undergone immense persecution through the ages.
The reference in the first paragraph to heathens bowing down to vanity and emptiness and worshipping a god that cannot save was alleged to be an insult to Christianity. Nothing that Jews said by way of explanation could prevent attacks and murders as punishment for the alleged crime.
Yet these words actually come straight out of the Book of Isaiah (30:7, 45:20). Neither Isaiah in the 8th pre-Christian century nor Rav, who introduced Alenu to the Rosh HaShanah service, knew any Christians.
Both had idolaters in mind, but that was too obvious and logical for the antisemites to grasp, and the only way to save Alenu in some European countries was to eliminate the controversial sentence altogether, though it is still maintained in the Sephardi ritual and in many Ashkenazi communities.