The liturgical poem or piyyut, V’chol Ma’aminim follows in the High Holiday Machzor the Unetaneh Tokef, the liturgical paean to human uncertainty and exposure and to the sovereign power of God. What appears on the surface to be a simple, straightforward trust in God’s justice and goodness turns out to be morally convoluted.
Everyone trusts that God is just and good, that God is the true Judge and mighty Redeemer who can do anything. God is long-suffering with the wicked. God wants them to repent and return. That is the simple part of conventional Jewish trust in God.
More strange is this:
God is good (meitiv) to the wicked; and to the good. Everyone trusts that God is good first to the wicked and then to the good. Everyone trusts that God is malleable, easy to reconcile. God’s work is perfect.
To be sure, who is wicked lies in the eye of the beholder. But why should God be good to the them? To the Jew haters and racists? To gross and violent people? To the gross and violent people who exercise power over others? To be lenient, to suspend judgment, to not intervene is one thing, and to do active good to the wicked another thing entirely. The text only aggravates the theodicy problem. The problem is no longer divine justice, but divine mercy. Or maybe this is about the bending of God to human purposes.
The God of liturgy is intimate and loose. Even the sovereign God and God of Judgment. In this piyyut, God does not punish wicked people. In this piyyut, there is no moral calculus. Everyone trusts that God knows the inclination (yetzer) of all creatures (yetzurim). God is their creator (yotzram) in the womb.
(text is from 1948, Reconstructionist Machzor)
Joshua Schwartz kindly sent me this link to this contemporary reflection here on the piyyut by Tirzah Leibovitch (sp?) in Hebrew. Joshua quoted a passage from the piece here which (because i’m lazy) i google translated into English:
A conceptual examination of the piyyut, the asymmetry within each sentence, detailed above, contributes to the feeling of the piyyut narrator that he is standing on uneven and unsafe ground – in fact, at an impossible point. It can be said that it reflects the impossible point of balance that the bard seeks to evoke through the piyyut: on the one hand, God knows everything and there is no prejudice before him: Truth, Equality, and Judge of Justice, promises that he will judge every man what he deserves. And even desires the justification of evil
For textual sources, Alana Suskin and Alan Brill sent me variously to Taanit 7a (the rains fall for the righteous and the wicked, as opposed to the resurrection which is only for the righteous), Matthew 5:45 (“for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”). Birkat Ha’Mazon blesses God as “meitiv la’kol.” Alan also notes that Laura S. Lieber in her book on Yannai, the payytan of this piyyut (Yannai on Genesis: An Invitation to Piyyut) has the wicked getting destroyed in every poem she cites.
And from Yitz Landes, a bona fide piyyut person: [I]t’s not pashut that this is Yannai, but that it is certainly an “early” classical piyyut, like, pre-Qalir (can provide literature on that if needed); (2) that said there are some similar lines in genuine piyyutim of Yannai, e.g. from his qedushta to Devarim 22:6, “וכי אתה מיטיב לרעים ומרחם על אכזרים,” and some others, too; (3) for rabbinic sources, see b. Eruvin 22a: “ארך אפים ארך אף מבעי ליה אלא ארך אפים לצדיקים ארך אפים לרשעים,” Tanhuma Nitzavim 2, “והקדוש ברוך הוא אינו כן, כי רחמיו על כל מעשיו, על הזכרים ועל הנקבות, ועל הצדיקים ועל הרשעים, שנאמר: מחוטב עציך עד שואב מימיך,” for example; (4) see also Ez. 18:21-22; (5) Bronznik in his commentary to Yannai raises a qashya–it says in the midrash (Qohelet Rabbah 7:16 and elsewhere), that one cannot have rahmanus on אכזרים! And Bronznik’s answer is there are two kinds of אכזרים–one who does evil things for absolutely no legitimate reason, and the other who does evil more passively, without full recognition that what he is doing is evil–and on the latter we can have rahmanus