Q. The High Holyday poem, V’chol Ma’aminim, “And All Believe”, is intellectually problematical. It lists things that most people don’t or can’t believe. So why do we sing it?
A. Firstly one has to say that, like many a popular passage, it is the melody more than the words that lends appeal to this piyyut. Nonetheless, even a superficial glance at V’chol Ma’aminim puzzles anyone who is concerned with content and not merely melodic form.
“And all believe… and all believe…” – is it really true that everyone is a believer? Is it even true that everyone who believes is always a believer and has no moments of kat’nut emunah – “littleness of faith”?
The hymn was composed by Yannai (6th century) or Yochanan HaKohen (9th century). In the days of either poet, belief in God was axiomatic. Unbelief, either as atheism or in the more polite but intellectually ambiguous form of agnosticism, did not really bother our ancestors until relatively recent centuries.
When Maimonides formulated his detailed arguments for the existence of God, he probably intended to offer an analysis of what his contemporaries accepted on instinct and because of tradition. But we do not have that luxury.
True, Rav Kook insisted that even the supposed atheist was really a believer deep down, or at least someone who was seeking to believe.
Our own experience is rather more sobering. We can argue that those who say that after the Holocaust they cannot believe, would possibly fit the Rav Kook theory as people who would prefer to be able to believe. But we cannot brush aside the existence of ideological atheism with its insistence that secularism is a valid option.
So what do we do with V’chol Ma’aminim?
For an answer, look at the Hebrew. What does v’chol actually mean?
“And all” may be understood as “all human beings”, but it may also be “all things”.
What does ma’aminim mean?
It can be “believe”, but it can also be “attest” or “confirm”.
To say, “and all (human beings) believe” is not statistically true. At best it is wishful thinking. But surely the words can be taken as saying, “And all (things, or facts) attest”, affirming that the proof of God is all around us if only we have eyes to see.
The Psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky’s expanse shows the work of His hands” (Psalm 19:2). Everything in Creation points to Him.
In this sense a High Holyday congregation can and must sing V’chol Ma’aminim with gusto and wonder how anyone can fail to agree.