How We Can Be Rational, Yet Still Believe in God
In memory of Dafna Meir, who lost her life in a terrorist attack on January 17, 2015.
Few prayers are more perplexing than the one called “Ein K’eloheinu.” This famous song is chanted at the end of the morning prayers. But it makes little sense. In fact, it seems more than just odd.
We first sing “Ein K’eloheinu” (There is nobody like our God), and then we ask “Mi K’eloheinu“(Who is like our God?). This is puzzling. It appears as if we made a mistake in the order of the text, and started with the second sentence instead of the first one. Would it not be more logical to first ask who is like our God, and then answer that nobody is like Him?
Even more surprising is the fact that the song does not answer its own question. Nowhere throughout the song is there any reply to “Mi K’eloheinu.” One could argue only that the song answers its own question with. “There is nobody like our God,” but even then, the question is asked after the answer is already given! What, then, is the purpose of asking the question? It seems that it is not the answer that counts, but rather the question.
By reversing the obvious order and refusing to answer its own question, Judaism wants to make the point that the recognition of God is, above all, an act of faith. Secondary to that, it is in the realm of philosophical inquiry. This is not because reason has no place within Judaism, but because faith is deeper than reason. Reason is absorbed by the brain but unable to surpass it. However, when an act of faith takes place, it occurs in the form of an upheaval that agitates the whole of man far beyond the limitations of reasoning. Faith, while recognizing the importance of reason, is contingent on the courage of the believer to realize that reason can be presumptuous and abused.
By putting the answer before the question, the song of “Ein K’eloheinu” asks a most powerful question: How is reason able to understand that which is absolutely different from it? If God is completely unlike man, then man is completely unlike God. How, then, can human reason be expected to understand God? Man needs God’s help even to simply grasp the knowledge that God is unlike him.
At the same time, though, one can and should use reason to demonstrate its own limitations. Reason can disclose eternal truths, including the opacity of reason. One of its primary functions is to recognize that there exists an infinity of things that surpass it (Pascal). And just as power corrupts, reason can corrupt, often enslaving all those whose minds are not strong enough to master it.
The song “Ein K’eloheinu,” therefore, reflects a deep Jewish sentiment. It rejects the traditional so-called rational proofs for the existence of God, since they are based on a serious paradox. Once you prove God’s existence, you have brought Him within the limits of reason, thereby disproving the very thing you wanted to substantiate.
To recognize that there may be something that not only transcends all concepts but stands totally outside of any concept is an important dimension of religious truth.
All souls descend from Heaven to earth, said the Kotzker Rebbe, and once they have arrived, the ladder is removed. The souls are then summoned to find their way back to Heaven. Some people give up immediately; after all, without a ladder how can one ascend to Heaven? Others leap toward Heaven, but after a number of unsuccessful attempts, they, too, fall into despair. The wise souls, however, are those who know that there is only one option. What we are called upon to try to do, we must do. No matter what happens, we must continue to strive upward until God Himself will come to our aid.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, said, “In the confinement of our study rooms, our knowledge seems to us a pillar of light. But when we stand at the door which opens out to the infinite, we realize that all concepts are but glittering motes that populate a sunbeam.”
This is the secret of “Ein K’eloheinu.”