In the famous prayer “Ein Keloh-enu” (“Nobody is like our God”), sung at the end of the morning service in the synagogue, we discover a most remarkable inconsistency. In this prayer we first state that there is nobody like our God (Ein keloh-enu) and then we continue and ask “Mi-Keloh-enu”, who is like our God? Would it not have been more logical to first ask Who is like our God and then answer by stating that nobody is like Him?
Even more surprising is the fact that the prayer does not answer its own question. Nowhere throughout the song is there any answer to “Mi- Keloh-enu, who is like our God? One could only argue that it answers its own question by stating that there is nobody like God, which means that the answer is given before the question is posed! If so, it seems that it is not the answer but the question which counts!
By reversing the correct order and refusing to answer its own question, Judaism wants to make the point that the recognition of God is firstly an act of faith and only secondly an act of philosophical inquiry. This is not because reason has no place within Judaism, but because faith is more than reason. The latter is absorbed by the brain and unable to surpass it. When, however, an act of faith takes place, it occurs in the form of an upheaval which agitates the whole of man far beyond the limitation of the rational. Faith, while recognizing the importance of reason, is contingent on the courage of the believer to realize that reason can be abused as well as presumptuous.
By putting the answer before the question of who God actually is, Judaism seems to confront its followers with a most penetrating inquiry: How is reason able to understand something which is absolutely different from reason itself? For if God is absolutely unlike man, then man is absolutely unlike God. In that case we need to ask how human reason can be expected to understand God. It seems that for man merely to obtain the insight that God is radically different from man, he needs the help of God! One of the functions of reason, then, is to demonstrate its own limitations. Reason can disclose eternal truths, including the opacity of reason. Man needs to recognize that there are many things which surpass his intellect. All power corrupts, including the power of reason, and it often enslaves all those whose minds are not strong enough to master this fact.
The song of “Ein Keloh-enu” therefore reflects a deep Jewish sentiment. It rejects the traditional so-called rational demonstrations of the existence of God since they consist of a serious paradox. Once you prove God’s existence, you have brought Him within the limits of reason and, as such, have disproved the very thing you wanted to demonstrate.
To recognize that there might be something that not only transcends all concepts but stands totally outside the meaning of “concept” is a most 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. But then the souls are told that their life task is to find their way back to heaven, so they start looking for the ladder….. Some people give up, arguing: How can one ascend to heaven without the ladder? Others throw themselves to heaven and fall. But wise people are those who know that there is no alternative: What we are called to do is to try and that is what we must do. Whatever happens, we must continue to strive upward till God Himself will come to our aid.
“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.” (1)
This is the secret of “Ein Keloh-enu”. We first have to know that there is nobody like God and only then can we ask who is like Him, realizing that we already have obtained the answer before we even asked.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo
(1) Abraham Joshua Heschel: Man is not alone”, a Philosophy of Religion; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc; NY, page 35