The Politics of Miracle

The Exodus Miracle as Revolution according to Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Charlap

Dedicated to Zachary Braiterman

The Jewish tradition suggests that the miracle of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt is the foundational miracle upon which all miracles rest. The question is: what exactly was the miracle? In a provocative essay, Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Charlap (1882-1951) suggests that the unique nature of the exodus miracle is not any visual change in the natural order, such as the parting of the Reed Sea, but rather the erasure of exile as a category and the possibility that the slave can become the master through a new kind of servitude. This, he posits, is the notion of revolution, not viewed as a temporary intervention into the order of nature but a structural change in creation that points to the possibility of a usurpation of societal order for the sake of freedom and justice.

Image of Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Charlap courtesy of Harvard University Library/Wikimedia.

R. Ya’akov Moshe Charlap was born and died in Jerusalem having lived there his entire life. A respected member of the Old Settlement Jewish community – he was rabbi of the Shaarei Hesed neighborhood in Jerusalem – he became a Zionist and one of the closest colleagues (talmid/haver) of R. Abraham Isaac Kook. Charlap served as Dean (Rosh Yeshiva) of the Yeshivat Mercaz ha-Rav Kook from its founding in 1924 until his death in 1951 after which the position went to Kook’s son, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook. Charlap wrote a number of important works including the multi-volume Mei Marom dedicated to Torah commentary, essays on the festivals, and musar. The essay discussed here and translated below is from his volume of Mei Marom on Pesah and Shavuot.

Charlap begins his essay by making a distinction made earlier by Moses Nahmanides (1194-1270) that there are two types of miracles; one supernatural and the other natural. Supernatural miracles are interventions into the natural order while natural miracles go unnoticed, achieving miraculous ends via unseen means. Charlap understands this distinction a bit differently than Nahmanides. For Charlap, supernatural miracles are fleeting and thus constitute a lower form of miracle. Their purpose is largely to inspire those who witness it. Charlap writes, “the supernatural can only arouse a feeling that God indeed exists in this world. But because it only arouses this feeling, it comes and goes.” We can call these second-order miracles. The more potent and lasting type of miracle occurs unnoticed (that is, it can happen within the natural order) but consequentially alters everything that follows it. That is, it institutes permanent change. We can all these first-order miracles. This miracle is, for Charlap, a kind of divine intervention that changes everything. In fact, the miracle that goes unseen is the true foundation of the supernatural. He offers the provocative locution, “The changes in nature are not the miracle itself but rather the consequence of the miracle.” That is, the lasting change is not seen and the fleeting change (for example the parting of the Reed Sea) is because of the miracle and not the miracle itself.

In a sense, for Charlap, the supernatural miracle only indicates that the miracle already occurred. Thus the miracle at Sinai is not the essential miracle, but rather only the sign of a miracle that already happened at the exodus that was not yet manifest. Charlap writes, “after three months Israel received the Torah on that mountain [Sinai] and it was thus revealed that they had already received the Torah three months before immediately upon their exodus from Egypt [my italics].” He likens this to a pregnant woman whose pregnancy shows after three months, indicating she has already become pregnant three months prior.

The true miracle for Charlap is the possibility of revolution – that the order of the world, and society, can be radically changed without any discernable alternation in the natural order. For him this takes four forms. (1) aspects of creation that went unnoticed before that are now noticed; (2) exile as a category can be erased through the presence of freedom (3) a collective whole can be brought into existed where only parts existed before; and (4) a new kind of servitude can emerge that contains the seeds of freedom.

One of the relevant outcomes of Charlap’s rendering of the exodus (exhibited below in the translation of his essay) is the notion that radical societal change is not only possible but actually operative through the changed brought about through the miracle of the exodus.

We live in a world where even those who believe in “miracles” of Charlap’s second-order, supernatural miracles, are often skeptical in the possibility of radical societal change, Charlap’s first order miracle as revolution, claiming that the best we can hope for is the incremental change liberalism provides. Revolutionary change – radical change – is viewed by the liberal mind-set as naïve and even unsavory. Charlap argues just the opposite. The very occurrence of miracle – e.g. the parting of the Reed Sea – is not a first-order miracle but a sign that a revolution has already occurred, that slaves are now free, that society has turned upside down. And it is this first-order miracle that then becomes a permanent feature of creation.

Charlap ends his essay with a biblical rendering of Hegel’s famous “master-slave” narrative to explain his theory of first-order miracle. With Hegel, he claims we falsely think the master-slave relationship is absolutely hierarchical when in fact it is a relationship of mutual dependence. Hegel’s analogy is then taken up later by Marx as a loadstar of his thoughts on revolution and a classless society.

Abraham revealed that the servitude of Israel is because they have a master, God, and in this manner the more Israel submits and serves God, they more they become servants because their master is revealed in them. And because of this they [as servants] are called ‘sons of kings’. It is no surprise that this servitude actually has the taste of freedom, and it is thus through this servitude that they become eternally free.

The difference between Israel as slaves to Pharaoh and servants of God is not simply who is the master. For Charlap, the freedom of Israel through serving God is a sign of revolution; that servitude can itself yield freedom. For him, the true miracle of Passover is the inauguration of a revolution whereby one becomes an agent through submission.

Thus deeply absorbing the exodus – “everyone is obligated to see themselves as if they went out of Egypt” (b.T. Pesahim 117b) – is recognizing the possibility of revolution, that the societal order can change because it already has, it is already written into the order of creation. Thus incrementalism becomes an act of denying precisely what the exodus produced. Incrementalism views miracle only from the perspective of the second-order (supernatural) and views it skeptically. But the supernatural miracles are not really miracles at all – they are merely tools of inspiration to recognize that the first-order miracle already occurred. The exodus story for Charlap is thus a story of divine revolution, which is what miracle truly is. For Israel, the exodus did not simply yield freedom from slavery. There is no miracle in that, such occurrences happen often through the course of human history. The miracle of the exodus is the very erasure of the category of exile through a revolutionary transformation where slavery as an absence of agency becomes servitude as the engine of agency. By serving God instead of Pharaoh, Israel does not simply become free; Israel introduces a new notion of collective agency through submission to a higher cause. There is nothing incremental about the exodus story, the lasting miracle is not that the sea parted. The miracle is that the entire social structure has been inverted.

In an election season when Democratic debates often fall between those who believe in the possibility of more radical change (Democratic Socialists) and those who believe only in incrementalism (neoliberals), one is well-advised to think of the Passover story as an agent of political miracle. The revolution can happen because it has already happened. It is not simply that those who were once slaves are now free – it is that the order has already been, and thus can be again, reversed, that the slave can also be the master through a new kind of servitude.

Charlap suggests a collective (in this case, the people of Israel) is created in the exodus through which each particular is now reconstituted. Slave nations are not collectives but rather the sum of their parts. Collectives are born through the revolutionary change freedom brings, and each part is thus reconstituted as beholden to, and yet also independent of, the larger whole. Whether this speaks to a more socialist or more liberal mind-set depends on how those terms are defined. In any event, what Charlap argues in regards to the exodus is that the belief in miracle is, by definition, a belief in revolution, a belief that structures are not sacrosanct, that the possibility of societal change is founded on the belief that change has already occurred. And “everyone is obligated to see themselves as if they went out of Egypt.”

R. Yaakov Moshe Charlap – Mei Marom Passover, Essay # 3

                                                                                    Shaul Magid, translator

That which we normally call miracle usually constitutes a change [in nature] or some supernatural occurrence (yizyiat min ha teva). This, however, is not a complete miracle. The supernatural can only arouse a feeling that God indeed exists in this world. But because it only arouses this feeling, it comes and goes. The true foundation of miracle is the full [and lasting] disclosure of God in the world, and by means of this disclosure what is created is a revolution, as it says, “The sea saw [God] and fled, the mountains skipped lie rams, and the hills like young sheep.” (Ps. 114:3-4). [Put otherwise] it is not a miracle because there is an alternation of nature, rather it is the opposite, there is an alternation in nature because there is a miracle. The changes in nature are not the miracle itself but rather the consequence of the miracle.

From creation in its fullness (b’amitiuta), all of creation gives witness to its creator, and every action to the actor. However, this all becomes hidden from us and our ears become closed to hear such testimony.

Just as at the beginning of creation, the creator is recognized in the world – as there cannot be a creation without a creator – and the utterance of creation bursts forth from the mouth of God at every instant, as it says, “You, God, are eternal. Your word stands firm in the heavens.” (Ps. 119:89).

For example, just as the voice of the sun, even as it moves from one end of the world to the other, is not heard (b.T. Yoma 20b) so too the sounds of all of creation are not heard.

This is a general principle: a voice with no syllabic articulation (havarah) mediated through letters is not heard. The ear can absorb/comprehend sound without such expression because we know there is articulation in every movement of every living creature, the result of which we can hear their voices. But this not the case with the sun, whose voice is without any such articulation (havarah) and thus goes unheard.

This is true of every aspect of creation; because each one’s [voice] is not articulate, we have no ability to [truly] hear them. However, when we reach the stage of miracle, the light of God descends into the world and at times causes a change in the natural order, although the changes in nature are not the miracle itself but rather the consequence of the miracle.

This is the difference between miracles until Esther and miracles after Esther, “Esther marked the end of miracles.” (b.T. Yoma 29a). Supernatural occurrences also came afterwards, but they are not from the same place as those before that came about through the light of the divine, revealed from supernal phenomena from the Great Knowledge, the name of God and God’s strength.

These supernal phenomena were and will be. They revealed what they revealed and they last forever. In this regard the miracles around the exodus from Egypt are the very source of all miracles. Their source comes forth from Torah itself and thus they are eternal, both the actions and the actors. For eternality is only derived from Torah. [For example] the eternality of mitzvoth are only because they are rooted in Torah and thus the more one performs the mitzvot from the fact that they rooted in Torah, the more they reveal the light of Torah.

Therefore, miracles are written into the Torah because they reveal Torah itself, and this is what is meant by the verse, “And I told the people from Egypt to serve God on this mountain.” (Ex 3:12). On this verse Rashi notes, “There is something great in the very act of going out [of Egypt] because in the future Israel will receive the Torah on that mountain three months after they left Egypt.” The great thing here is that the return of divine light within them is wrapped in the very act of exiting Egypt. This can be likened to a woman who is pregnant but the fetus does not show until three months. Thus it is revealed after three months that she was already pregnant for three months. So too after three months Israel received the Torah on that mountain and it was thus revealed that they had already received the Torah three months before immediately upon their exit from Egypt [my italics]. “And there is a great thing in that exodus.” So too with every group or individual, every year when they feel that exodus [that act of exiting], they fulfill the obligation “everyone is obligated to see themselves as if they went out of Egypt (b.T. Pesahim 117b). They are purified through this, and the light of Torah will shine forth. And after some time this will also being about an inspired recognition [of this divine light].

The exodus from Egypt was primarily a collective event and even though there were other acts of divine disclosure, these other acts were primarily individual. With Egypt the entirety of Israel was present “[The House of] Jacob, each one and his house came.” (Exodus 1:1). And when they left Egypt, they all left, not one remnant of Israel remained. This act completely purified everything and everyone and not one Israelite was left in exile. And if there was to be found a stray Israelite residing elsewhere, the place where that Israelite was residing would also give honor to Israel. That is, the concept of exile did not exist at all. This is because the whole was already redeemed and that redemption was in both body and soul.  And the extent to which each individual was able to lift themselves up and extract any feeling of particularity and become absorbed in the collective, they would neither stumble nor suffer for any bodily or spiritual harm.

There is a principle that comes from the gathering together of particulars. This principle is that the collective is only that which exists in the particular. After the gathering of many particulars, the collective takes on the quality of distinction (perudim) of the particular, the gathering together of many particulars [to comprise the whole]. And thus there is a collective from which all the particulars emerge. And this collective cannot be divided. And the quality of the collective is what Israel achieved in the exodus from Egypt. That is, what was revealed was a collective that could not be divided and yet all its particulars [remained and] would emanate from that collective.

It is because of this that one is obliged to see oneself as if they went out of Egypt. That is, the insertion of the self that is in this collective of Israel, a collective that cannot be divided. In this sense, it is as if he or she too went from Egypt because one has become embedded in this collective that cannot be divided. Thus each one is absorbed in the collective and thus also went out of Egypt.

[Finally] we have already discussed the difference between servitude that stems from lordship, that is, because there is a master for every slave, and between lordship that comes from servitude. There is yet another distinction to be made between servitude that stems from lordship such that there is in servitude itself a kind of lordship and that lordship that stems from servitude that also contains lordship from servitude.

Abraham revealed that the servitude of Israel is because they have a master, God, and in this manner the more Israel submits and serves God, they more they become servants because their master is revealed in them. And because of this they [as servants] are called ‘sons of kings. It is no surprise that this servitude actually has the taste of freedom, and it is thus through this servitude that they become eternally free.

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