Paradise Lost: When ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas Taught Jewish Pluralism

Are the ancient Jewish principles of conversation, pluralism and toleration I encountered in studying both English literature and the Talmud in danger of extinction, as the ultra-religious world embraces extremism and exclusion?

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I am a religious scholar of English Renaissance Literature, so, as unlikely as it may sound, I am an ultra-Orthodox Miltonist.

It was reading John Milton - not only his great epic "Paradise Lost", but his prose works, especially "Areopagitica", the resounding defense of freedom of expression of 1644, that made me return to Judaism.

Secular, questioning and predisposed against religion, I read Milton as part of a scholarly vocation; my encounter with works in the Jewish tradition, almost accidental, came from following Milton’s enthusiastic lead. Milton knew some Hebrew: Paradise Lost is a study in Christian "midrash" on Genesis, filled with "midrashim" [rabbinic stories] that he knew from their Latin translation, while the pluralism of Areopagitica reads as decidedly rabbinic.

Milton advocated a "new Israel," his ideal state or commonwealth, in which people might disagree, in which perfection consisted in acknowledging the impossibility of complete knowledge, where skepticism was an integral part of religious belief. During the 17th century English Revolution, Milton's parliamentary adversaries advocated the opposite: censorship that was an assault upon this process of "knowledge in the making," a form of idolatry and an impediment to Milton's search for truth.

In part on account of Milton, I came to Israel, learned the aleph-bet [Hebrew alphabet] and went on to ultra-Orthodox yeshivot, in search of the informing spirit of Jewish pluralism. And in the ultra-Orthodox House of Study, I found that dynamic of learning and its sources: the belief expressed in the principle of the Talmud, itself a collection of disagreements – "These and these are the words of the Living God."

For the Talmudic rabbis, the clarity of one single, fundamental and absolute truth – let us not forget that the sources for Jewish fundamentalism are far more modern – may come with the advent of Messiah, but, in the meantime, we are stuck with, or rather sustained by, knowledge in the making. "He who thinks we are to pitch our tent here," Milton writes, those who claim that we have already arrived, is "far from truth." But the knowledge that truth is never whole does not make Milton any less committed in his belief, but rather underlines the importance of humility and what necessarily follows: toleration. He might as well have learned this from Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai; they also knew that their own convictions did not rule out those of others. Indeed, he probably did.

These days, it’s hard to be an ultra-Orthodox Miltonist. The Haredi streets – the newspapers and wall-posters in any event – resound with another spirit. When I read that the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties have declared that Yair Lapid leads an “axis of evil and persecution,” with an unavoidable implicit comparison to the Nazis, I wonder what happened to toleration. When my email inbox fills with messages from friends composed only of links to speeches from rabbis demanding my immediate assent (or surrender), I wonder what happened to conversation. When those Haredim who have taken up national service are branded contemptuously as "hardakim" – so-called "light headed" ultra-Orthodox – I wonder what happened to pluralism, or even just old-fashioned Jewish generosity.

In my neighborhood synagogue last Shabbat, the normally restrained and business-like Haredi minyan broke into song at an unexpected part of the service: "Is the knitted-kippa crowd here?" the man beside me asked, surprised. When I responded, "What’s wrong with a little singing?" he replied, "You don’t know how many things we do not do, just because they do them." When did demonizing the other – the rhetoric of "us and them" – become the norm?

To be sure, there is a national dance of co-dependence between left and right, religious and non-religious; there is no monopoly, especially these days, on extremism and exclusionary rhetoric. When Milton sought the model for a state and the co-existence of principles that the most vocal of Israelis tell us are incompatible, he knew where to look. Perhaps we should follow his lead and embrace the principles of the tradition that he admired. Those principles – conversation, pluralism and toleration – are not antithetical to Judaism, even the most committed kind.

Some will surely say that Milton clouds my judgment. But to them I say everything I learned about Jewish pluralism I learned in ultra-Orthodox yeshivot.

Will we ever, I wonder, go back to it?

Professor William Kolbrener, Chair of the English Department at Bar Ilan University, is author of Milton’s Warring Angels (Cambridge 1996), and most recently Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011); his introduction to the first Hebrew translation of Milton’s Areopagitica is forthcoming this month from the Shalem Press.

Yeshiva students at work.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

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