There are not a lot of orthodox Jewish Miltonists, specialists in the work of the seventeenth-century author of Paradise Lost . But I am one of them. A later poet mused: ‘Oh, if Milton were alive at this hour.’ Sometimes, I wonder what Milton would say if he lived in Israel today.
In addition to writing his great poem, Milton wrote prose works during the political and theological turmoil of the English Revolution. In his argument against government censorship in 1644, Milton advocated a free public sphere without restraints on expression. But Milton, a radical Puritan, did not tolerate different opinions out of apathy or indifference. Committed to his own religious beliefs, he tolerated, even encouraged the beliefs of others, itself part of his religious ideal. Often Milton turns to Old Testament sources to justify his belief in a diverse and free public sphere, but - it is getting harder and harder to be an orthodox Miltonist - those Jewish sources rarely find expression in Israel today.
Regrettably, I see religious invasions into the public sphere every day. On my way home from work, I sometimes walk to the ultra-orthodox neighborhood adjacent to my university to take the express bus home to Jerusalem. But this bus has special seating arrangements - based on so-called legal stringencies about separations between the sexes - with women compelled to the back of the bus. Some of my students refuse to go on it, calling it ‘the Apartheid Bus’; some will not travel on it because they are made to feel uncomfortable; I ride on it to get back more quickly to Jerusalem and my family, including my daughters at home. But I will not let the three of them travel on such a bus. Nor did I let them to go to the ultra-orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim during the holiday of Sukkot when men and women were cordoned off, also ostensibly for religious reasons, on different sides of the streets. The public sphere for which I imagine Milton advocating would include both men and women, and pictures of women in advertisement would not be banned, as they are today, in some Jerusalem neighborhoods.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outraged many here when she commented that segregation on Israel’s religious bus lines to be reminiscent of Rosa Parks in America. Her comments, however on target, probably better fit the practices of the principals of high schools for religious girls who have unofficial limiting quotas for Sephardim, girls of Middle Eastern origin. The plaintiff in a case to be heard by the Jerusalem High Court this week laments the ‘apartheid-like segregation’ - that word again - ‘between European and Middle Eastern girls,’ the latter who usually have darker skin. Though I wish this were not so, I have also seen this myself. One of my daughter’s friends - intelligent, outgoing and motivated, and from a family religious for centuries - did not bother applying to the same school where our sixteen-year old (the daughter of recently religious parents, but we are Ashkenazim) currently studies. My daughter’s friend is dark-skinned, Sephardi. Milton advocates ‘virtue’ as more than just a name or outward appearance, and his vision, adopted for a Jewish public sphere, would include equal opportunities for Europeans and Moroccans, and all of the other nationalities that make up Israel’s truly multi-cultural society.
In such an ideal world, the Anti-Defamation League would not have to call on the chief rabbinate of Israel, as they did this week, to publicly denounce practice by ultra-orthodox Jews of spitting at Christian clergymen they encounter in the street. Jews who have been persecuted for centuries and suffered humiliation, when they were not facing pogrom and extermination, and who, furthermore, have ancient traditions emphasizing peace between neighbors, would not need direction not to spit at people of different faiths. Milton might say, and certainly I tell my children this, that with the secure conviction of one’s own beliefs, one easily tolerates the beliefs - even when they are different - of others.
Some will say that Milton, for his advocacy of toleration and liberty had misogynist attitudes; shared the racism of his contemporaries; and had beliefs about Jews which today would be considered anti-Semitic. But I still get inspiration from Milton and the spirit of liberty for which he argued, and the belief that before the redemption - and we can worry about that when it happens - all we have is our differences, and the respect for others, in a non-coercive and free public sphere, that such difference demands.
William Kolbrener lives in Jerusalem is author of Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum, 2011)