"Ill-Matching Words and Deeds Long Past": Englished Hebrew and "The Readmission of the Jews" in Paradise Lost

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Barring the official pronouncements of the leaders of what were to become the "orthodox" versions of both religions, one could travel, metaphorically, from rabbinic Jew to Christian along a continuum where one hardly would know where one stopped and the other began.--Daniel Boyarin, Dying For God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (1)

We find, that as soon as King Charles was murther'd, the Jews Petition'd the Council of War to endeavour a Repeal of that Act of Parliament which had been made against them. Upon which, one Official remarked, "A Project never so seasonable, and necessary, as now!"--D'Blossiers Tovey, Anglia Judaica; or the History and Antiquities of the Jews in England, 1738 (2)

It appears then on record that the first secret crime of the refractory angels was punning: they fell rapidly after that.--Walter Savage Landor, Imaginary Conversations (3) **********

In 1649, the year Charles I was deposed and executed, Anne Curtyn was sent to New Prison at Clerkenwell "for being a professed Jew and causing children to be circumcised." (4) The charges, apparently brought against her for emulating Old Testament rituals, were subsequently dropped because it turned out that she was a Christian, albeit a follower of the radical Puritan, John Traske. Seven years before Oliver Cromwell presided over the "readmision of the Jews," Curtyn's troubles pointed to something of an identity crisis that Shakespeare's Portia might have expressed as, "which is the Christian here, and which the Jew?" Indeed, the presence of what Inge Leimberg has called "the Jewish remnant" (5) in England during the first half of the seventeenth century was so strongly felt that the term "readmission" hardly does justice to the moment when Jews were finally permitted to occupy the same space as their legacy. (6) Furthermore, it seems clear that the symbolic systems relied upon to distinguish one's religious, cultural, and national identity from another's were not fully legible. Curtyn's imprisonment represents, perhaps, an instance when the authorities felt compelled to arrest and confine the meaning of what it was to be an English Christian. (7) In the particular case of Anglo-Jewish relations, the ability to make such distinctions was greatly complicated by the fact that, as David S. Katz notes, "The only Jews of most people's acquaintance were biblical figures, literary characters, and entirely imaginary, and it may be that this lack of personal contact with such an extraordinary people facilitated their readmission." (8) Begun in the years when discussion of the Jewish presence in England finally culminated in the Whitehall Conference--during which one person wrote in his diary, "Now were the Jews admitted" (9)--Milton's Paradise Lost may be viewed as a comparable (if spectacularly more ambitious) effort by an authority to identify and define oppositionally what it was to be English and Christian. (10)

Recently scholars have taken an intense interest in what Israel, the Jews, and the Hebrew Bible meant to the England of Milton and his contemporaries. Elizabeth Sauer, for example, contends that "England subsumed the culture and tradition of ancient Israel in its providential history, the culmination of which was for millenarians, as for the early Christians, a temporal regnum Christi. ... Contemporary history was in turn read through biblical history as well as through debates about present-day Jews, whose proposed readmission became 'the most searching tolerationist dilemma' of this period." (11) With regard to Milton's specific role in this nationalist reading project, Sauer argues that

England achieved its literary embodiment in the imaginatively constructed nations of Spenser and Shakespeare. The nation's main prophet, however, was Milton, whose writings best exhibit the early modern preoccupation with the intersecting identities of ancient Israel and early modern England. …