I’m reading Paradise Lost in my British literature class, and although it’s one of those things you kind of know already before you read it, it’s also making all of western civilization and western literature make a lot more sense. And it’s one of those things you read and realize that, if only it were one of the first things you had ever read, your life as it relates to books might have had more meaning up to now. Yesterday I had to read excerpts from books 2, 3, and 4, and 2 and 3 were making me think of the most random things. I’m sure Paradise Lost could make people think about a lot of things, like other epic poems, the Bible, His Dark Materials, etc etc. But since I am me and I think of the most random things, book 2 made me think of the trilogy Prophecy of the Sisters, which I still can’t decide if I really like or not, and book 3 made me think about tzedakah, because the pre-Jesus figure presented in Milton’s epic is so not Jewish.
Being Jewish myself, I only know so much about the New Testament. What I know comes from popular culture and the vague memories I have of my high school comparative religion class–I really wish that I had paid more attention in it, because I know we learned a lot of great stuff about major world religions. So anyway, I did check out the Spark Notes summary (though Milton’s arguments are basically his own Spark Notes) of book 3, just because I tend to miss Christian religious references in literature because they don’t naturally stand out to me. So once I started reading, I knew that G-d and the Son were going to be talking about Satan’s plans to corrupt Adam and Eve, yadda yadda. I do think that Milton does really cool stuff with his source material, rearranging the events of the Bible and all, and I think it’s funny that G-d and the Son plan everything out, from his crucifixion to communion rites, but all while the Son is saying that he is going to sacrifice himself, he keeps reminding G-d that he’s going to come back to Heaven and regain his throne and be rewarded for being selfless.
So I stopped there and thought that, if this is Milton’s idea of what Jesus was like when he was pre-Jesus, he is most definitely not Jewish. Or at least not a good Jew.
In Hebrew, there is no word for “charity.” I like that, because I’m not a big fan of the Christian idea of charity, especially when viewed against Jewish tzedakah or Muslim sadaqah, which is more based on tikkun olam than on making yourself feel good by helping someone who, in your eyes, so obviously needs your assistance. Again, I’ve only been to church about 10 times in my life (mostly Catholic ones), and a lot of my ideas of Christian charity come from that insipid family on “Seventh Heaven,” but as far as I can understand, traditional Christian charity seems to come from an idea of helping those less fortunate, rather than doing what’s right. (When I’m not being religious, I think that everything we do is driven most by a sense of feeling good about what we’re doing, and I also think that above all, doing good things is good, no matter your reason. But still. We can always strive to an ideal, and I think the Jewish and Muslim ideals beat the Christian one here.) One thing I remember my mother teaching me when I was young was that the best kind of giving is anonymous, because then it’s really tzedakah, which means “justice.” You should give because it’s what you’re supposed to do, not because there is going to be a plaque somewhere with your name on it or because people are going to send you letters of thanks. I may be falsifying a connection here, but I think tzedakah goes nicely with the Jewish custom of not naming babies (or colleges, like how Brandeis was going to be named after Einstein until he said, “What, you want me dead already?”) after living people. It’s bad luck, and it’s bad form. Your name doesn’t matter. The world is what matters.
It’s very easy to talk about tzedakah and a lot harder to practice it. Given that we are human, we like recognition. I certainly do. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at it. I don’t know if it’s because I’m actually better at tzedakah, or if I’m just more uncomfortable being the center of attention. But it’s something you constantly have to work at.
So, going back to Milton, his pre-Jesus is, yes, doing what is arguably a very noble thing by sacrificing himself, and it’s something that the rest of Heaven doesn’t volunteer to do. But he does so with the understanding that he will end up back in Heaven, and back at the right hand of G-d, so he’s getting a reward. And, given that in this poem, at least, G-d and the Son know basically everything that is about to happen, he must know that the whole world is going to know his name for millennia. So it’s not an act of tzedakah but an act of charity. I know it doesn’t matter to anyone except me that Milton’s pre-Jesus isn’t Jewish, since Milton wasn’t Jewish, and he probably didn’t think very highly of Judaism, but I do think it’s rather interesting.
Oh, the places your mind can wander.