- Milton's Phylacteries:Textual Idolatry and the Beginnings of Critical Exegesis
What does John Milton mean when he refers to phylacteries, as he does four times in his poetry and prose?1 Editorial glosses typically identify both the physical referent of this obscure word and its symbolic significance. Here, for instance, is Martin Dzelzainis's note on the mention of "phylactery" in Tenure of Kings and Magistrates: "A phylactery is a small vellum box containing four texts from Deuteronomy and Exodus worn by Jews at morning prayer as a sign of strict obedience. For Milton it symbolizes the ostentatious display of righteousness."2 There are two problems here. First, Dzelzainis's definition semantically fixes a word whose meaning for Christians was changing in the seventeenth century, its reference narrowing from an ill-defined and general category of amulets to a specific Jewish ritual object. Closing off that history, I claim, obscures the reasons why Milton chose such a recondite and antiquarian metaphor. Second, Dzelzainis provides the entire communicative sequence, clarifying both the material vehicle and its symbolic tenor. But since phylacteries are worn as signs ("a sign [End Page 31] upon your hand" is the language used in Deuteronomy 6:8), the metaphorical use of "phylactery" is a sign about signs. It thus seems plausible that when Milton used the image of phylacteries, he intended to draw the reader's attention to the process of interpretation, to the work required to travel from signifier to signified. If so, straightforwardly glossing Milton's use of "phylactery" glosses over a thorny problem.
Milton's uses of "phylactery" reflect a deep theoretical worry about signs and interpretation. Radical Protestants typically privileged religious reading and interpretation, which offered both an alternative and a corrective to idolatrous religious practices centered on objects and physical ritual. But, I claim, both in his discussions of phylacteries and more broadly, Milton takes Protestant iconoclasm a step further, worrying about the possibility of textual idolatry.3 That is, readers might reify the biblical word inappropriately and, suspending their critical reasoning faculties, essentially worship it as an object rather than interpret it intellectually. Milton thus uses phylacteries to name the danger that readers will confuse a text's spirit and its letter, falling into a carnal, fetishistic mode of interpretation. In its most radical form, this concept of a textual idol subjects even religiously revealed truth to a rigorous skepticism, producing from Protestant iconoclasm an epistemological caution against accepting the authority of the biblical text itself.
Thus, for Milton, a serious theological and exegetical error underwrites the deviant practice of phylacteries. My argument both builds upon and reorients existing scholarship on Milton and Judaism. The only study devoted to Milton's use of phylacteries is by Mathew Biberman, who recognizes the importance of the Hebraist context but, attempting to establish Milton's philo-Semitism, strays into speculative and ungrounded readings.4 This temptation to render Milton a closet Jew has long haunted the study of his debts to the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature.5 Critics naturally desire to cleanse the great poet of apparent, embarrassing prejudice and also to substantiate Matthew Arnold's famous, none-too-flattering characterization of Milton as a Hebraic Puritan.6 And the [End Page 32] unspoken goal of diagnosing Milton's Jewishness persists, even as scholars have grown more cautious in estimating Milton's knowledge of Hebrew literature and more sophisticated in their assessments of his "Hebraism." So, for instance, while Jason Rosenblatt has advanced our understanding of Milton immeasurably by identifying and studying in detail his key Hebraist source, the great English philologist and classicist John Selden, Rosenblatt's conclusions from those materials nonetheless often follow the basic structure of traditional studies of Milton and Judaism. By arguing, for instance, that Milton believed the Mosaic law was in harmonious application in prelapsarian Eden, Rosenblatt produces a far more convincing and sophisticated portrait of a nonetheless recognizable type: the Hebraic, or at least Hebraish, Milton.7 Similarly, Jeffrey Shoulson, who is skeptical of any specific, direct links between Milton and a particular corpus of rabbinic texts, argues instead that Milton's thought, in its recombination of elements from multiple, conflicting cultures, its...