R' Aharon Lichtenstein is reported to have said that he envies anyone who has not yet had the experience of reading “Paradise Lost”. That is quite an endorsement, and I could not resist borrowing the book from a friend a couple months back.
It took me until recently to finish reading the book, so presumably R' Lichtenstein's envy is limited to people more intelligent and "literary" than myself. Because while I could understand a bit of the book's 300 pages of carefully crafted poetry, I could not really enjoy it, and there were certainly times when I got stuck and abandoned the book until the next Saturday night when I might have time and energy to read a bit further.
That said, there were certainly parts of the book that I appreciated. The descriptions of Satan in the first third of the book were quite powerful. My favorite moment was when Satan, flying to Earth to tempt mankind, momentarily considered repenting for the rebellion that had landed him in a newly-created Hell. But he rejected that possibility, with the argument that after repenting he would inevitably sin again with the same motivation, thus there was no reason for him to ask forgiveness, or for God to grant it. I saw this as a poignant description of how we all rationalize decisions that were actually made for improper emotional reasons.
But more than that, I enjoyed the second half of the book. Here the story closely followed the verses in Breishit – with, of course, long inserts and elaborations. The parts that copied Breishit served to pace me and give me a sense of structure, while the inserts gave me plenty of food for though. Here are a few of the ideas that Milton added in his elaboration of Breishit:
- How was the snake able to talk, which contradicts the laws of nature? The snake told Eve that he himself had eaten the fruit, and not only had he not died, but he gained this special “knowledge” of how to speak. Confronted with clear evidence that the fruit was beneficial rather than harmful, Eve was then tempted into eating it.
- Adam ate the fruit not in ignorance, but because he knew Eve had already eaten and was going to die, and he was so infatuated with her that he preferred dying with her to living without her. (An angel had previously told him not to lose his head over her, but that warning wasn't sufficient.)
- The "sons of God" who married the "daughters of man" (Breishit 6:1-4) were righteous people (thus "sons of God") who were tempted into marrying attractive but dissolute women. Enoch's "walking with God" meant to walk in heaven, after leaving the world.
- Noach's three sons had four wives. (Perhaps this detail is intended to prefigure Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and their wives? Through Noach, like through the Avot, the world was rescued from universal sin?)
These are all interpretations that are not in the Biblical text, but serve to explain it better or highlight ideas arising from it. Normally, we learn our "parshanut" in a highly analytical form. We read a commentary which cites some background, formulates a question, proposes a solution, and finally explores the implications of that solution. Paradise Lost accomplishes the exact same thing, but in a totally different format. As a person familiar with Breishit, I would read the parallel passage in Paradise Lost, note which details were duplicated from Breishit and which were NOT in Breishit, and think about the reasons for and implications of these additions. In short, I learned the same kind of thing I might have from a traditional commentary. And while I must admit to occasionally finding the book boring (I blame this on the 17th-century vocabulary, or else on my 21st-century attention span), overall the format does seem more interesting than an equivalent "analytical" commentary would be.
If the format of Paradise Lost seems familiar, it is because we have a Jewish parallel in the form of Midrash. The typical midrash in a text like Midrash Rabbah is only a few lines long, without sources, concise, and lacking in literary embellishments. I don't think midrash was originally like that. Presumably, a Talmudic rabbi would get up in front of his congregation or beit midrash, and give a long and vivid story which was an elaboration of something that happened in Tanach. What we have in Midrash Rabbah is a concise summary, omitting most of the literary devices of the original. You might think from the place of midrash in kindergartens today that such elaboration cannot be done intelligently. But Paradise Lost shows that it can, and in the case of the original midrash, presumably it was.