We moderns define fiction as "a making up of imaginary
happenings". And because we live in a modern age, we categorize
mythology as fiction because we have reduced life, religion and culture
into a rational, de-mythologized context. However, the Jewish mythic
imagination traditionally used a variety of texts to explain olam
u-melo'o (the world and its fullness).
As Jews, we have a story. The foundation of that story is told in Torah
and Tanach. But the story is also told in midrash, Talmudic texts,
Kabbalistic stories, bubbe mayses and oral folk stories. The Jewish
imagination is found in "the infinite play of interpretation". So, on
one level, what is termed Jewish mythology was never conceived of as
fiction (in the way moderns define it). Myth was part of explaining
Torah's inexhaustible meaning. And what does one say about Jewish
mythology when moderns argue that all of the Hebrew Bible is myth?
In "Tree Of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism" (Oxford), Howard Schwartz
helps to redraw the Jewish mythic tradition. The University of
Missouri-St. Louis professor gathers close to 700 Jewish myths into one
volume. He organizes the myths into several themes; which may or may
not, according to one's preferences, smooth out the rough edges a bit.
In a section on Lilith, sources range from "The Alphabet of Ben Sira"
to the Zohar. In myths about the Messiah, Rabbinic literature brushes
up against Franz Kafka. In the book's brilliant introduction, Schwartz
writes that the varied periods of Jewish religion are characterized by
their own predominant myths, all striving to be true to the original
myth while adding their own interpretation. So, in a sense, that's what
we continue to do as Jews each time we add to the continuing narrative.
And that's what "Tree of Souls" does. Read this book for the tales
themselves, or for an understanding of the multiple layers of the
Jewish story-telling tradition.