Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism
Author: Howard Schwartz
Publisher: Oxford University Press
$50.00 Cloth (618 p.)
Jim Roberts, Continuations Order Specialist
his latest book, Jewish folklorist Howard Schwartz gathers
myths from traditions thousands of years old through modern
writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Kafka, showing that
while Judaism has only one God, its history contains a host of
spiritual entities and a large body of mythology. He is
careful, however, to note that he's referring to myths more as
allegorical narratives and traditional stories, and not as
unfounded apocrypha or unverifiable tales.
are divided up into ten chapters: God, Creation, Heaven, Hell,
the Holy Word, the Holy Time, the Holy People, the Holy Land,
Exile and Messiah. Within the chapters, the myths are
organized by general themes with the stories of the Shekinah,
God's bride, collected in the Myths of God chapter, and the
stories of the Tzohar in the chapter on Creation.
one has a commentary by Schwartz, some longer than the myth
itself, where he roots the myth to the time, place and (where
possible) the originator of the story. He also links the myths
to each other, showing that these stories don't exist in
isolation, but are part of a tapestry where the stories of
Lilith as evil temptress are closely linked to the stories of
the struggles Israel had in rebuilding the walls around
Jerusalem after Babylonian captivity, and how the story of the
early life of Joshua, the leader of Israel after Moses,
closely parallels the tale of Oedipus.
perspective of the reader, there are two things that are very
striking about this book: its breadth and its accessibility.
This book covers such a range of themes, geography and history
that a single read-through simply cannot do the book justice.
The daunting task of rereading is made easier, however, by the
precision of the text. Though he speaks with intelligence, and
from an academic's viewpoint, Schwartz manages to be erudite
without being pedantic. Even when expounding the most obscure
of myths, he writes with such clarity that the reader is left
informed, not confused. The index is thorough as well, which
makes finding and rereading specific passages easier.
Because of the book's readability, it is accessible
not only to theologians and Jewish scholars, but also to
folklorists, classical scholars and people who simply love
mythology. While this may cause some reviewers to compare it
to Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, it's much
more in the vein of the works of Celtic mythologist Robert
Loomis or Scandinavian specialist John Lindow, being a
broad-based but deeply insightful book about a branch of
mythology but not a commentary on myth as a whole.
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