To enter this book is to enter a world thick with meaning, olam u-melo’o, “a world and the
fullness thereof.”1 In its pages, one can encounter the astonishing range of the Jewish mythic
imagination: texts and countertexts, brief epigrams and extended chain midrashim, exclamations
and sober disquisitions: they are all in there. For Tree of Souls is the product of a
man, Howard Schwartz, who wears many hats: he is at once a literary artist and master
editor, who is simultaneously immersed in (and sharpened by) the world of scholarship.
The resulting work is a gift of the scholarly and literary imagination, and it is a joy to read.
Jewish mythology and its many voices. One of the most impressive features of this
work is its capacious understanding of what is authentically Jewish. In consort with most
contemporary scholars, he departs from those great Judaic scholars of the 19th century
who sought to reduce Judaism—in its evolving, plural, oft messy vitality—to an idealized
set of unchanging beliefs or practices, articulated by a central cast of characters.
Schwartz listens rather more widely: he exhibits an inclusive, demotic willingness to
combine different registers and a wide range of provenances. Obscure manuscripts and
well-known texts reside cheek-by-jowl; so too, polished literary works and oral narratives.
Texts written in Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic sit alongside passages from Yiddish,
German and Middle-Eastern vernacular. The multi-streamed Rabbinic tradition is
represented not only by a stunning array of talmudic and midrashic texts, but also by
later kabbalistic myths with gnostic and sometimes rapturous undertones, hasidic mayses
(tales) and ethical tracts. The global meets the local as talmudic understandings of soul
enter into dialogue with an Afghani Jewish tale from an oral archive—the Great Tradition
imbricated with the so-called “Little Tradition.” So too, the philosopher-legalist
Maimonides resonates with early modern mystic Hayyim ben Attar, and the Zohar with
the author of Yiddish vernacular prayers, Shifra bas Joseph, wife of Ephraim Epstein.
Rabbinic Judaism2, in these pages, speaks in many voices.
If the Biblical-Rabbinic arc has a certain pride of place here, the book stretches to encompass
non-Rabbanite currents as well. These include (1) Jewish streams that dried up
in late antiquity or which subsequently flowed into other traditions; and (2) other mythic
currents that left only the faintest residue in the Hebrew Bible, but which re-emerged
with singular potency later. Of the former case, think of Philo or various Apocryphal
works, preserved largely in Christianity; of the latter, those submerged texts, think of
ancient Mesopotamian myths of cosmic battle, of the personified waters of chaos or the
Great Sea-Dragon battling YHWH—accounts that are virtually effaced in the Hebrew
Bible, but which surface fullblown in the Babylonian talmudic setting.3 Schwartz also
visits the contested borderlands of Rabbinic Judaism, on occasion citing Karaite teachings
or the Sabbatean-tinged Hemdat Yamim, a work which enjoyed currency in Sefardic
and Hasidic circles, despite its suspect provenance.
Finally, Schwartz expands the mythic canvas to include twentieth century figures, the
Piasetzner Rebbe (d. 1943, Warsaw), Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, the visionary of Jewish
Renewal, and the Prague master Franz Kafka, to name three. All told, most of the
dialects of Judaism, from major to minor, find a home here. Schwartz finds that elusive
balance point between richness and focus. As one colleague put it: “Howard Schwartz is
inclusive, but with good taste.”
For readers who may wonder whether this democratizing impulse edges towards cacophony—
too much of a good thing—know that Schwartz’s keen gifts as an editor carry
the day. He gives his work a strong thematic center, organizing texts around ten mythic
categories that unfold across time and space. He is able to structure and sequence sources,
to fashion mythic cycles. He deftly places texts in alignment with each other, or in apposition/
opposition, creating a vibrant but coherent field of vision. What emerges therefore
is an intriguing series of resonances and interrelations, a transhistorical Jewish mythology, if
you will. If there are occasional bracing dissonances between myths, the whole approaches
a symphony, a grand opus in ten chapters, ten movements.
Not only are myths beautifully rendered here, but their meanings are variously elucidated,
enriched and complexified through up-to-date scholarship. Schwartz appends a
scholarly commentary to each myth. These mini-essays are models of concision and literary
insight. He traces motifs and provides historical context: explicating perplexities,
highlighting discrete traditionary strands and points of evolution. Nor are spiritual insights
lacking in these essays. Multiple readers will thus be astounded and delighted; for
through Schwartz’s tentacular reach our understanding of the Jewish and mythic imaginations
is challenged and stretched. “This is Jewish?” some of us might be moved to ask.
But Jewish it is! The sheer variety of mythemes found here supports Gershom Scholem’s
contention that one cannot predict a priori—on the basis of earlier teachings—just what
will be considered authentically Jewish in any given period.