Review from Moment Magazine:
TREE OF SOULS
The Mythology of Judaism
by Howard Schwartz
Oxford University Press, 618 pages
This is a very big book, not just in size but in ambition. It's an impressive impressive volume. It seems hard to believe that one author put it together on his own or in one lifetime. But Howard Schwartz was well prepared to do the task. He has been collecting and re-telling Jewish imaginative literature for decades, in well known anthologies of Jewish folktales and Jewish mystical tales, such as Elijah's Violin, Miriam's Tambourine , Gabriel's Palace and Lilith's Cave. In this way he's become the one man "Brothers Grimm" of Jewish folklore for our time.
In his Reimagining the Bible, Professor Schwartz put all that gathering activity in a more scholarly context. He explains the development of what he calls "Jewish mythology" and the features that set it apart from the mythology of other peoples. Most of the time, we associate mythology with oral literature that comes before the establishment of the written literature of a group or nation. For instance, we conceive of an entire oral tradition of stories and tales about the Greek gods as the backdrop for the epic poetry of Homer. Similarly in the Torah we can find remnants and traces of earlier Hebrew legends and myths, especially in the book of Genesis.
However, as Schwartz points out, Jewish oral literature is unique because oral literature brackets the written tradition. After the written Torah is established, the "oral Torah", arises in the rabbinic era. This rabbinic story-telling is found in the "aggadot" or stories in the Talmud proper, and extensively in the rabbinic midrash. The midrashic style of rabbinic story telling-- rooted in the Torah text, but ranging far and wide from it, becomes the model for the mystical speculation of the Zohar and other kabbalistic texts. Starting in the 13th century, through the kabbalah of Moses de Leon and later of Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, an entire mythology is inserted within the heart of the Jewish tradition. The fertility of this mystical outlook continues in the tales and legends of the first great hasidic masters, and comes to a peak in the tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. This second blooming of mythology in a post-literate culture is an entirely unique phenomenon and worthy of great reflection in itself.
Since in colloquial terms
"myth" usually means "untruth" it's important to understand
exactly what Schwartz means. In his introduction, he writes,
refers to a people's sacred stories about origins, deities, ancestors
heroes. Within a culture, myths serves as the divine charter, and myth
ritual are inextricably bound." For Schwartz the master
of Judaism is the covenant between God and
From this "master myth" Schwartz identified ten sub-myths, namely "myths of God", "myths of Creation", "myths of Heaven", "myths of Hell", "myths of the Holy Word", "myths of the Holy Time", "myths of the Holy People", "myths of the Holy Land", "myths of exile" and "myths of the Messiah." The volume is organized around these ten myths, each of which subdivides further. The intellectual clarity of his organization bespeaks a man who has spent decades collecting, organizing and retelling Jewish tales-- by arranging them he has created a very usable encyclopedia of Jewish myth, and helps the reader see the unified pattern behind the diversity of thousands of years of Jewish story telling. Schwartz brings into the mix, ancient and medieval documents, but also ventures towards the twenty first century by including among his myth-makers, Franz Kafka, the Piasetzner Rebbe, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the zeide of the Jewish renewal movement.
So far I have only given
the outline of
this tremendous project, the intellectual rind that gives it shape and
But how to convey the taste of the fruit? Tree of Souls
roamed through like an enchanted garden-- a book length
Reading this book puts you in the mood of a dream, and time quickly drops away. Who knows who might next knock at the door-- an angel, or Elijah? There are Jewish tales here of demons and giants, of the end of days and the beginning of time-- and all of them stimulate reverie and reverence-- both states of mind we need to cultivate in our time, if we are to have any deeper sense of the sacred. Fortunately Howard Schwartz has done the digging for us, and opened up the way to the Jewish tree of souls; all we need do is bring our open hearts and minds.
Kamenetz's most recent book of poetry is The Lowercase Jew (Northwestern University Press, 2003).