Review from
"Aaron's Archives"

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.