Jun. 5, 2005 9:03
More than myth

Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism
By Howard Schwartz
Illustrated by Caren
Oxford University Press
618pp., $50

Recounting and expounding on close to 700 myths, Howard Schwartz's Tree of Souls is not only impressive for the sheer bulk of its material, but unsettling with its revolutionary claims about just what makes a Jewish myth.

Schwartz, a prolific writer on Jewish folktales and myths, and a professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has produced a collection that includes all the obvious canonical texts from the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Kabbala and Hassidism. But the surprises and gems lie in the more fringe inclusions: texts from the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha, literature from non-rabbinic sects like the Samaritans, Sabbateans and Karaites, and citations from halachic texts.

Add to that selections from the myths collected by S. Ansky in Eastern Europe, and by the Israel Folktale Archive (a collection of over 20,000 myths from immigrants from Morocco, Kurdistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Romania, Iraq and India, among others), then mix in the stories of some near-contemporaries like Franz Kafka, and some contemporaries like Reb Zalmen Shachter-Shalomi of the Jewish Renewal movement, and you can begin to see just how widely Schwartz has cast his net.

The result is a tome, all in English, with translations from Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, Czech, Armenian, Yiddish and German.

Schwartz's contribution, though, is not just in the scope of his culling, but in his erudite commentary. Every item is followed by a brief analysis, a citation of sources, and then academic studies about it.

His introduction, itself preceded by an instructive foreword by University of Michigan Associate Professor of Jewish Thought Elliot Ginsburg, provides a substantial and fascinating frame for all that follows. It is there that he defines myth in the following way: "Myth refers to a people's sacred stories about origins, deities, ancestors and heroes. Within a culture, myths serve as the divine charter, and myth and ritual are intricately bound."

Myth, then, identifies the function of a story more than its structure or even its content. It reflects and, in turn, shapes a culture's understanding of what it is and what it is called to do.

Notice that contrary to colloquial usage, but very much in line with academic discourse, the label "myth" does not indicate something that is not true. On the contrary, myth addresses psychological, existential truths as they are worked through in a society.

They are "projections from the deepest levels of self," says Schwartz, and so Jewish myths "can be read as psychic maps, as archetypes of the collective Jewish unconscious." As Ginsburg makes even clearer, myths help human beings address the questions that pinch every soul: How and why was the world created? What is the meaning of good and evil? Who is God, and what constitutes worship? What may I hope for?

Though narrative in nature, myths encourage us to see the world and orient ourselves in it in distinct ways. This guiding claim about the motivation for and origins of myth is not uniquely Jewish, according to Schwartz. Cultures the world over have created myths to reckon with existence, and Schwartz does a fine job of placing Jewish myth in the context of its geographic and thematic neighbors.

Both in his introduction and in his brief commentaries, he reveals parallels between biblical Jewish tales and Near Eastern mythology, between midrashic writings and Greek mythology.

To take one well-known example, the flood story found in Genesis has striking similarities to the Mesopotamian flood myths found in the epic of Atrahasis, the epic of Gilgamesh, and the Greek myth found in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Images of God and godly beings in the Jewish tradition reveal cross-cultural parallels as well. Schwartz compares portraits of God as a fierce warrior to those of Zeus, the mighty Greek god; and accounts of the Jewish heavenly pantheon to the crowded heaven of the Greeks. Midrashic tales of Rahab (angel of the sea), Raziel (angel of secrets and messenger of God), and Metatron (the Prince of Presence) parallel Poseidon, Hermes and Helios respectively. These are but a few small offerings from the vast archeological project that Schwartz has undertaken. He unearths an enormous number of shared myth themes, and thereby challenges the traditional Jewish sense of uniqueness.

Jewish mythology, it seems, imbibes motifs that are the "psychic currency" of their times, polemicizing against some while incorporating others.

That said, Schwartz does make a case for the uniqueness of Jewish myth-making on two fronts: process and duration. More than other mythologies, the Jewish one has a traceable evolutionary process. It is possible to mark the development of a myth from its earliest pre-biblical forms, through the Bible, and into the permutations of the oral tradition. This process is also unusually long and continuously fertile.

In most other cultures, a mythology committed to writing soon ossifies, but this simply did not happen in Jewish mythology. With the flourishing of Kabbala in the 13th-17th centuries, the explosion of Hassidism in the 18th, and the exegetical imagination (to borrow a term from Michael Fishbane) of even a few contemporaries today, Jewish mythology has proven to be exceptionally alive. It has survived beyond rabbinic voices of discomfort, beyond Maimonides and Maimonidean rationalism, to maintain an existential power that continues to drive Jewish consciousness.

So just what do Jews mythologize about? What categories of thought get translated into narrative form? Tree of Souls speaks of 10 major themes: Myths of God, creation, heaven, hell, holy word (Hebrew language, Torah and prayer), holy time (Shabbat and holidays), holy people (biblical figures), holy land, exile, and messiah. These categories can be blurry (are speculations about creation or the constitution of the heavens not God myths?), but the organization is nonetheless helpful.

The myths collected here attest to a shockingly audacious Jewish spirit and a willingness to speculate wildly about things beyond our sphere.

The writer holds an MA in literature and philosophy from Harvard University.