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Update - 00:36 09/09/2005
A lively retelling
By Avigdor Shinan

Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism" by Howard Schwartz, Oxford University Press, 618 pages, $31.50

Serah bat Asher was the daughter of one of Jacob's sons. She was among the 69 souls who went down to Egypt with Jacob. She crossed the Red Sea with the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt, and was counted by Moses in the census in the desert.

As a young girl, Serah was asked by Joseph's brothers to sing to their father. Joseph had sent his brothers to bring Jacob and his family back to Egypt because of the famine in Canaan. His brothers were looking for a way to tell their father that Joseph was still alive, fearing that if the news were not broken gently, he might die of the shock. So they had Serah play the harp and sing a song containing the words "Joseph lives." Serah was happy to comply. Jacob, sunk in gloom, suddenly realized what she was saying. "Can this be true?" he shouted excitedly. Serah assured him that it was, and Jacob, overcome with joy, showered blessings on her for a long life.

According to another version of the story, Jacob was angry at Serah for reminding him of the loss of Joseph, the most painful incident in his life. He jumped up and said to her, in a mixture of rage and sarcasm, "You should have such long life!" And indeed she did.
This legend, translated more or less literally from the Aramaic, is one of 670 stories collected by the author in a hefty volume of what he calls "Jewish mythology," i.e., an impressive anthology of oral traditions about God and the creation of the world, the evolution
of heaven and hell, the holy tongue and sacred time, saints and the Holy Land, exile and redemption.

The author is a professor of English literature at the University of Missouri in St. Louis who has done extensive research in the subject of Jewish folk literature. In this book, he cites materials culled from every branch of Jewish literature, from the Bible and pseudoepigrapha,
the Talmud, the Midrash and ancient mystical lore, kabbalistic writings, the literature and thought of the Middle Ages, Jewish legal texts, memoirs, Hasidic legends of the last few generations, and the ethnic folktales of different Jewish communities. In particular, he has
drawn on the Israel Folktale Archive (IFA) at the University of Haifa, founded in honor of Prof. Dov Noy.

Translated from Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish (sometimes for the first time), the stories are sorted into 11 chapters, accompanied by commentary, analysis and references to previous research (mostly by scholars writing in languages other than Hebrew). The 17-page bibliography is a testimony in itself to the tremendous effort invested in the tracking down the material, not to mention organizing, translating, annotating and compiling footnotes.

The section about Serah, for instance, is a composite of stories about this wondrous woman told by the rabbis of the Talmud, the midrash "Bereishit Rabba," an Aramaic translation of the Bible, a medieval text from Europe, "Sefer Hayashar," a collection of midrashim from 13th century Yemen, a story told by a Jew from Afghanistan cataloged in the IFA, and a story the author heard from an elderly woman in Indianapolis.

Schwartz brings all this material together and creates something new. While his narrative is not identical to any of the individual stories, it constitutes a lively retelling of all the traditions associated with Serah, from Eretz Israel of ancient times to America today. Each
story is followed by a discussion that can be brief or quite lengthy.

Time-honored motifs
In the case of Serah, Schwartz probes the biblical basis for the tradition regarding her longevity and sums up references to her in other sources. He discusses the psychological reasoning behind the brothers' decision not to tell their father about Joseph's important stature in Egypt, leaving it up to an innocent girl who does not realize the significance of the role she is being asked to play.

Serah bat Asher's name crops up in other places in the book, in light of her important role in the Exodus from Egypt. She reveals to Moses where Joseph's bones are buried, as we are told in the Midrash, and she is the head of one of the hekhalot (palaces) in the Garden of Eden, according to the Zohar. Schwartz's discussion of this remarkable woman is thus comprehensive in scope and an important companion to the texts themselves.

At the same time, this is not simply dry academic research that breaks down Jewish literary traditions, analyzing their origins, evolution, textual differences and ties to non-Jewish traditions. It is a colorful anthology written for educated readers (Jewish or not) who want
the overall picture, rather than a scholarly debate on such issues as biblical chronology, authorship in Eretz Israel or the Diaspora, or the pros and cons of different exegetic approaches. Critical scholars will have to go back to the sources cited by Schwartz and interpret them in their own way - not necessarily the way he does.

In this respect, the book resembles Bialik's and Ravnitsky's "Sefer Ha'aggadah," which might also be described as an anthology of adapted stories, which is useful to scholars only as a jump-off point for researching the original texts. But unlike Bialik and Ravnitsky's book,
which focuses on rabbinical lore, Schwartz stretches the limits, branching out into unknown and uncharted territory. He deserves special thanks for allotting considerable space to ethnic Jewish folktales, which are cited in the same breath as early and more authoritative texts. It
is a daring and commendable act, I think, to bring the existence of these oral traditions, which are still being passed down (or were, until the last generation), to the knowledge of his readers. Through these stories, time-honored motifs continue to live on, and shape the thinking of the storytellers and their audiences. This book is proof that the gargantuan
efforts of Prof. Noy and his students in collecting and archiving these stories have paid off. Every text that resparks our cultural awareness of this treasure trove of Jewish lore deserves our highest praise.

Here they are, lined up one after another in an endless procession  famous legends and forgotten ones, legends at the core of our collective culture and legends lurking on the sidelines. They speak of worlds that preceded our world; of the relationship between the Shekhina and her partner, God; of the pleasures enjoyed by the righteous in Garden of Eden; of the bitter fate of sinners in hell; of dybbuks and liliths; of angels with strange names like Sandalphon and Tzadkiel; of Satan and his henchmen; of the symbolism of the candle in the havdalah ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath; of Abraham the patriarch's daughter; of
cherubs in the Temple in Jerusalem; of the Golem of Prague; of the Sambatyon River at the edge of the world; of celestial Jerusalem; of the destruction of Sodom; of the character and names of the Messiah. And this is just a tiny taste of the delights that await readers of Schwartz's
book, with its cornucopia of texts (rewritten and translated into English) on every imaginable subject, from every historical era, in every conceivable genre.

Defining myths

The big question that remains after reading this engrossing collection of tales is inherent in the subtitle: "Jewish mythology." Everyone talks about mythology, but what is it? There have been endless attempts to define this term. In a long and detailed introduction to the book, full of scholarly footnotes, Schwartz offers a definition of his own: "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 inextricably bound."

This is very broad definition, which some may argue with, but it gives the author considerable leeway in his choice of material. One doubts he has left out any story he found interesting, or new, or able to contribute in some way to our knowledge of the literary-fictional worlds
that have been part of Jewish life over the ages, in every community and at every rung of the social ladder.

I prefer a narrower definition of myth, incorporating the idea that one of its chief objectives is to explain reality and interpret phenomena we encounter in our lives. Using that criteria, not all the 670 selections in this book would fit into the category of myth. What is mythological, for example, about the story of Serah? The most one could say is that a
tradition revolving around a very long-lived individual - Serah lived to over 200 - harks back to ancient myths that explain why human life became shorter and limits were placed on age.

But even the subtitle of the book and the broad definition of myth do not detract from the impressive achievement of this book, with its splendid collection of stories, brilliantly categorized and annotated. A detailed index enhances its user-friendliness and helps readers find their way around. A minor quibble: "Serah bat Asher" is listed as "Asher, Serah bat," which makes it hard to find.

I began with Serah because her name appears in the introduction, in the very first footnote. Schwartz brings her as an example of a woman who teaches Torah to her peers in the Garden of Eden. I will end with the title of the book, "Tree of Souls." In the Garden of Eden, the story
goes, there is a tree on which souls grow until they are ripe enough to go down to the world and fulfill their mission. All the souls that have been created and will ever be created grow on this tree. When the tree sheds its last soul, the world will end.

This legend can be traced back, at least in part, to the Babylonian Talmud, the Book of Hanoch, various midrashim, the Zohar and other kabbalistic texts, and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav's "Likutei moharan." If all souls come from this one lofty tree, then all the literary traditions of these souls, which have emerged over the generations, in different places and different styles, can be addressed as a comprehensive unit.
Together, they constitute a flourishing orchard of creativity, full of imagination and spirit - an orchard that has fertilized the human mind and will continue to do so for as long as humankind soars above the reality in which it has been placed.

Prof. Avigdor Shinan teaches in the department of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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