June 22, 2005


The Stories Jews Tell Themselves
If myths are the way cultures make sense of the world, Howard Schwartz's hefty new anthology is a fine way to make sense of the myths created by Jewish culture

Jeremy Dauber  

About that word "Mythology" in the title: Howard Schwartz's intent isn't really to antagonize those for whom the term has only resonances of Olympus and of Valhalla, of pagan tales of ancient vintage. For Schwartz, as for many recent scholars in the field, the word "mythology" is simply a way of describing a series of sacred stories told by a culture to make sense of the world around it.

Viewed this way, then, the seemingly provocative becomes largely a question of semantics, and "Tree of Souls" follows in the footsteps of some of the great collections of Jewish stories throughout history: The midrashic collections of the first centuries of the Common Era, the remarkable Yiddish anthologies of the early modern period, such as the 1602 "Mayse Bukh" and the 1616 "Tsene Rene" (often, if not accurately, called the "Women's Bible"), Bialik and Ravnitski's quasi-nationalist efforts in "Sefer Ha'agadah" (The Book of Legends), published 1908-1911, and Louis Ginzberg's magisterial "Legends of the Jews," first published in 1909, all testify to the enduring impulse to explain, catalog, order and synthesize the mass of unruly legends, tales and exegetical explanations that constitute so much of Jewish literary creativity over two millennia.

Schwartz's anthology certainly deserves to stand in this distinguished line: He has created a Bialik and Ravnitski, or a Ginzburg, for the 21st century - with all of the benefits and the drawbacks that such creation implies.

The benefits first: Though Schwartz is certainly mindful of his traditionalist audience, taking great pains to stress in his introduction that even if studying Judaism "from a mythological perspective does imply the distance of critical inquiry, it does not mean the traditions examined are therefore false," this professor of English at the University of St. Louis-Missouri has learned much from his colleagues in the modern university about the fruitful relationships between center and margin.

Schwartz doesn't simply recycle classic stories from the canonical rabbinic and mystical texts. Instead, he ranges widely afield, including materials from sources esoteric to the general public, such as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, written around the time of the closing of the Biblical canon, and to all but the most specialized scholars, like the tales he cites from Karaite, Sabbatean and Yemenite folk sources.

It's thus fair to say that this volume holds many surprising stories: You may know about the river Sambatyon, which prevents the 10 Lost Tribes from reuniting with their Jewish brethren, but have you heard the one about how Jacob was really a divine being? Or how Sarah was a mother of souls before she gave birth to Isaac? About the suffering or captivity of the messiah as he waits for his grand moment of redemption? Metatron and Gabriel, yes, certainly, but Radweriel or Gallizur? (They are, respectively, the Keeper of the Book of Records and the Utterer of Evil Decrees, angels both, mentioned in the midrash and the Apocrypha.) Multiple differing accounts of Creation are well known, but I daresay few, before reading this collection, will have heard the Moroccan Jewish myth about the world's being positioned on the horns of a bull.

Schwartz has done yeoman's work in tracking these various tales down, and the resulting volume is enormous in many senses, from its size and heft to its erudition: Schwartz's 53-page bibliography of original and secondary sources testifies to his efforts to leave no literary or scholarly stone unturned in attempting to identify and explain the myths. And Schwartz isn't satisfied with simply providing (and generally translating) them: He provides highly useful commentaries on the stories, offering explanations of them not only in light of their Jewish antecedents but also in terms of their wider, cross-cultural influences. No careful reader will finish this volume without a working knowledge of the Mesopotamian Emuna Elish, which contains the equivalent of the story in Genesis of the creation of man; or a healthy appreciation for Judaism's complex incorporation of Gnosticism, that tendency toward dualism that seems to strike at the heart of Jewish monotheistic principle.

Though by now the gesture to viewing Jewish legend comparatively has become commonplace among scholars, some of Schwartz's comparisons may still strike some readers as surprising (or, perhaps, threatening); still more surprising (or, perhaps, unsettling) is how Schwartz's impulse to throw his arms out wide nets material from much more recent writers. While Schwartz's literary and anthological predecessors - even 20th-century ones like Bialik and Ginzberg - might have looked askance at the idea of including material from their contemporaries, Schwartz's collection is as comfortable with Kafka as it is with Bereishit Rabbah, with 20th-century hasidic tales by Warsaw Ghetto rabbis appearing side by side with selections from the Zohar.

Such studied insistence on the inclusion of the new also seems very of the moment, reflecting not only the desire to make clear the importance of the disempowered, but also the need for we moderns to have our say if we are to feel that we are part of the chain of an ever-evolving tradition. This was a kind of comfort that traditional writers and anthologists, secure both in the claims of God's covenant and the connection they felt to the stories about that covenant, felt no need to express. And it is in these efforts to position the book as both a critical anthology and a quasi-spiritual compilation for the modern seeker that this effort for relevance feels at its most strained.

Similarly complex is Schwartz's heavy reliance on mystical materials. While Schwartz is certainly at home with the midrashim that stem from exegetical lacunae, one gets the sense that it is the mystical texts that particularly inspire him. This embrace of the mystical seems very contemporary, though of course it isn't: The 17th and 18th centuries, for example, were boom times for the popularization of mysticism.

Still, many readers whose primary encounter with kabbalah has until this point been largely mediated by pop singers will be surprised by the heights of creativity (and specificity) that mystical thinkers and writers rose to in describing the ostensibly indescribable - particularly, though not only, the essence of God. Schwartz pays particular attention to stories surrounding the part of the Divine presence known as the Shekhinah, which can be considered part of God's essence and (somehow simultaneously) His Bride, and his explanations of the extraordinarily complex and often contradictory facets of this central aspect of Jewish imagination are well rendered.

But Schwartz relies on this material very heavily, often to the de-emphasis (if not outright exclusion) of some of the non-mystical myths and legends that occupy central places in the Jewish imagination. In contrast to earlier anthologies that focused on narrative development and historical flow, or on stories of plot and moral, Schwartz's selections generally focus on the powerful image, the koan-like paradox, the thing that gives rise to emotional or spiritual contemplation. Doing so can be a useful corrective to the general trend, but there is also the danger of swinging the pendulum too far in the effort to engage with mysticism ? la mode.

There is a similar danger at play in Schwartz's presentation of his material. Much of his expansion of the canon of Jewish myth is ultimately beneficial. But as the mystics that Schwartz so loves would unquestionably point out, processes of expansion also imply processes of contraction. Schwartz needs to find some way to establish order on these many Jewish writers and their prolific writings, consisting as they often do of subtle and less subtle variations on common themes. He does so by arranging all of this material into 10 thematic categories: God, Creation, Heaven, Hell, the Holy Word, Holy Time, Holy People, Holy Land, Exile and the Messiah. He then arranges these "10 major myths" into several dozen sub-myths, and a good number of these sub-myths themselves appear in several variants in the hundreds of original sources. Like all attempts to impose order on material that was never meant to be so ordered (almost all of the creators of such material in the rabbinic era tied their imaginings to other types of division, like the order of the passages read in synagogue), these categories are both broadly useful and narrowly frustrating.

Reading the selections, for example, I kept wondering how one could not include the myths of the Shekhinah's exile in the "myths of exile" category, given their central importance in Jewish conceptions of exile, rather than in "myths of God." Similar examples abound.

But Schwartz wants to do more than just create broad conceptual categories. There is a systematizing impulse at work for him, and it is a profoundly historical one: He wishes to tell the story of Jewish stories - their development from questions posed by lacunae in the laconic Biblical urtext or by seeming narrative or theological contradictions; or the efforts to interweave tales and tropes from surrounding cultures into the strong context of Jewish life and history; or simply the delight in literary invention for its own magnificent sake. Within these categories, he attempts, as he puts it, to "draw together the threads of these fragmentary myths into coherent ones," which somewhat effaces the fact that these stories appear in multiple texts over multiple centuries with local variants, accents and the like. Here then, is the 21st century proclivity to dehistoricize in the midst of historicization: not to deny that things come from particular sources, but simply to suggest that anything with a provenance is or can be just as important as anything else.

One might argue, in contrast, that true history is messy, and the sleek pleasure derived from the smoothness of Schwartz's polished prose might have been worthily exchanged for the jagged conversations between variant versions, contradictions and tales in different registers. A conversation between major and minor ideas and stories where each is identified clearly as such. Schwartz may believe that all stories are created equal, but history has generally rendered a different verdict. As it turns out, the controversial part of the book's title is not the word "mythology" but "of," suggesting a singular worldview and mythos; if Schwartz's book has taught the reader anything, it is how manifold and complex - and how resistant to unification - these stories are.

The fact is, though, that these observations are relevant primarily to someone, like a reviewer, who reads the book straight through. It seems fair to predict that there are very few people who will ever do this; nor should they. This is not a book to be read cover to cover so much as one to be dipped into, and scholars, sermon-seekers and other similar-minded individuals will find much reward in doing so.

When one gets right down to it, this is a book of stories; and the stories themselves, taken on their own terms as testament to Jewish imagination, are beyond reproach. With all these caveats, Schwartz's achievement in rendering and providing them for us is indeed monumental.

Jeremy Dauber is assistant professor of Yiddish literature at Columbia University. His book, "Antonio's Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature," was published last year by Stanford University Press.

The Jerusalem Report, May 30, 2005 issue



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