YBP Library ServicesElectronic reviews of Science & Technology References covering Engineering, Agriculture, Medicine and Science.YBP Library Services Community College Center

May 2005    


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  What We're Reading


Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism

Author: Howard Schwartz
Publisher: Oxford University Press
$50.00 Cloth (618 p.)
ISBN: 0195086791
B&T         YBP

Reviewed by Jim Roberts, Continuations Order Specialist

In his latest book, Jewish folklorist Howard Schwartz gathers myths from traditions thousands of years old through modern writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Kafka, showing that while Judaism has only one God, its history contains a host of spiritual entities and a large body of mythology. He is careful, however, to note that he's referring to myths more as allegorical narratives and traditional stories, and not as unfounded apocrypha or unverifiable tales.

The myths are divided up into ten chapters: God, Creation, Heaven, Hell, the Holy Word, the Holy Time, the Holy People, the Holy Land, Exile and Messiah. Within the chapters, the myths are organized by general themes with the stories of the Shekinah, God's bride, collected in the Myths of God chapter, and the stories of the Tzohar in the chapter on Creation.

Each one has a commentary by Schwartz, some longer than the myth itself, where he roots the myth to the time, place and (where possible) the originator of the story. He also links the myths to each other, showing that these stories don't exist in isolation, but are part of a tapestry where the stories of Lilith as evil temptress are closely linked to the stories of the struggles Israel had in rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem after Babylonian captivity, and how the story of the early life of Joshua, the leader of Israel after Moses, closely parallels the tale of Oedipus.

From the perspective of the reader, there are two things that are very striking about this book: its breadth and its accessibility. This book covers such a range of themes, geography and history that a single read-through simply cannot do the book justice. The daunting task of rereading is made easier, however, by the precision of the text. Though he speaks with intelligence, and from an academic's viewpoint, Schwartz manages to be erudite without being pedantic. Even when expounding the most obscure of myths, he writes with such clarity that the reader is left informed, not confused. The index is thorough as well, which makes finding and rereading specific passages easier.

Because of the book's readability, it is accessible not only to theologians and Jewish scholars, but also to folklorists, classical scholars and people who simply love mythology. While this may cause some reviewers to compare it to Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, it's much more in the vein of the works of Celtic mythologist Robert Loomis or Scandinavian specialist John Lindow, being a broad-based but deeply insightful book about a branch of mythology but not a commentary on myth as a whole.

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