The Resonances and Registers of Jewish Myth
by Elliot K. Ginsburg

    The centrality of the mythic imagination. In recent decades scholars have called renewed
attention to the mythic element in successive strata of Jewish tradition4: to the
mythic fragments, echoes and organizing themes found in the compositions of the Hebrew
Bible; to the rabbinic rereadings of the newly-canonical Scripture5 in light of living
myths of God’s deeds and personality; and the complex integrations of mythic images
and themes in medieval kabbalah, none more daring than the rendering of the divine
totality in terms of ten potencies or sefirot, each with its own personality and gendered
associations. (Divine oneness, for example, is expressed as the loving union of the masculine
and feminine aspects of God.) In the ensuing paragraphs, I wish to suggest several
things, knowing that their full articulation is beyond the scope of this essay: (1) that there
is a Grand Myth (or meta-narrative) that was shared by most Jews in the Rabbinic, premodern
setting; (2) that this grand myth is rooted in (if not identical with) the foundational
text of the Hebrew Bible; (3) that in interpreting the Hebrew Bible, the Rabbis
developed a “Myth of myths” of signal importance, that of the multi-faceted Torah, whose
manifold meanings could be successively uncovered but never exhausted; (4) that these
three elements combined to support a sort of mythic consciousness enabling devotees to
read their lives in terms of the Sacred Text and the Sacred Text in terms of theirlives; and
(5) that this mythic consciousness was rendered vital through storytelling and interpretation,
as well as through the drama of ritual.

     Briefly then, (1) to be a Jew in the classical setting is to have a Story, a shared metanarrative.
It is to hold that this world is created as an act of divine will; that one is the heir
of Abraham and Sarah; of those who endure(d) Egyptian slavery and the gifts of Redemption,
who stand at the pivot of Sinaitic revelation and its Covenant, who know the
joys of homecoming and the enduring dislocations of exile.6 It is to hold that there will be
a Messianic resolution to history, though the Messiah doth tarry. This broad myth binds
its adherents in a web of faith and fate, memory and expecation, in a way that transcends
the defining particulars of time and place. This grand story (whose bare bones I telegraph
here) is rarely articulated in toto by its adherents: it is rather cited en passant, like
one who hums a few bars of a well-known, deeply assimilated, song. The adherent carries
this Story, or if you prefer, this Tune, but it also carries him or her. (2) The grid for this
meta-Story is the foundational text, the Hebrew Bible, which reaches canonical status
through its Rabbinic closure in the late first century. Yet (3) as one door is closed, another
opens. As Gershom Scholem has eloquently shown, sacred Text was immediately reopened
through the medium of interpretation: midrash, commentary, and sundry forms
of storytelling. Or as Michael Fishbane would have it: Rabbinic mythmaking “begins where
the Hebrew Bible closes, with the canon.”7 What emerges is a suite (sometimes a tangle) of
images, arguments, readings and narratives, all rooted in the evolving Myth of the Multi-
Tiered Torah. This master narrative assumes that the divine Word is pregnant with multiple
meanings, whole families of mythemes. Thus we read “one God has spoken, two I
have heard”; and the divine “word is fire,” [its manifold meanings released] “like a hammer
striking the Rock”; and in a particularly telling rabbinic litany, ellu ve-ellu divrei elohim
: both this interpretation and that one (the one that contradicts it) are the word of the
living God.8 In its most lavish formulations—in mystical tradition—this becomes the Myth
of Torah’s infinite, inexhaustible meaning: “The Torah has seventy faces,” nay “600,000
facets.” Or as various hasidic masters have it, not only do the black letters of text have
meaning, but so too, the white spaces.9 We might grasp this multiplicity by way of a parable,
which expresses its radical edge10: The great hasidic master Nachman of Bratslav has a
dream within a dream. He wakes up from that inner dream. Still in visionary mode, he tries to
interpret the inner dream, but its meaning eludes him. He sees a sage standing nearby, and asks him
the meaning of his dream. The sage tugs at his beard and says: “this is my beard and This! [tugging
again at the beard] is the meaning of your dream.”
11 Nachman responds: “but I don’t understand.
“In that case,” the sage adds, “go to the next room.” Nachman repairs to the next room and finds an
endless library filled with endless books. “And everywhere I looked,” he adds, “I found another comment
on the meaning of this thing.”
I ask, what is the deeper Truth: the transverbal immediacy
of the tug, the Sage’s “This!” or the infinite play of interpretation? Perhaps the Torah is
never so clear as when it is being unpacked, mined for its manifold truths. And this concludes
our Myth about the necessary multiplication of Myths. In a sense, Howard Schwartz’s
book is a more measured illustration of Nachman’s creative play.

     (4) Arthur Green has written: “The great happenings of Scripture should in the proper
sense be seen as mythical, that is, as paradigms that help us encounter, explain and enrich
by archaic association the deepest experiences of which we humans are capable...By
retelling, grappling with, dramatizing, living in the light of these paradigms, devotees
feel themselves touched by a transcendent presence that is made real in their lives through
the retelling, the re-enactments.” To use the formulation of Clifford Geertz, myth both
provides a model of reality, what is really real, and a model for reality, how one is to behave
in its light.12

     There is a profound dialectic for those who live under the penumbra of the Sacred Text
and its mythos: as devotees tend to read their life in terms of the orienting Text/Myth,
and read the Text in terms of their life. Thus, some Jews during the Crusades saw themselves
as Father Abrahams called upon to sacrifice their children for the sake of their
faith; even as the press of historical events and other (possibly Christian-influenced) narratives
may have lead them to hold that the Biblical Isaac was actually sacrificed and
resurrected.13 Over time, given myths expand and contract. New glosses to extant myths
emerge as mythic fragments or images; sometimes these images coalesce into new stories,
and sometimes into whole new mythic complexes or systems. Examples of System
include the sefirotic theology in Zoharic Kabbalah with its Myth of the divine Androgyne,
and the Lurianic mythos of Creation, Shattering, and Tikkun/Cosmic Restoration.
     Classically speaking, to be a Jew is to have access to—to assimilate/debate/relate—
varying degrees of these extant fragments, stories, mythic cycles and mythologies.