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

     (5) As Howard Schwartz notes, myths are vitalized and absorbed not only through
storytelling, but through the embodied mime of ritual performance (generally linked
with the pattern of mitzvot and the cycles of sacred time). To grasp this, let me give one
extended example—the myth of Sinaitic Revelation, wherein divine Presence and Will
were simultaneously disclosed.14 On one level, this was seen as a unique event that created
a singular pivot in history. “God spoke these words ve-lo yasaf, and did not add any
more.” (Deut. 5:19) After this event, all has changed, and nothing can match its watershed
import. To recall Sinai is to acknowledge that one-time transformation, and to live
in light of its teachings.

     On the second level of mythic enactment, Sinai is seen as an event that is periodically
. For example, to study Torah is (in the Rabbinic context) to bask in the light
of Sacred Time and its heroes. To read and interpret, to retell, is to move from being a
distemporary of the Biblical figures to becoming their (near) contemporaries.15 In a stronger
sense, perhaps, to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot is to stand again at Sinai. In its
kabbalistic formulation, especially, it is to enter the Covenant/Marriage with the Holy
One, to feel the embrace of divine intimacy—not as memory of things past but as something
wholly immediate. Here the sacred past flows into the present, or perhaps better:
one re-enters that “past” which is not truly past so much as a transhistorical moment that
is an eternal “present.”

     On the third level of signification, again found most strongly in kabbalistic tradition,
Sinai is a paradigm for that which is, at bottom, always occuring. Here one comes to realize
that the revelations of Shavuot are always present, if one could only maintain expanded
awareness. Drawing on the Rabbinic pun “[At Sinai] God spoke these words, ve-lo yasaf:
and did not add any more [i.e., Revelation is over] ff. Deut. 5:19, they read: ve-lo yasaf: and
never ceased speaking.16 The Torah that had been summarily closed is thus reopened, its
wellsprings unsealed: ma’ayan nove’a. As Nahmanides had it, from the large miracles (such
as Revelation at Sinai) one comes to the sense the small epiphanies. For divinity is always
present and the Voice never ceases to flow. At this level of expanded awareness [mohin degadlut]
God is, as the benediction has it, noten ha-torah, the one who ever gives Torah, each
moment anew.17 At various points in his book Schwartz illumines the connection between
myth and ritual, showing how story can become, in his words, “more than story.”

     To date, we have implied that it was through myth that Israel most commonly encountered,
grappled with, assimilated and marked life’s pivotal moments. For myth addresses
some of our fundamental existential questions, concerns that may shift over time but
which tend to pervade different cultural settings. These questions include: how did the
world come into being, and to what end; what may I/we hope for; what is the meaning
of suffering and of joy, the co-existence of good and evil; is there a deeper purpose to
history? What does it mean to be a Jew, to embrace Jewish practice? Who (rarely what) is
God and how may I serve the One? what does it mean to be both an image of the divine
and “dust and ashes”; what does it mean that I can both shatter and fix vessels and
worlds? What is the meaning of gender—in humanity, in divinity? Or: what is the relation
of work and rest, of depression and renewal? What is the significance of embodiment
and ensoulment? And: what might unfold in other dimensions of existence, both
high and low; to wit, what is the meaning of death, its sorrows and its sweet release, and
how does one here live in its presence? In this foreword I simply pose the questions. In
Tree of Souls these and other root questions are vividly addressed. It has been said that
survival (and the production of meaning) comes in cultural inflections. The myths in this
book give voice to a full array of Jewish inflections and dialects, creating olam u-melo’o, “a
world replete with meanings”.

     Still each path and its pitfalls. It is to Howard Schwartz’s credit that his embrace of the
mythic model does not blind him to the significant counter-impulses within Judaism: the
various Rabbinic and philosophical critiques of certain myths, especially the graphic
mythicizations of God found in aggadah and some strands of kabbalah. Second, even as
Schwartz is aware of the profundities in his mythic sources, he is aware of their dangers
too. For myths both articulate and absolutize (reify) our deepest visions. For an example
see the Introduction, where Schwartz poignantly notes: “The intractable conflict in the
Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians derives from this belief in the sanctity of
the Holy Land, especially of Jerusalem, shared by both Jews and Muslims. This serves as
a compelling reminder of the enduring and sometimes destructive power of these myths,
which are not always benign.” Or as James Young put it in a different context: a common
site of memory is not necessarily a site of common memory.18