Ways of reading this book. As noted, Tree of Souls maintains a dynamic tension between
textual diversity and thematic focus through the centripetal force of its editor.
Schwartz’s frequent weaving together of parallel sources into a unitary myth is an impressive
achievement. Still, I confess that I often have trouble with this approach since it
smooths out the edges, obscures specific voices and historical settings. But thanks to the
commentaries, I was rarely perturbed by this. And the gain in narrative flow was measurable.
The author has done a remarkable job in presenting the chain midrashim and
the longer legends/myths (the Tzohar19 to restrict myself to one example.) I like the way
Schwartz presented the hard unvarnished accounts found in some sources: the Zoharic
text wherein the Holy One (masculine aspect of God) is mated not with Shekhinah as one
would expect but with Lilith (the demonic realm in its feminine guise). Or the aggadah
wherein the son of arch-demon Sammael is cannibalized by Eve (and Adam). This source
was stunning in all senses of the term. In these and other texts, mind surprises heart, as
the text reads in ways that run counter to expectations and hidden wishes. In still other
texts, narrative reaches the status of mayse as defined by Abraham Joshua Heschel: a
story in which heart suprises mind.20 Nahman’s fragmentary tale of “A Garment for the
Moon” and the oral tale “The Cottage of Candles” are two such texts for me. Each reader
will undoubtedly find his or her favorites: be they tales that edify or perplex, astonish or
delight, be they myths that stick in the craw, force one to reconsider, or make the heart
melt. For there are as many gates in this book as there are stories (and some would say, as
there are readers).
This book deserves a wide and varied audience. It will speak to storytellers of all
stripes, spur the analogical and aesthetic imagination of artists. Students of myth and
theology (Jewish and comparative) and spiritual seekers, those thirsty for the presence of
the One, will have much to contemplate and absorb. Some readers may wish to focus on
one tale at a time, to even memorize a passage or write it down and place it in pocket or
purse for periodic examination and reflection. To learn by heart. Other readers may wish
to explore a mythic cycle systematically, concordances in hand. Still others will want to
make use of Schwartz’s extensive notation of primary sources to engage in historical
analysis. Through these notations and through the references to cutting-edge scholarship
the reader is given tools to continue and deepen his or her readings. One need not
agree with all of Schwartz’s contentions in order to be edified and inspired by this book.
He is a conversation partner of the highest order, a generous and deeply schooled barp’lugta.
Still, not all is heavy in this book. As the midrash21 has it panim tzohakot la-aggadah.
“The Aggadah—the narrative imagination—has a laughing face.” For reasons both playful
and profound, this is a book to read and reread, to grow old with.
The anthological imagination and its resonances. Tree of Souls is a latter-day exemplar
of the Jewish anthological imagination, that combinatory art. Indeed, anthology is
one of the oldest forms of Jewish literary creativity, found in various Biblical books such
as Psalms and, many would hold, the Pentateuch itself (if one accepts the documentary
hypothesis). Many of the canonical and sacred works of the Rabbinic imagination were
anthologies of texts, some even anthologies of anthologies.22 In the modern period we
have been blessed with encyclopedic anthologies of signal import, including Bialik and
Ravnitzky’s Sefer ha-Aggadah (in Hebrew) and Louis Ginzberg’s magisterial Legends of the
Jews. Tree of Souls builds on these works in many ways, recasting the thematic thrust of
Sefer ha-Aggadah and revisioning the synthetic narrative of Ginzberg. Still, Schwartz extends
our scope by drawing on heretofore marginalized texts as well as post-medieval
and modern texts not included in the earlier works.23 Indeed, this book could only have
been written at this historical moment. For it draws on works that had been lost to
earlier generations, such as the piyyutim of Yannai and the Dead Sea Scrolls; oral narratives
collected in recent decades; women’s prayers that have just now re-entered public
(and scholarly) purview; as well as mystical manuscripts and “minor” midrashim that
were previously known only to yehidei segullah, the precious few. In this book, our collective
memory is dusted off, expanded and vitalized.
By way of conclusion or as entree into the book itself, a parable about this volume and
the Anthological Imagination. The word anthology etymologically implies a collection of
flowers, the artful forming of a bouquet. The hasidic rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, himself a
great mythopoet and storyteller, likened the act of prayer to this anthological art—the assembling
of bouquets for the Holy One. Each letter, he teaches, is like a flower of the field,
and from these letters one forms words, themselves bouquets. From these words one forms
prayers, and from individual prayers, whole services of worship—elaborate bouquets, garlands
of blessing. Nachman then explains that each word—each flower—has a special resonance,
an inner music. Its music hangs in the air, combining and harmonizing with the
other words and prayers that follow, in a kind of Deep Song. Nahman concludes: “When
you rise and speak the final words of the service, let the first letter of the first word still
reverberate.”24 The book in your hands is a work of enormous resonance. The careful reader
of Tree of Souls cannot but marvel at the consistent power, the occasional bracing oddness,
and the enduring beauty of this anthology. It is a testament to its power that many of the
early stories resonate with later ones, and that one continues to hear something of this
book’s “inner music”—its soul-stirring niggun—long after one has closed its pages.