Reform Judaism Magazine

Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism by Howard Schwartz, illustratedby Caren Loebel-Fried 
(Oxford University Press, 618 pp., paperback $29.95)

Is there a Jewish mythology? If myth refers to "a people's sacred stories about origins, deities, ancestors, and heroes," the answer is yes—and now we have access to it, thanks to Judaism's own answer to Joseph Campbell. With this unique anthology, Howard Schwartz, the preeminent reteller of Jewish stories, has created a genre.

This vast compendium of 700 legends is organized by theme: God, Creation, Heaven, Hell, Holy Word (Torah), Holy Time (Festivals), Holy People, Holy Land, Exile, and the Messiah. Each story is followed by its source and Schwartz's commentary. In many cases, Schwartz weaves together a rendition of the myth from several sources, giving the tale its fullest form. But the most exciting part is the range of sources that he has chosen to include. In addition to biblical, rabbinic, mystical, and folkloric sources, Schwartz delves into the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Jewish writings of the Second Temple period that were left out of the Hebrew Bible. Summing up the range of topics, he writes: "These stories describe events such as the transformation of Enoch into the angel Metatron, the Giving of the Torah, the separation of God's Bride from Her Spouse, the chain of events that has so far prevented the coming of the Messiah, and the attempts of Satan to gain inroads into the world of human beings."

One selection, "Tree of Souls," bears the same title as the book: "God has a tree of flowering souls in Paradise…. When the souls grow ripe, they descend into the Treasury of Souls, where they are stored until they are called upon to be born. From this we learn that all souls are the fruit of the Holy One, blessed be He." This parable seems to fit the flowering of the Jewish mythic imagination as well.