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Review from Moment Magazine:


The Mythology of Judaism

by Howard Schwartz

Oxford University Press, 618 pages


This is a very big book, not just in size but in ambition.  It's an impressive impressive volume. It seems hard to believe that one author put it together on his own or in one lifetime. But Howard Schwartz was well prepared to do the task. He has been collecting and re-telling Jewish imaginative literature for decades, in well known anthologies of Jewish folktales and Jewish mystical tales, such as Elijah's Violin, Miriam's Tambourine , Gabriel's Palace and Lilith's Cave.  In this way he's become the one man "Brothers Grimm" of Jewish folklore for our time.

 In his Reimagining the Bible, Professor Schwartz put all that gathering activity in a more scholarly context. He explains the development of what he calls "Jewish mythology" and the features that set it apart from the mythology of other peoples. Most of the time, we associate mythology with oral literature that comes before the establishment of the written literature of a group or nation. For instance, we conceive of an entire oral tradition of stories and tales about the Greek gods as the backdrop for the epic poetry of Homer.  Similarly in the Torah we can find remnants and traces of earlier Hebrew legends and myths, especially in the book of Genesis.

However, as Schwartz points out, Jewish oral literature is  unique  because oral literature brackets the written tradition. After  the written Torah is established,  the "oral Torah", arises  in the rabbinic era. This rabbinic story-telling is found in the "aggadot" or stories in the Talmud proper, and extensively in  the rabbinic midrash. The midrashic style of rabbinic story telling-- rooted in the Torah text, but ranging far and wide from it,  becomes the model for the mystical speculation of the Zohar and other kabbalistic texts. Starting in the 13th century,  through the kabbalah of Moses de Leon and later of Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, an entire mythology is inserted within the heart of the Jewish tradition.  The fertility of this mystical outlook continues in the tales and legends of the first great hasidic masters, and comes to a peak in the tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. This second blooming of mythology in a post-literate culture is an entirely unique phenomenon and worthy of great reflection in itself.

Since in colloquial terms "myth" usually means "untruth" it's important to understand exactly what Schwartz means. In his introduction, he writes,  "Myth refers to a people's sacred stories about origins, deities, ancestors and heroes. Within a culture, myths serves as the divine charter, and myth and ritual are inextricably bound."   For Schwartz the master myth of Judaism is the covenant between God and Israel in the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

 From this "master myth" Schwartz identified ten sub-myths, namely "myths of God", "myths of Creation", "myths of Heaven", "myths of Hell", "myths of the Holy Word", "myths of the Holy Time", "myths of the Holy People", "myths of the Holy Land", "myths of exile" and "myths of the Messiah."  The volume is organized around these ten myths, each of which subdivides further.  The intellectual clarity of his organization bespeaks a man who has spent decades collecting, organizing and retelling Jewish tales-- by arranging them he has created a very usable encyclopedia of Jewish myth, and helps the reader see the unified pattern behind the diversity of thousands of years of Jewish story telling.  Schwartz brings into the mix, ancient and medieval documents, but also ventures towards the twenty first century by including among his myth-makers, Franz Kafka,  the Piasetzner Rebbe,  and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the zeide of the Jewish renewal movement.

So far I have only given the outline of this tremendous project, the intellectual rind that gives it shape and form. But how to convey the taste of the fruit?  Tree of Souls can be roamed through like an enchanted garden-- a book length Eden- with rich tastes everywhere ripe for the plucking. How juicy to realize that God left an "unfinished corner of creation", or to wonder (on the same page) "what happened to the darkness that existed before the creation of the world?" How inspiring to learn of the giant heavenly Adam created before the earthly one, or to learn that there are those "who insist that Abraham never died  and that he continues to wander the world." Schwartz very helpfully simplifies the story telling, while guiding the curious reader to the original sources, thus serving scholar and casual reader alike.

Reading this book puts you in the mood of a dream, and time quickly drops away. Who knows who might  next knock at the door-- an angel, or Elijah? There are Jewish tales here of  demons and giants, of the end of days and the beginning of time-- and all of them stimulate reverie and reverence-- both states of mind we need to cultivate in our time, if we are to have any deeper sense of the sacred.  Fortunately Howard Schwartz has done the digging for us, and opened up the way to the Jewish tree of souls; all we need do is bring our open hearts and minds.


--Rodger Kamenetz.


Kamenetz's most recent book of poetry is The Lowercase Jew (Northwestern University Press, 2003).


Rodger Kamenetz