"Tree of Souls" Provides
Fresh Insight into Jewish Mythology
By Sara Porter
Every once in a while, someone comes along and puts together a
collection of fairy tales, myths and legends so popular and important
to that culture's history that the writer is forever associated with
that culture, almost becoming a spokesperson for it. Charles Perrault
collected the tales of France; Italo Calvino was well known for his
books of Italian fairy tales; Hans Christian Anderson became a
household name because of his collections of stories from his native
Denmark; and the words Germany and the Brothers Grimm are practically
What those writers have done for their cultures, University of
Missouri-St. Louis professor Howard Schwartz has done for Jewish myths
and legends in the superb "Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism."
Schwartz defines "myth" as "people's sacred stories about
origins, deities, ancestors and heroes." Although "religion" and
"mythology" are certainly not synonymous, Schwartz argues throughout
the book that mythology and religion coincide more than we often think.
Schwartz takes an approach to the stories that is both academic and, at
the same time, pleasurable. He details both the intellectual aspects of
reading mythology (to learn about a people) and the emotional aspects
of reading mythology (to read and tell a good story).
Sources for the book include the Bible as well as rabbinic,
Kabbalistic and Hasidic texts; texts that were not included in the
Hebrew Bible, such as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha; Eastern
European and Israeli oral tradition; and other sources. The stories
were then brought together into one masterful volume that provides
fresh insight by looking at these myths and legends through a variety
of perspectives. For example, one version of Adam (the first man on
Earth) portrays him as an angel sent to reign on Earth. Another depicts
him as a golem, a creature made from clay and given life. Others
portray him as being enticed to eat the fruit from the tree because Eve
was afraid that he would marry someone else if he outlived her and
portray God as having divorced him after he and Eve were expelled from
the Garden of Eden.
To make things easy for the reader, "Tree of Souls" is divided
into 10 sections: 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. Within these sections, the individual myths are organized
into myth cycles. These myths present the major stories of Jewish
mythology and each one is followed by a brief commentary by Schwartz
which provides information about the sources as well as a modern
perspective on each story.
"Adam and Lilith," for example, tells the story of Adam's first
wife, Lilith, who refused to take the missionary position in bed and
then fled into the wilderness, becoming a demoness who strangled infant
children in their sleep. What follows is a commentary by Schwartz about
how the Lilith myth was created by ancient Jewish scholars from a verse
in Genesis that says, "Male and Female, He created them" (Gen. 1:27).
This verse was interpreted to mean that Adam and his wife were created
at the same time - rather than Eve being created afterwards from Adam's
ribs - and the character of Lilith evolved from an argumentative woman
to a demoness. Schwartz explains that many of these characters like
Lilith and also Enoch - a man who ascended into Heaven and became an
angel - emerged as "a form of commentary on difficult Bible passages."
Schwartz, a native St. Louisian, said he has a strong sense of
being Jewish. "I was raised Jewish and went to Hebrew school and Sunday
school," he said. "But it didn't seem like that much of an important
matter in my life until I was 20, when it just exploded for me. My
father also had an exceptionally strong sense of being Jewish, and I
believe that I inherited this from him by a kind of osmosis."
Schwartz began collecting Jewish folktales in during a
sabbatical year in Israel from 1977 to 1978, first working on "Elijah's
Violin and Other Jewish Fairy Tales." Other books followed, including,
"Miriam's Tambourine: Jewish Folktales from Around the World,"
"Lilith's Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural," and "Gabriel's
Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales," each one detailing different aspects of
Jewish folklore, including the supernatural and mystical stories.
"These stories had strong mythical qualities, especially tales
about Lilith, Queen of Demons, and those about God's bride, known as
the Shekhinah," he said. "By the time I had finished "Gabriel's
Palace," it occurred to me that I could edit a book of Jewish
mythology. I sent a proposal to my editor and she liked the idea. I
then spent the next two years trying to figure out how to organize the
subject and what were the myths that constituted the mythology of
Judaism." "Tree of Souls" is the enjoyable result of 12 years of
researching and collecting stories.
"First, there were dreams, then dreams inspired mythology,
mythology inspired folklore, and folklore inspired modern literature,"
Schwartz said. "The key to all of these is the use of symbolism. Once
you have the key to reading and understanding symbolism, these texts
open themselves to great meaning."
Reprinted from Sauce Magazine, Dec. 2004