"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 inseparable.

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