A Fascinatingly Problematic Book of Myths
By DANIEL SEPTIMUS
TREE OF SOULS
The Mythology of Judaism
By Howard Schwartz
618 pages. Oxford University Press. $50.
Scholars of Judaism have been sorting through their
attitudes toward myth for almost two centuries, and traditionally, these
attitudes have been cautious at best.
The proponents of Wissenschaft des
Judentums, the19th-century Germans who first applied critical,
scientific methodologies to the study of Judaism, were students of the
Enlightenment. They highlighted the rational and ethical aspects of Judaism and
shied away from the supernatural and mystical. For these academics, “Jewish
Mythology” would probably have been an oxymoron.
When the science promoted by Wissenschaft
revealed traces of Near Eastern myth in the biblical tradition, scholars
adopted a more nuanced approach. Yehezkel Kaufman (1889-1963), for example,
tried to show how the Bible took these myths and turned them on their head,
incorporating some, while demythologizing them in the process. Gershom Scholem
(1897-1982), the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, suggested that Jewish
tradition itself revealed a struggle
with myth and that normative Judaism’s discomfort with myth accounted for the
marginalization of mysticism.
During the 20th century, as Jewish Studies evolved further away from
its rationalist roots, scholars became more open to accepting myth as a
category of intellectual inquiry.
Just two years ago, University of Chicago professor Michael Fishbane published Biblical Myth and Rabbinic
Mythmaking, which argued that mythic elements of the Bible
were not only not rejected by the rabbis of the Talmud, they were expanded.
According to Fishbane, monotheism is not inconsistent with myth. Though many
scholars have interpreted the mythic tales of Judaism metaphorically, Fishbane
suggests we take them at face value.
Now comes Howard Schwartz’s Tree of Souls.
Schwartz, a folklorist and professor of English at University of Missouri-St.
Louis, has taken the Jewish reclamation of myth to an unprecedented level.
Schwartz’s anthology includes 670 tales, translated into English and divided
into 10 categories: 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. Each excerpt
contains a brief commentary written by Schwartz.
As a resource, Tree of Souls is
phenomenal. Because of its neat topical organization and its extensive general
index and index of biblical verses, it will be an invaluable source for
English-speakers in search of obscure (and not so obscure) Jewish texts. No
doubt it will take its place next to the translation of Bialik and Ravnitzky’s Sefer Ha-Aggadah
(The Book of Legends) on my
bookshelf—first stops for texts that can make me look more knowledgeable than I
am. As a work of academic scholarship, however, Tree of Souls is problematic.
Schwartz is very open-minded about the sources he’s willing to include. In
addition to biblical, rabbinic, and mystical sources, he selects texts from the
apocrypha that were written out of normative Jewish tradition, as well as from
modern writers such as Franz Kafka and
Yet Schwartz presents these myths as part of a single tradition, following a
relatively neat evolutionary process.
This approach doesn’t even pass muster with Elliot Ginsburg, who wrote the
Forward for Tree of Souls. He writes:
“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 edge, obscures specific voices and
historical settings.” Indeed, Schwartz himself seems unsure of this approach,
writing in the Preface that he has, “chosen to regard these [myths] as organic
developments.” Making this choice is
the prerogative of an anthologist, but it undermines the work’s academic
Schwartz’s working definition of myth is even more troubling.
Schwartz defines myth as, “a people’s sacred stories about origins, deities,
ancestors, and heroes.” This broad definition allows Schwartz to include
Judaism’s entire narrative tradition in the category of myth, excluding other
traditional categorizations of genre and ignoring rich academic debates about
the precise definition of mythology.
According to most scholars, one common characteristic of myth is its temporal
setting. The nature of time in myth is fundamentally different from human time
(in illo tempore, as Mircea Eliade
has famously phrased it).
Consider the explication of Kees Bolle: “At first sight, myths have much in
common with many other forms of folk literature. They deal with ‘supernatural’
events, as fairy tales do; they deal with extraordinary figures comparable to
those in legends and sagas, and so on…[but] the myth presents itself as telling
its listeners of a time altogether different from the time of our experience
(‘In the beginning…’ or ‘Before heaven and earth were created…’)…The saga’s
hero and the legend’s saintly protagonist are no doubt superior to all normal
human beings, yet their time is shown as just like the historical time of our
According to this definition, Jewish creation narratives and narratives about
the afterlife might justifiably be considered myths, but tales of the
Patriarchs—some of which Schwartz includes in Tree of Souls—would probably not fall into this category.
Contrast Schwartz’s approach with Fishbane’s. Where Schwartz recognizes ten
mythic motifs in Jewish literature, Fishbane identifies three: divine combat,
divine wrath and sorrow, and sympathetic identification (instances in which God
imitates human actions). All of Fishane’s myths are located in the divine
realm, in divine time—in illo tempore.
Howard Schwartz’s zeal for the variety and creativity of Jewish literature is
admirable. He has done us a great service by anthologizing this eclectic and
enlightening collection of Jewish tales. Unfortunately, he may have done a
disservice to the debate over Jewish mythology, which has been navigated
deliberately and rigorously for almost two hundred years.