A Fascinatingly Problematic Book of Myths


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 Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. 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 objectivity.

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 experience.”

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.