Howard Schwartz grew up devouring the myths of quarreling Roman gods and towering Greek Cyclopes, and as an adult he kept asking the question he first posed to his teachers as a young boy: Is there such a thing as Jewish mythology? Today an English professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, Schwartz has created his own answer: a 600-page anthology of Jewish mythology, with tales drawn from an array of sources ranging from the Bible and Zohar to the stories of Franz Kafka.
“I’ve tried to find a way to open a door to it, because I honestly believe there is a Jewish mythology. I don’t believe it denigrates the legitimacy of Jewish sacred texts,” Schwartz told JTA on a recent visit to Israel to promote the volume. “Jews should not be deprived of having a mythic tradition. Everyone else has one.”
A ruddy-faced man with an easy laugh, Schwartz posits that because a tale or story is described as a myth, that doesn’t mean it can’t also be true or based on the divine.
Driven by that conviction, he spent twelve years compiling and cataloging the 670 myths that make up his hefty volume “The Tree of Souls,” published in 2004. To find them, he scoured rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic texts and folk tales from across the Jewish world.
About half of the myths are drawn from rabbinic tracts, including the Talmud and midrash. The others are drawn predominantly from kabbalistic sources; the pseudepigrapha, early texts not included in the biblical canon; Chasidic and oral tales; and the Bible.
Long before the advent of science, ancient peoples created myths to explain natural phenomena such as thunder, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. Today mythology is popularly associated with the pagan concept of multiple gods, such as those in Greek and Roman mythology, but that’s a limited definition of the form, according to Schwartz.
Schwartz defines “myth” as a people’s sacred stories about its origins, ancestors and heroes. The Bible, he says, is a perfect example: The origins of the Jewish people are described in the Bible, which honors ancestors like Abraham and Moses and celebrates heroes like David and the Maccabees.
Among the myths highlighted in the anthology are the story of angels living in heaven; a map of heaven; and the mystical tale of the bride of God — the feminine aspect of the creator — known as the Shekhinah. According to Schwartz, the Shekhinah emerges much like a goddess in kabbalistic texts.
To organize the massive volume, Schwartz divided Jewish mythology into 10 categories: God, creation, heaven, hell, the holy world, holy time, holy people, the Holy Land, exile and the Messiah.
Each myth is accompanied by an introduction and background by Schwartz, along with notes on its sources.
Schwartz tells readers about Anafiel, the “Creator of the Beginning,” the angel who rules over the other angels and protects the entrances to the palaces in Aravot, the highest realm of heaven, according to the Zohar, the mystical medieval commentary that is the primary source of Kabbalah.
Readers also learn about “The Angel of Losses,” known as Yode’a, whose job is to recall all that has been lost. He and his servants — some of them angels, some mortal — are kept busy digging in the earth, searching endlessly for great losses.
Another myth describes the “cosmic tree” — from which Schwartz takes his title — the “tree of souls.” It was a huge tree that God created to cover the entire universe, with everything in creation originating from within its branches, from trees and blossoms to human souls.
“Everything needs it and yearns for it and seeks to glimpse that tree. And, at the end of their lives, the souls of the righteous ascend on high, attaching themselves onto that tree,” Schwartz writes.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.