Thursday, August 14, 2003

MICHAEL FISHBANE'S NEW BOOK, Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (Oxford University Press) is reviewed by Seth Sanders (who was at the St. Andrews Anthropology and Biblical Studies conference in July) in the University of Chicago Chronicle.

Is it blasphemous to say that myth is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible? What is more, what if rather than suppressing biblical myth, Jewish tradition actually deepened and even added to it?


Fishbane joins a recent wave of scholars of Judaism who are rethinking the meaning of biblical myth as well as scholars of comparative religion, such as Chicago�s Bruce Lincoln, the Caroline E. Haskell Professor in the Divinity School, who are reevaluating myth�s cultural force. Fishbane writes that his goal is �to retrieve, study and even reconstruct the phenomenon of monotheistic myth over the course of two millennia,� from the Hebrew Bible to the great works of Kabbalah.

Fishbane argues that from the start, one is at a disadvantage in understanding myth, since we inherit traditions, ranging from the Greek Sophists to medieval Jewish philosophers to the European Enlightenment, which rationalize it away. He discussed one of his working principles: �If something would be considered myth in an ancient Babylonian or Canaanite source, there is no reason to assume the same material would not have the same force in an Israelite or Jewish setting. These are variants of mythic elements that have gone through a monotheistic filter. This does not mean that imagery has been softened, just that it occurs in an ancient Israelite context. These images would not have been mere �metaphors� for the Babylonians, and neither would they have been mere metaphors for the Israelites.�


�The same principles affect my study of interpretation and storytelling in early Jewish Midrash. People assume monotheism implies the impossibility of myth. But what�s interesting is that certain Rabbinic myths, like God�s dragon-slaying or his abandonment of and lamentation for the temple, actually show a greater vibrancy than similar topics found in the Bible, matching that of the ancient Near East. There was an old and ongoing mythic tradition in Israel, much of which did not surface in the Bible. But much of it does surface in Midrash and later in Jewish religious culture.�

But the Rabbis� creativity does not stop there. Fishbane explained, �The other innovation within rabbinic material is the way interpretation both expands old myths and creates new ones.�

Certain images now appear that the Israelites might never have imagined. �Among the themes that only emerge in rabbinic interpretation are that of God actually enduring suffering and going into exile along with the Jewish people. The third section of the book focuses on this increasing boldness and creativity. One of the striking things about the first great Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, is the very ancient myth of God�s building the world on the slain dragon�s body. Here, a theme already known in Babylonian literature, but only hinted at in the Bible, is elaborated in the much larger and more complex world of Kabbalah.� In these instances, Jewish tradition has actually expanded its mythmaking power so that in the Zohar there is �virtually no word or image in the Hebrew Bible that is not a potential myth.�

Why have people been so reluctant to examine this rich legacy? Fishbane argues that this reluctance is defensive. In his analysis of earlier scholars who pose an imaginary but convenient break between polytheistic myth and monotheistic purity, he challenges a whole roster of the 20th century�s great Jewish thinkers, including Gershom Scholem, the most famous student of Jewish mysticism. Scholem and others have maintained that Kabbalah was a mysterious outburst of a mythology that had been cut off and repressed in mainstream Judaism. But, Fishbane argued, if its myths were truly alien or obscure, Kabbalah could not have won the massive and widespread acceptance that it did.


Bravo. Read it all.

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