What is a Jewish myth? For quite a number of people, that is a nonsensical question. Many have argued that there is no such thing as Jewish myths; being monotheistic, Judaism is a mythless system of belief. You see this thinking, for example, in the title of Frank Moore Cross’s book on ancient Israelite beliefs, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Saga. As far as Cross (and many others) are concerned, only polytheists have myths. Cross had to hunt around for another word to describe the “master stories” of the Hebrew Bible, and he chose “saga.” Elliot Ginsburg writes, "Judaic scholars through the 1970s tended to define myth narrowly and negatively, linking it with so-called 'pagan' religions. They therefore tended to see Judaism as a demythologizing tradition, broken only by the 'mythic resurgence' of Kabbalah."
Truth is, however, that Judaism has always had its own complex, compelling mythos, starting with the Bible and extending up to today. Most Jewish myths, such as are found in the Midrash, are “spiritual” myths that incorporate divine things and supernatural times and events, but Jews also have secular myths; some of the best modern example revolves around the founding of the state of Israel. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jewish or not, what precisely is a “myth?” Set aside for the moment the common use of myth today to mean simply “something that isn’t true,” and instead consider these more sophisticated definitions of “myth.”
In the 19th Century, John Ruskin offered one of the earliest attempts to give a positive definition what a myth is: "A myth, in its simplest definition, is a story with a meaning attached to it other than it seems to have at first; and the fact that it has such a meaning is generally marked by some of its circumstances being extraordinary, or, in the common use of the word, unnatural."
The French linguist-philosopher Ernst Cassirer sees myths as early patterns of thought. Cassirer believed that man perceives the world in symbolic forms, and that myth is one such symbolic language for giving order to the world.
Among Jewish scholars, a number of different definitions of myth have been proposed. Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher and Bible translator, was an early advocate for recognizing the role that myth plays in Judaism. Buber emphasizes the centrality of myth, but uses the term so broadly in his writing that he seems to be working without a fixed definition. Mostly, Buber applies the concept to primordial sagas, stories of initial encounters between man and the divine.
Ignac Goldhizer, like Cassirer, has argued that myths express patterns inherent to the working of the human mind. The historian Yosef Yerushalmi has a very broad idea of a myth—it is a narrative about the past that provides collective and sacred memory for a group (think, for example, of how many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving as a shared national holiday—yet how few of us actually have any familial, ethnic, or historic connection to the Pilgrims). Ithamar Gruenwald, a scholar of Israelite and early Jewish culture, links the idea of myth to rituals, arguing that a myth is a story connected to a ritual. He offers the story of the Exodus from Egyptian slavery as a signal example—Jews revisit the Exodus through various rituals on a daily (prayer), weekly (Kiddush) and annual (Passover Seder) basis.
Howard Schwartz, perhaps the most prominent Jewish folklorist today, writes that “’Myths’ refer to a people stories about origins, deities, ancestors, and heroes…within a culture, myth also serve as the divine charter...Myth itself is the collective projection of a people.”
I prefer to keep the definition simple and only elaborate by example. I like what Elliot Ginsburg writes: “Most recent scholars understand myths more broadly, as a fundamental human impulse (found in virtually all cultures) to structure life around orienting stories.” I also appreciate what Daniel Breslauer says when he describes them as “any narrative which conveys messages about eternal patterns of life and history.”
I tend of offer my definition of myth against the common usage of it mentioned above. Myth is not “something that never happened”; a good myth is about something that happens all the time. Like Ginsburg, I think myths are fundamental to human thinking (and therefore both important and useful). They tell us great human and cosmic Truths couched in the form of stories. One of the supreme examples of this that was mentioned earlier is the story of the Exodus. On one level, the Exodus is a story about a specific event that happened to a specific people (us, the Jews) in a specific place (Egypt), though it happened long, long ago in a civilization far, far away (another quality of most myths). But the story is really about the eternal human experience of exile and homecoming, of being trapped and being liberated by the power of spirit. That’s why people love the Exodus story so much—not just Jews, but Christians, and Muslims, people in America, Africa, and Asia, have all embraced the Exodus, often using it as a paradigm for their own struggles, personal and collective. In a different context Gershom Scholem writes that the Exodus mythically becomes “an event which takes places in ourselves” and “…acquire[s] the dignity of immediate religious experience.”
There are, of course, problems associated with myths. Like all impulses human, myths must be viewed carefully, even critically. Jews especially have been the victims of bizarre and hateful myths, as have minorities and aboriginal peoples all over the world. Mythic language also has to be used with care. Take for example the rhetoric of the Vietnam war. Many times we have heard it said that veterans were “spit on” upon returning from Vietnam. It has become a pervasive part of our mythic understanding of that war, the 60’s, and what it means to be a civil society. Jerry Lembecke, a professor of sociology and a Vietnam combat veteran, has written a book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam that explores the reports of protesters "spitting upon" Vietnam vets. He finds that the stories have little basis in fact. The fact is that few (if any) veterans were ever physically spit upon by their countrymen, but that many felt as if they had been. Yet because of the way this myth is told, I am sure that are people who imagine there were once ranks of hippies hanging around army depots waiting to spit on discharged soldiers. The overly-literal application of this myth is not helpful to us today.
But if we use our myths with care, applying them in order to help ourselves make sense of our world (but not to explain away or devalue others), our myths speak Truth (with a big “T”) in the way few other things can: they bless us with meaning, consolation, even healing.
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