The BEST: The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Rachel Sharansky Danziger Tradition Online | June 16, 2022

Summary: When Joseph Campbell enrolled as a graduate student in Columbia University, in the 1920s, his future course as a scholar of medieval literature seemed clear. But much like the literary heroes whom he would later study, Campbell hit a snag in the plan. His research exposed him to the broader realms of folklore, modern art, and eastern learning, inspiring him to expand his work past its original bounds, and compare texts and ideas across different fields. When the faculty at Columbia didn’t approve of such a break from conventions, Campbell did what literary heroes so often do in stories: he left the confines of the familiar program and charted a new path of his own making. 

Cloistering himself in a wooden shack in Woodstock, NY, Campbell spent the next five years reading and comparing myths, folk tales, and ancient texts from the world over. He concluded that all these different stories are but variations on the same core “monomyth,” charting a hero’s journey across a set of fixed stages or plot points. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) Campbell delved into these recurring stages, showing how heroes progress from the original “call to adventure” that invites them past the confines of their familiar worlds, through an initial “refusal of the call,” past the threshold that leads into the unknown, and finally through a series of specific trials and encounters. This journey leads them to their own fulfillment or “bliss” and equips them to eventually return and heal the worlds they left behind. 

These stages, according to Campbell, reflect the deep psychological challenges and needs all people live through. Taken as a whole, they reflect our universal need to experience the world as “transparent to transcendence” – as a place that’s connected to some deeper forces than those we encounter in the course of our daily lives. Stories, he concluded, both express this desire and help us pursue it, by supplying us with a road map towards achieving the hero’s development and subsequent bliss in our own lives. 

Why this is The BEST: At first glance, The Hero With a Thousand Faces is not a great candidate for enriching the spiritual and religious lives of observant Jews. By treating all myths and religious stories as variations on the same deeper psychological drama, Campbell discards the question of their veracity, rendering them all equally true – or untrue. To accept this position is to reject the first commandment, Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith, and so much else besides.

That said, Campbell’s methodology can still enrich our study of Tanakh. Maimonides famously interpreted Hazal’s axiom that “the Torah spoke in the language of man” to mean that the Torah wraps God’s truths in imagery that humans can parse and understand. Perhaps, this interpretation can be expanded to include stories and storytelling as well as images; after all, many recent studies show that stories and storytelling are the basic medium that humans use to understand, encode, and transfer meaning. Just as we can better understand the Torah’s truths by carefully analyzing the imagery it uses to describe God, so can we better understand the Torah’s messages by studying the medium it uses – storytelling – and its basic components and structure. 

Consider, for example, God’s revelation in the burning bush. Many commentaries compare Moshe’s hesitancy in this moment to the reactions of other Biblical role models upon receiving a mission from God. But if we use Campbell’s terms to reread Exodus 3-4 as a “call to adventure,” we can expand our study to include instances when other Biblical heroes face such a call that didn’t necessarily take the form of direct revelation, such as Mordecai’s appeal to Esther. 

Furthermore, by elucidating the connections between different stages in the Hero’s Journey with our own psychological needs and challenges, The Hero With a Thousand Faces invites us to reevaluate the personal, intimate insights Biblical stories can offer us. Moshe’s attempts to refuse the call, for example, are part of a larger theological and spiritual narrative. By focusing on them as separate and deeply human moments, we can be inspired to reevaluate our own moments of choice between a narrower, familiar life path and a daring venture into new unknowns. Despite his unabashed rejection of truth (as we understand it) as a relevant concept for evaluating Biblical (or any) stories, Campbell’s methodology offers us new ways to integrate Tanakh and its stories into our experience of our personal lives. 

Rachel Sharansky Danziger, a Jerusalem-born writer and educator, teaches Tanakh via Ma’ayan, Pardes, Torah in Motion, and other organizations.

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