For as difficult as it must be to write quality fiction, it is probably more challenging to write good Jewish fiction. Not only must the author tell a compelling or insightful story in a specific religious context, but s/he must do so without resorting to shallow stereotypes, condescending explanations, or heavy-handed moralizing. Sadly, I’ve found that most authors of Jewish fiction fail on one or more of these areas, and in the worst cases do so while compromising the actual story. The result often is not only a biased or inaccurate portrayal of Judaism, but also a work of bad fiction.
That said, I was pleasantly surprised by Rabbi Gidon Rothstein’s Murderer in the Mikdash. While exploring the highly controversial Messianic era, R. Rothstein skillfully addresses significant religious issues without compromising or distracting from the core narrative. The end result is a readable work of fiction in which the narrative is supported by educational material and social commentary.
As you might expect, Murderer in the Mikdash is your basic murder mystery. We are quickly introduced to Rachel Tucker, a non-observant new mother whose husband has apparently vanished without a trace. Further complicating Rachel’s life is the death of her friend Liat, and Rachel’s newswoman’s instinct that Liat’s natural respiratory failure was really hiding something far more sinister. The backdrop of all this is of course the third temple period and Rachel’s quest for truth requires her to confront a society and its bizarre amalgam of ancient laws and modern sensibilities.
Not being a typical fiction reader I can’t comment too much on the writing style. To me at least, R. Rothstein did a decent job of character1 and plot development, maintaining suspense with a few twists at unexpected moments, and a satisfying ending which wraps up everything nicely.
Of course the real novelty of Murderer in the Mikdash is the portrayal of a possible third temple society. R. Rothstein chooses what could best be described as a hyper-Maimonidean approach – that the only distinction between contemporary society and the Messianic age is the subjugation of other nations (shi’bud malchiyut) (Hilkhot Melachim 12:2) 2 – but in R. Rothstein’s vision, the other nations have not yet accepted the new kingship of Israel. This minor distinction is not necessarily contradictory since the process of shi’bud malchiyut could be gradual, and if anything such international skepticism is a nice touch a detail emphasizing the very natural and rational Messianic era.
R. Rothstein’s rationalist approach to the Messianic age is essential to the book for several reasons. Practically, it allows R. Rothstein the freedom to tell the story in a context which can be easily accepted – or at least understood – by most readers. Even among the Jewish audience, a perfectly natural Messianic society would probably seem more credible to the widest possible audience.
Theologically, this decidedly natural perspective provides R. Rothstein the vehicle for a compelling story. If the Messianic age will be a perfect utopia with everyone living carefree happy lives, then most stories will probably be boring descriptions of what people do all day.3 Instead R. Rothstein is free to project into the Messianic era many of the unfortunate vices and shortcomings of our own society, including religious elitism and the corruption of prominent and “respected” religious figures.
Although some readers like Hirhurim may focus on the educational aspects of the book, I did not get a sense that teaching about the mikdash was R. Rothstein’s primary goal. True, Murderer in the Mikdash is certainly educational and there is plenty of social commentary throughout the book. But what is essential is that R. Rothstein realizes the first rule of writing fiction is to tell the story.4 R. Rothstein is secure enough in his knowledge of the sources that he doesn’t feel the need to bury the reader in halakhic details, but gradually includes whatever laws are most valuable to the story and enough hints for those readers with a superior textual background. Even the details R. Rothstein does in fact share are presented through the natural flow of the story. The laws are taught to the non-educated protagonist, but not directly to the reader. Other obviously significant details, such as the Messiah’s name and the existence of a sanhedrin, are omitted for the sake of the story.
I’m not entirely sure what R. Rothstein’s original intent was in writing Murderer in the Mikdash. But that he is able to explain arcane halakhot, offer a subtle social critique, while maintaining his focus on the narrative at hand is impressive, especially for a first effort.
YUTOPIA’s Rating: * * * 1/2
1. Hirhurim complains about the corniness of some of the naming conventions: one helpful person is called “Ozer” and an officer named “Yoshor” was a “straight shooter.” Maybe I have a soft spot for puns, but I can’t really fault R. Rothstein on this one since good authors are supposed to give their characters meaningful names. Granted, not all of them are as transparent, we can’t go around calling protagonists “Mrs. Metaphor” either. Besides, he gets extra points for the Alice’s Restaurant reference.
2. Actually it’s Talmudic – the opinion of Shmuel to be precise (B. Shabbat 151b, B. Pesahim 68a).
3. Not unlike most bloggers.
4. For a counter-example, see Calculus The Easy Way which tells the story of some fictional land where people just happen to get together to figure out the total area beneath a bending river. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but I found it somewhat derivative.