Sunday, August 07, 2005

Visualizing the Temple

Do you believe that the Messiah will come? Can you picture it? What will life be like in the Messianic Era? How will a monarchy/theocracy function in the modern world? How will the Temple work in a world with advanced telecommunications and complex securities markets?

It's hard to visualize it.

R. Dr. Gidon Rothstein does us all a favor in presenting his vision of the transitional period at the onset of the Messianic Era in his recent book Murderer in the Mikdash. Set within the plot of an exciting murder mystery that takes place a few years after the arrival of the Messiah, while the world is still in transition, R. Rothstein's book outlines a functioning model for a benign theocratic monarchy in which the laws of the Torah are followed. Levites, trained in public relations and pedagogy, guard the Temple Mount from the impure while educating the public. The police carefully monitor infractions of Torah law, preferring counseling to punishment. Expulsion from Israel is the last resort for serious offenders. Stoning and other forms of execution are unsurprisingly absent, given the Mishnah's statement of how rare such punishments are meted out. A two-class system of citizens exist -- haverim, who have officially accepted upon themselves strict observance of all laws, and non-haverim. The limitations and privileges of priests are described, including the care they need to take in what objects they can touch, particularly when handed over by a non-haver. The finances of the Temple, in particular, are described. How is money raised for all those utensils and sacrifices? The Temple's coffers must be constantly maintained and, let's face it, many people would prefer to give money to orphans than to a Temple in Jerusalem.

It can, realistically, be done, and this book makes it clear how life would not have to change too drastically for it. This is, to me, the single most important message of the book and is why I am glad that I read it before Tisha B'Av. It is easier for me to mourn a Temple that I can see as a realistic possibility.

Most powerful in the book are the moving descriptions of the neck-breaking (eglah arufah) ceremony after an unknown death is discovered and the city of refuge (ir miklat). How can a society allow family members to chase after murderers and try to kill them? Through what processes can this occur in a civilized community and what are its positive and negative repercussions? These are all explored.

The book is written from the perspective of a non-observant Jew, a woman who recently gave birth, whose husband has been mysteriously missing for months and whose best friend recently died under suspicious circumstances. Her lack of education in Jewish matters gives the author the opportunity to explain everything properly, allowing the book to be entirely understandable to someone with little Jewish background. However, there are bonuses for those with more knowledge of Jewish sources. Occasional references to Talmudic texts are made that the casual reader will miss. Some characters will have you recalling specific examples from the Talmud. Many obscure laws are laid out in practice, all according to authoritative sources (none of which are cited in the text, of course).

R. Rothstein's fidelity to Jewish tradition has him focusing on the Messianic Era and not the personality of the Messiah himself. There is very little mention of the Messiah, which I think adds to the message of the book. We have never really cared who the Messiah will be and have, instead, focused on the society that he will create. This book is all about that society and, to my knowledge, is the only book to realistically explore how it will function.

One note of caution: A major weakness of the book is the all-too-frequent transparent names of characters. A helpful man whose last name is "HaOzer"; a police officer named "Yoshor"; a lording priest whose name is "Moshel"; etc. Towards the end of the book, it gets even worse. This is just too cutesy for me and annoyed me greatly. But it should not stop you from reading the book and experiencing the beginning of the Messianic Era.

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