This review of The Temple Of HaShem by Hyam Yona Becker was written in 2004, but I’ve revised it a little in 2018 because it wasn’t very good.
Gefen Publishing House, 1998, $10.95 (UK price unknown), 312pp, ISBN 9652291560
Stepping off the conventional path we come across The Temple of HaShem, described by its publisher as ‘A landmark in Jewish science fiction! Infused with religious fervor and a sublime sense of humor.’
Now, a Jewish SF novel is something you don’t see every day, but I was interested to discover what this might involve, having read plenty of truly excellent SF influenced by various strands of Christianity, for example, James Blish’s A Case Of Conscience, Keith Roberts’ Pavane and Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle For Leibowitz.
Becker’s book follows Shlomo Tzadok, an archaeology professor at the present day University of Tel Aviv who is about to quit a secular academic life that he no longer finds satisfactory, to study the Torah full time.
I say ‘about to’ because he is already working out his notice when the government calls upon him to join a small expedition to the sliver of Antarctica that was designated to Israel when the Antarctic was divided up between the countries of the world. Having spent a year living in the Arctic, Tzadok is ideally qualified for the expedition to the Israeli Antarctic region, a region unexplored, mysteriously warm and obscured from satellite eyes.
Because of his newfound religious enthusiasm, Tzadok originally says ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to the offer. However, as is the way of governments, they twist his arm by offering to intervene on behalf of an unlikely friend of his – Enki the world’s only Jewish Eskimo, who is in big trouble with the Russians for defending his native lands.
Tzadok cannot resist helping his friend and so agrees to put off his religious retreat until after paying a visit to the polar regions of the south.
When they finally reach their destination the expedition finds, in the very best ‘Lost World’ tradition, a race of hitherto unsuspected primitive people living in a temperate valley and ruled by a rather unpleasant queen. Oh, and some aliens, a spaceship, and proof that Tzadok’s decision to go and study the Torah full-time was absolutely correct (because the aliens are Jewish).
The Temple Of HaShem is not without a certain small amount of crazed charm, which I would liken to watching a Russ Meyer film, in that it’s initially offbeat but once you get the idea it begins to pall. Also like Meyer, the characterisation is very flat. Becker’s writing style is adequate, no more no less; it reads rather like a first novel in that Becker has made the not uncommon mistake of obviously thinking about his book’s content but not about the style it’s written in. It won’t scare you away, but sadly it won’t fire you full of imagery and the poetry of the frozen wastes either.
To be honest, I don’t think it’s designed to:. Becker lays his cards on the table on page 107 when this little exchange takes place:
“You don’t believe in science?” Miller asked incredulously.
“Oh, it has its uses. But when it’s based solely upon atheistic belief it tends to be misleading,” Tzadok said provocatively.
Miller eyed him sharply and took up the challenge, “Like the theory of evolution, I suppose?”
“Sure, the theory of evolution is a typical example of scientists desperately scrambling to avoid admitting the existence of a Creator. The theory itself can be disproved by logical deduction. Most scientists realize that now, but society demands that it continue to be taught in our schools. Too destabilizing to admit the truth.”’
At which point I sat back from this book with mouth hanging rather stupidly wide open. Suddenly it became obvious: The Temple of HaShem wasn’t going to be a rehash of the ‘Lost World’ idea from a Jewish perspective, it was instead a strange kind of ‘straw man’ tale that would justify its conclusions about the inherent rightness of the Jewish faith only through internal logic and not by reference to the actually existing outside world.
Evolution, science and most of our other theories would be shown to be false or misguided, and religion – specifically Judaism – was going to be proven correct.
By super-intelligent kosher aliens.
I hadn’t been expecting great world-shattering things from The Temple of HaShem – after the first few pages expectations were dialled down to, say, ‘quirky adventure story with unusual (for me) cultural background’, but as a lifelong atheist, any stall set out this blatantly dials expectations waaaaaay back.
Rochelle Caviness, in The Jewish Eye, apparently called The Temple Of HaShem, ‘Witty, imaginative, and enthralling… a thrilling science fiction adventure story. …You don’t have to be observant, or even Jewish to fully appreciate and enjoy this masterful work of science fiction’. Which is true – you don’t have to be observant or Jewish, but it will help a lot if you are.
It also won’t help if you have read almost any major SF works of the past 75 years, because Becker’s ideas have all been used more effectively before.
If you’ve been waiting for a Jewish Chariots Of The Gods then your prayers have been answered and your wait is over, but the wait for the great Jewish science fiction novel continues.