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Bringing the biblical Nehemiah to life

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'Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage' by Dov S. Zakheim (Maggid Books)
'Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage' by Dov S. Zakheim (Maggid Books)

Some 2,500 years ago the Persians conquered the Babylonian Empire, including the Land of Israel. The Persians generally treated the Jews well, and some Jews even found positions in the Persian court. Jews who had previously been exiled to Babylonia were now allowed to return to the Land of Israel. In a manner eerily similar to the events of the last 70 years, most Jews chose to stay in their comfortable diaspora rather than availing themselves of the opportunity of making aliyah.

One Jew who stayed behind was Nehemiah. He served the Persian king Artaxerxes I as “cupbearer,” a position of relatively high rank. The cupbearer’s responsibilities included making sure the emperor was not poisoned. While he must have been a trusted employee of the king, Nehemiah’s loyalties to the Jewish People were also strong. Around the year 450 BCE, 70 years after the first Jews had returned to Judea in the Land of Israel, Nehemiah received a report about troubles affecting the struggling Jewish community there. He begged leave from the king to travel to Israel and help out. The king gave him permission, and indeed appointed him governor of Judea.

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Much of the biblical book of Nehemiah is written in the first person, a memoir of Nehemiah’s actions and thoughts first in Persia, but mostly in Judea. We have no contemporaneous documents to corroborate what Nehemiah tells us about the crucial role he played in saving the Jewish community in Israel from their enemies. Nevertheless, Dov S. Zakheim’s Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage uses extensive research to bring the character of Nehemiah to life.

An ordained Orthodox rabbi, he thoroughly understands the traditional Jewish commentaries and midrashim, but he has also read the modern critical scholarly literature. His book may not appeal to those who feel that truth is to be found only in one of these two approaches to the Bible. But modern committed Jews with open minds will appreciate it.

Like Nehemiah, Zakheim is a traditional and learned Jew, a statesman and a scholar, who for most of his life was a high-ranking employee in a non-Jewish government. Zakheim served in various United States Department of Defence posts during the Reagan administration, including as deputy undersecretary of defence for planning and resources from 1985 to 1987. He also served as undersecretary of defence (Comptroller) in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2004. A prolific writer on American political issues, his last book, before Nehemiah, was A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan.

While working for Bush or Reagan is hardly the same as working for Artaxerxes, Zakheim understands what it means to be a proud Jewish employee of a government whose interests are often not identical to Jewish ones. His explanations of realpolitik ring true, for instance his understanding of why Nehemiah chose not to barge in on Artaxerxes the moment that he heard of the difficulties of the Jewish community in Israel, but waited for months for a propitious time to mention his people’s needs to the king (Nehemiah 1:1 and 2:1-3).

Nehemiah did not work by himself in Israel. His contemporary, Ezra, was, as Zakheim portrays it, the chief Jewish religious functionary, while Nehemiah’s position was political. They pursued the same goals, but with subtle differences. Both, for example, fought against intermarriage in the Jewish community. Ezra tried to get Jewish men who had intermarried to cast out their non-Jewish wives (Ezra 10:2-11).

Nehemiah, perhaps the more astute political pragmatist, tried to prevent future intermarriages, not to terminate existing ones. In other areas, Nehemiah took strident steps. He rebuked Jewish community leaders for allowing commerce in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Once he won that battle and successfully closed Jerusalem to commerce on the Sabbath, he chased away merchants who tried to circumvent the blue laws by setting up shop outside the city walls (Nehemiah 13:14-22).

Zakheim emphasizes Nehemiah’s strong commitment to the Hebrew language at a time when many Jews were beginning to adopt Aramaic. The book of Ezra was written mostly in Aramaic, but Nehemiah’s memoir, entirely in Hebrew, mentions how he railed against those who were raising children who could not speak proper Hebrew (Nehemiah 13:24).

Over the centuries, only a few strongly committed and knowledgeable Jewish leaders have also had powerful positions in gentile governments. On this short list, Nehemiah was the first. Others that come to mind are Samuel ibn Nagrela (a.k.a. Shmuel HaNagid, 11th-century Muslim Spain), and Don Isaac Abarbanel (15th-century Christian Spain). In modern times their equivalents might be Zakheim, Jacob Lew (in the Clinton and Obama administrations) and Irwin Cotler (in a number of Liberal governments in Canada).

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Curiously, it might have been easier for Nehemiah, ibn Nagrela and Abarbanel than for their modern equivalents to set Jewish community policy and rule on issues of Jewish law at the same time as they served as employees of a gentile government. The “dual loyalty” concern for Jews in modern western democracies makes such leadership difficult.

In pre-modern times, before the invention of the nation state, with no established church, no one expected a Jew to give primary loyalty to a government affiliated with another religion. Zakheim’s excellent summary of Nehemiah’s dual roles sheds light both on the biblical book and on our modern lives and expectations.