We need another Nehemiah

Review of Dov S. Zakheim's new book, "Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage." To paraphrase Santayana, those in power who learn from Nehemiah's history might do well to try to repeat it.

Rochel Sylvetsky,

OpEds Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

After reading an Arutz Sheva article that reported a recent poll showing that 72% of Israel's citizens want public  transportation on the Sabbath, I decided that the State of Israel really needs another Nehemiah.

If that elicits a baffled: "Who was Nehemiah?" you might want to read the personal account of his life that is included in the Tanakh.  To understand why I think another Nehemiah is sorely needed, read Nehemiah, Statesman and Sage, a 237 page, readable and well documented new book on this talented, dedicated governor of ancient Judea, written by Dov S. Zakheim and set to be published July 1st by Maggid books (Maggid is a subsidiary of Koren Books). 

Interestingly, the Sages who compiled the Tanakh originally didn't  give this Second Temple period leader his own book, possibly because they did not want to credit lay rather than rabbinic  leadership, the latter personified by Nehemiah's  contemporary (or predecessor, depending on whose commentary you read), Ezra the Scribe. The two were lumped together in one book at first, called Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra was a respected and righteous Torah luminary, but had limited practical impact on the Jews of Judea whom he tried to bring back from their errant ways. Nehemiah, who, in comparison, is hardly noticed today (except for some Israeli religious Zionist schools where his book is taught for its relevance to the return to Zion) managed to pave the way for the Second Jewish Commonwealth and influence practical applications of Torah law to the extent that he is even cited in several contemporary halakhic rulings, as Zakheim shows. He is, in fact, credited with "safeguarding Jewish identity for 500 years," according to Zakheim.

There are those who say that this success explains why he did not get his own book, that he was clearly conscious of his own significance and the Talmudic Sages, to whom humility was of paramount value, wanted to bring him down a peg. We, who are used to hearing do-nothings blowing their own political horns, take pride for granted. It was Churchill who granted Clement Attlee the ultimate putdown, saying "Mr. Attlee is a very modest man. Indeed he has a lot to be modest about." Nehemiah had a good deal to be proud about.

Former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Dov  S. Zakheim greatly admires Nehemiah, and his thorough and sagacious analysis of this diplomat and administrator's life is basically - at least from the point of view of this reviewer who has made her home in Israel - a description of the ideal  National Religious  (aka Religious Zionist) statesman and politician.  

Nehemiah is not a rabbinic leader, but respects religious authority,  he is "a visionary without being a prophet." He successfully juggles a close relationship with the head of the ruling empire with unswerving and courageous loyalty to his own people, knows how to get things done, is popular enough to get the people to join him in those endeavors – and with it all, stands by his Torah guns, fights assimilation successfully and insists on Sabbath observance in the renewed Jewish state of his time.

Building the city wall for protection, but closing its gates over the Sabbath to ensure adherence to tradition, are challenges he meets with equal administrative skill, because both issues are seen by him as crucial. He, naturally, raises the ire of those whose assimilationist lifestyle he disturbs, and today he still upsets modern secular researchers who find him illiberal. 

He was, in fact, a combination of scrupulous religious observance and worldliness - and it worked. Zakheim shows that he excelled at every one of the many roles he filled, managing to pull the Jews out of the despondency they were in when he arrived to save the day.

I wish we had someone like him who could make public Sabbath observance a given in the Jewish State, not open to argument. We need someone like him to convince Israelis that just as they give up absolute freedom to stop at red lights and pay their taxes, so should they give up absolute freedom for the minimal restraints that differentiate a Jewish state from an ordinary one and ensure Jewish continuity. We certainly waited for it long enough and the halakha that so many eschew is what unified us and allowed our survival during 2000 years of exile.

We need someone like him to convince Israelis that just as they give up absolute freedom to stop at red lights and pay their taxes, so should they give up absolute freedom for the minimal restraints that differentiate a Jewish state from an ordinary one and ensure Jewish continuity.
Then, as now, elites among the Jews who returned to Judea desired to fit in to the host society by adjusting the Torah to the current mores instead of vice versa– a déjà vu phenomenon to anyone following the widening rift between Modern and Open Orthodoxy in the USA – but that is stopped in its tracks by this clear minded leader. Nehemiah shows that one can be exclusivist religiously and still build a viable regime with its own set of Torah-true immutable values, one which also maintains  good relations with the rest of the (then known) world.

Zakheim's understanding and interest in Nehemiah is no coincidence. He, too, is an example of an observant, Torah true Jew who spends his life in service to a country that welcomed the Jews and allowed them to flourish when others persecuted and hounded them. Nehemiah is an example of an official who uses his skills and political influence to help his people, in this case asking the Persian ruler he served for a leave of absence to join his brethren in Judea upon learning of the myriad problems faced by those who elected to return from exile when King Cyrus declared it permissible.

Zakheim writes:  "In a sense, Nehemiah was the first 'modern' leader of a Jewish state. He had to cope with an array of challenges that would not be unfamiliar to any senior Israeli official today. These included national security relations with both regional neighbors and an international superpower; domestic social and economic issues; and… the place of religion in the governance of the state." 

Nehemiah's accomplishments show wisdom as well as foresight. He knows how to give the people a feeling of common destiny by having them swear allegiance to a covenant upholding the Torah; he writes in Hebrew, not the prevailing Aramaic, understanding  that "language is central to nationhood," organizes funding  for the Temple, realigns social structure and the place of women in the community.  One talented and caring matter of fact person effects more positive development than an entire bureaucracy (maybe that's not so surprising...).

Reading  this well-researched book, itself a national religious type of project in that it combines traditional sources such as Talmud, midrash and the gamut of religious commentaries with judicious and critical use of academic  theories and scholarship, provides an insight into the historical roots of the problems facing modern-day Israel.  Zakheim, admittedly fascinated by the relevance of what occurred two thousand years ago and by the man himself, wrote the book after giving two series of Shabbat lectures on Nehemiah in his synagogue, in which, he says, he drew on his own experience in government to add depth to his talks. That experience adds a level of integrity and interest to his analysis of someone who lived long ago, but dealt with the same kind of problems a public servant faces today.