“Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage” by Dov S. Zakheim. Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2016, 237 pages. $27.95.
He is no Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, the trinity of our spiritual fathers whose names return so often in the Jewish liturgy. Nor does his stature rise to the level of the brothers Moses and Aaron or to the father and son David and Solomon.
Yet Nehemiah is one of Judaism’s most important figures — a leader who returned to the land of Israel after the Babylonian exile, and had no small part in preserving Judaism and the Jewish nation.
Except for the short biblical book bearing his name, there are few original sources with much information about Nehemiah. But author Dov Zakheim — who was a high-ranking Defense Department official in both the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, as well as a rabbi — doesn’t let that shortfall stop him from writing a book that permits us to understand not only this remarkable individual, but also his era. His analysis of the book of Nehemiah — like most biblical offerings, its succinct nature forces our minds and imaginations to work overtime — is always solid and sometimes excellent.
Who was Nehemiah? There is some disagreement on this, Zakheim notes, with opinions ranging from the son of the Judean royal family to the reincarnated son of David and Bathsheba.
“Ultimately there can be little doubt that Nehemiah was the scion of an important Judean family whose reputation was well established in Susa, the Persian capital,” the author concludes. Whatever his background, it facilitated his rise to be cupbearer to the king, the highest-ranking Jew in the Persian court. As cupbearer, his position was close to what Joseph’s had been in Egypt — number two in the pharoah’s court.
Hearing that the situation of the Jews who had returned to the land of Israel was desperate and that the walls of Jerusalem were in disrepair, Nehemiah decided to ask the Persian king for help.
The king granted Nehemiah’s request to go to Judah to rebuild Jerusalem. Zakheim sees a parallel between the king’s decision and U.S.-Israeli relations in modern times. American support for Israel during the Cold War was partly based on the idea that Israel would help prevent Soviet expansion in the region. The king probably thought that a fortified Jerusalem, ruled by a loyal subordinate would “serve as useful outpost for helping to maintain order in Persia’s unruly western provinces,” he writes.
In addition to the crumbling walls, the Jerusalem to which Nehemiah returned was underpopulated and had no source of economic activity except for the Temple. While the people were Jewish, many were “not particularly strict” in upholding its tenets, the author writes. And there was much intermarriage at all levels of society. The Jewish spiritual leader Ezra, who had arrived a little more than a decade earlier, had tried to fight intermarriage but with little success.
Despite the opposition of some Jews who preferred the status quo and most non-Jewish leaders of nearby communities who saw a rebuilt Jerusalem as a political rival, Nehemiah was able to rebuild the city’s walls, making Jerusalem safer and ready for development.
Then, Nehemiah turned to the social and economic problems facing the Jews, overcoming the hostility of the wealthy to create a “safety net” for the poor.
But his biggest challenge was to reignite the people’s religious and national passions.
His first step was to take a census. The resulting list of families who had returned from exile, together with other lists of names, “were integral to Nehemiah’s efforts to provide the people with a sense of historical legitimacy and national cohesion by linking his activities with the past,” Zakheim says.
To help revive Judaism, Ezra publicly read the Torah on Rosh Hashanah. This ceremony was held for political, as well religious, revival, the author notes. Ezra read from an elevated wooden platform, recalling the days of King Josiah, a popular king of the Davidic dynasty. “Able politicians throughout the ages have mustered popular support by evoking a nation’s real or perceived days of past glory,” Zakheim writes.
Later, Nehemiah introduced a “constitution” for the Jewish people — “a commitment by a people to organize their governance according to agreed-upon principles,” the author explains. Nehemiah’s covenant (amana) called for providing financial support for the Temple, but without getting involved with rituals. It strengthened Sabbath “sanctity” but in a limited way. He opposed intermarriage without calling for the dissolution of those marriages already in existence.
What Nehemiah did was not only religiously motivated, but was an act of nation building, says Zakheim. Jews later would prove they could survive as a nation without the Temple. But in Nehemiah’s time, the Temple was “the heartbeat of the people.”
The author writes: “By preserving the Temple and all that it stood for, Nehemiah safeguarded Jewish identity for another five hundred years.”
Nehemiah also insisted on the use of Hebrew as the language of the Jewish households of his time. “In so doing,” the author stresses, “he created the basis for a Jewish identity that has lasted two millennia, and in the process set a precedent for modern Jewish life: the return of Hebrew as the ‘natural language’ of the Jewish people.”
So, in some ways, Nehemiah and his partner, Ezra, are as important to 21st century Jews as our more well-known forefathers.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.