Finding Timely Parallels In An Obscure Biblical Text


The book of Nehemiah is one text in the Bible that even learned Jews do not pay much attention to. It’s a book that has an enigmatic identity. Traditionally, the book is seen in the context of “Ezra and Nehemiah” collectively, but rarely is “Nehemiah” seen as an independent work. Moreover, the figure of Nehemiah tends to be overshadowed by Ezra, who is far better known for his role in shaping the second Jewish commonwealth in its early years. Even though I have read the book of Nehemiah on a couple of occasions as part of my academic research, it does not seem to be particularly interesting.

So why would anyone write a study on Nehemiah, unless they were an academic specialist in the Hebrew Bible interested in all things biblical no matter how obscure? The answer given by Dov S. Zakheim, a well-known political figure and public intellectual in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, is that the book of Nehemiah contains numerous lessons of great significance for contemporary Jews, and he makes an excellent case for his claim. Zakheim shows us that there is much more to this biblical work than meets the eye, and he does so with the help of extensive research and a highly engaging writing-style. One will have completely different perspective on the book of Nehemiah after reading Zakheim’s study. I certainly did.

Nehemiah served in the Persian royal court in the fifth century BCE during the reign of Artaxerxes I, several decades after the second Temple period had begun. He had the position of “cupbearer,” which involved tasting the king’s wine to ensure that it wasn’t poisoned, but his position also made him one of the king’s most trusted advisors. Around 450 BCE, Nehemiah received reports that the reconstituted Jewish state in the land of Israel was in bad shape. The city walls of Jerusalem were in terrible condition, which was a serious problem because the new Jewish state consisted of not much more than the area of Jerusalem, and it was being threatened by groups in the region who were strongly opposed to the return of the Jewish exiles, most notably the Samaritans. The survival of the Jewish state was therefore in question if the walls weren’t repaired. Nehemiah asked the king if he could go to Jerusalem to address the problem. The king acceded, most likely because he saw the Jewish state as having strategic value since it was on the outskirts of the empire.

When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, he discovered that, in addition to the condition of the city’s walls, there were many other challenges. He went to work not just to fix the walls, but to solve a host of other problems as well. He increased the size of Jewish population in Jerusalem, which had fallen off dramatically. He organized its defenses, which were mostly non-existent. In the economic sphere, he implemented reforms to ensure greater equality between rich and poor. He instituted a series of religious reforms, which included putting the shaky finances of the Temple on firm footing and convincing the Jews to uphold strict Sabbath observance that had become lax. Most importantly, he addressed the problem of intermarriage, which was rife in the Jewish population, by judiciously allowing intermarried couples to remain married while forbidding new intermarriages from taking place.

According to Zakheim, there are many lessons to be gleaned today from Nehemiah’s actions. A theme running throughout Zakheim’s book is that the challenges faced by the Jewish state in Nehemiah’s time were similar to those faced by modern Zionism before and after the establishment of the state of Israel. In both instances, a relatively small group of Jews set about to rebuild their homeland with the aid of a foreign power, the support of which was critical but not always reliable or consistent. In Nehemiah’s time that power was Persia; in the years of early Zionism, it was Britain.

Also, in both instances, the major challenge for the Jews resettling in their homeland was dealing with an indigenous population of non-Jews who were hostile to them. Other comparisons include the fact that in both instances, religion was a major issue; the renewal of a Jewish state meant figuring out where Judaism as a religion fit into the new society. Zakheim argues that the problems Nehemiah faced are of contemporary relevance. Even more importantly, Nehemiah, in Zakheim’s opinion, found solutions to those problem that were balanced, well thought-out, and sensitive to human needs. Leaders in our times would therefore do well to look to Nehemiah as a role model.

Nehemiah’s actions in the religious sphere allow Zakheim to compare him to another group of leaders in today’s Jewish world: those who guide the Modern Orthodox community, with which Zakheim himself identifies. Zakheim finds in Nehemiah a leader who understood the need to balance traditional Judaism with contemporary needs. Here again, Zakheim implies that Nehemiah provides a role model of leadership in our own time, though in this instance, it is leadership in the religious realm that is the focus, not that in the political realm.

However, perhaps the most interesting lessons to be learned from Nehemiah in Zakheim’s reading are those that concern Jews who have achieved high-level positions in non-Jewish governments. Nehemiah was one such individual. He was a loyal servant of the Persian king and therefore represented Persian interests, but he was also someone who was deeply attached to his own people, the Jews. Zakheim demonstrates throughout his book that Nehemiah’s position was not an easy one because the two loyalties did not always coincide, and he spent a good deal of energy negotiating the relationship between them. According to Zakheim, the dilemma Nehemiah faced has been a perennial problem for Jews throughout history who have held high offices in non-Jewish governments.

What makes Zakheim’s ruminations on this issue so interesting is that he himself is a figure of this very kind. He held several high-level posts in the U.S. government over the last three decades, specifically in the Department of Defense. As an Orthodox Jew deeply familiar with and personally tied to Israeli culture, Zakheim was often called upon by his superiors to deal with the Israeli government on matters connected to security and defense, and he came to know full well the kind of dilemmas that Nehemiah faced. One of them is well-known. In 1987, Zakheim, in his official capacity, recommended that the U.S. not provide Israel with the financial support it had requested for the development of the Lavi, a fighter plane that he and others felt was a poor investment. Zakheim was vilified by many Israelis and American Jews for what they regarded as a betrayal. Zakheim’s reflections on the tensions inherent in Nehemiah’s position as advisor to the Persian king and his identity as a Jew are therefore particularly poignant.

Regarding Zakheim’s methodology, he relies on traditional rabbinic interpretation and more recent academic scholarship. This method is increasingly common nowadays among Modern Orthodox rabbis, teachers, and writers who are devoted to traditional Judaism but feel that the methods and insights of academics in the universities are too sophisticated and insightful to ignore. It’s an approach that will not appeal to everyone. Those devoted to one or another of these two bodies of learning may find that the presence of the other body of learning spoils Zakheim’s analysis. Nonetheless, it’s an approach that in this instance has yielded wonderful results. It has allowed an obscure book in the Bible to come alive in extraordinary fashion.

Robert Eisen is professor of religion and Judaic studies and chair of the department of religion at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.