Realpolitik in Jerusalem – Dov Zakheim’s “Nehemiah”

Dov Zakheim’s Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage, the latest in Maggid Books’ series of studies in Tanakh, presents the reader with a vivid and relatable picture of the life and times of one of Judaism’s forgotten leaders. Despite being the main character of a book of Tanakh, and the source of its name, the average Jew has little knowledge of who Nehemiah was or what he did. Unfortunately, this isn’t is a problem that can be fixed just by people reading the biblical book of Nehemiah. The biblical text gives only small, often cryptic, windows into Nehemiah’s life, with mysterious gaps throughout. It is into these gaps that Dov Zakheim steps, bringing with him not only knowledge of the biblical text and commentators, medieval and modern, but also his extensive familiarity with politics and statecraft. This is the real “value-add” of Zakheim’s Nehemiah. Having served as both Under Secretary and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense in the United States government, Zakheim has a comprehensive background in the practical aspects of governmental politics. He draws out and explicates the political background lying behind Nehemiah’s actions and interactions throughout the biblical text.

As the book of Nehemiah is often completely silent on these matters, much of Zakheim’s explanations are unavoidably speculative. However, this just emphasizes how necessary this process is, as without this speculation there would be so much missing from the story. Zakheim’s reasoned filling-in of the narrative creates a continuous and comprehensible story for his readers to follow. There are times, however, where it seems like he leans too hard on modern political realities in a way that leads to anachronism. Not every situation from Persian-ruled Judea will have an exact parallel in the history of contemporary Israel and the West. Zakheim’s readings of the biblical narrative sometimes therefore obscure as much as they illuminate. By and large, however, Zakheim’s readings seem to be faithful and helpful representations of the biblical Nehemiah.

An interesting feature of Zakheim’s Nehemiah is the consistent emphasis on tension between religion and statecraft. Early on, Zakheim quotes the rabbinic critique of Nehemiah for asking God to remember his good accomplishments. Then throughout the book he suggests additional reasons why Hazal may have disapproved of Nehemiah. He emphasizes how this may already be foreshadowed in the biblical text itself, in the relationship between Nehemiah and his more famous priestly contemporary, Ezra. The biblical text records very little in the way of interaction between these two figures, outside of mutual but separate participation in a few ceremonies. Zakheim argues that the reason Ezra does not seem to have been enlisted in Nehemiah’s state-building efforts is that Nehemiah saw Ezra as nothing but a religious leader, one who had failed to make any real impact on his community. Nehemiah felt that only someone fully involved in the practical life of the community would be successful. While this reading does not contradict the biblical text, it is also far from evident from the text itself. Minimally, it presents an interesting window into the worldview of the author, and perhaps also of the Modern Orthodox community writ-large.

While I overall enjoyed reading Nehemiah, there are two trends in the book that negatively affected my reading experience. The first is the random digressions that Zakheim sometimes makes. In the middle of talking about the political and practical aspects of Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem, it was weird to suddenly encounter an in-depth discussion of whether the Jerusalemites had been violating biblical or rabbinic commandments while Nehemiah was away. There are numerous occasions where there is a side-discussion like this, one that might have been appropriate for a footnote but certainly not for the main body of the text. Being so out of place, it makes the reader feel like they’ve stumbled out of Zakheim’s book on the biblical character and into one of the secondary commentators, traditional and critical, that he so extensively footnotes. Secondly, scattered throughout the book, perhaps only once or twice per chapter, there are words that belong to a much higher level of vocabulary than the rest of the book. This is not inherently problematic, and Zakheim is clearly smart enough that one doesn’t suspect him of artificially forcing fancy language into his writing in order to sound intelligent. But it is jarring. These words just feel like a rather obvious authorial and editorial oversight. While the words’ meanings are usually clear enough from context that I was able to get by without googling any definitions, these words distract from an otherwise enjoyable reading experience.

Despite these critiques, Nehemiah: Statesman and Sage is an informative and enjoyable read, recommended to anyone looking to know more about this oft-overlooked figure from the Jewish tradition, particularly where it comes to the practical and political realities of his day.

 

Eruvin 54a – Hedonism, Death, and Non-Being

Before you is an aggadah from Masekhet Eruvin that seems almost hedonistic on a textual level, but I think the motivation behind the hedonistic statements is almost more interesting. Beneath the main quotation of the whole text is my breakdown and analysis thereof.

אמר ליה שמואל לרב יהודה: שיננא, חטוף ואכול חטוף ואישתי, דעלמא דאזלינן מיניה כהלולא דמי.

אמר ליה רב לרב המנונא: בני, אם יש לך – היטב לך, שאין בשאול תענוג ואין למות התמהמה. ואם תאמר אניח לבני – חוק בשאול מי יגיד לך. בני האדם דומים לעשבי השדה, הללו נוצצין והללו נובלין.

Samuel further said to Rab Judah, ‘Shinena [commentators indicate this means something like “clever one” ~LM], hurry on [lit. “grab” ~LM] and eat, hurry on and drink, since the world from which we must depart is like a wedding feast’.

Rab said to R. Hamnuna, ‘My son, according to thy ability do good to thyself, for there is no enjoyment in she’ol nor will death be long in coming. And shouldst thou say: “I would leave a portion for my children” — who will tell thee in the grave? The children of man[or more colloquially, “People” ~LM] are like the grasses of the field, some blossom and some fade’. (translation from halakha.com)

This gemara has a broader context that would certainly be worth looking into for anyone interested, but it’s not so important for the purposes of analyzing these two statements, which I will now examine piecemeal.

אמר ליה שמואל לרב יהודה: שיננא, חטוף ואכול חטוף ואישתי,

Samuel further said to Rab Judah, ‘Shinena [commentators indicate this means something like “clever one” ~LM], hurry on[lit. “grab” ~LM] and eat, hurry on and drink,

Shmuel’s statement to his student Rav Yehudah, to take and consume, and quickly, seems to express a hedonistic sentiment that we’re not used to seeing in religious text. The contrast is so stark that several commentators argue that the various forms of hedonistic pleasure that appear in aggadah all refer to learning Torah and performing mitsvot (Meiri, Sefat Emet). Despite this, Rashi is quite clear that the simple, hedonistic, meaning of the gemara is the correct understanding. Interestingly, the Maharsha comments throughout the aggadah, noting how consistently the aggadah reflects themes and ideas found in Sefer Kohelet, if not always as intensely. What makes this particularly interesting is that there is a rabbinic statement in Kohelet Rabbah to the effect that “every time Kohelet discusses food and drink, it is in reality referring to Torah and Mitsvot.”[1] This then suggests that perhaps the approach of the first commentators we mentioned is not so wild after all. Certainly, it shows how the commentators often relate to the Gemara the same way Hazal related to the Biblical text.

What is, to my mind at least, more interesting is the explanation Shmuel invokes for why Rav Yehudah should consume so voraciously.

דעלמא דאזלינן מיניה כהלולא דמי.

since the world from which we must depart is like a wedding feast’.

The most obvious connection between this argument and the instruction to hedonistically consume is the statement that the world we live in is like a celebratory feast. The clear purpose of such a meal is to enjoy it, so the argument based on that would just be “the world is for enjoying yourself, so enjoy yourself.” But there’s more to it than that.

Rashi explains that the “wedding feast” image is meant to convey the rapidity with which our tenure in this world ends. Much as a wedding feast is over in the course of a night, so too we all one day wake up much closer to the ends of our lives than we’re comfortable admitting. This also means that the wedding feast section of the argument is of one cloth with the section of the argument that we had skipped until now.

The first part of Shmuel’s argument is actually in the term he uses to refer to the world we live in, “the world from which we must depart,” or perhaps more literally, “the world from which we are departing.” Our time in this world is measured in sparse seconds that slip through our fingers ever fast the more we try to hold on to them. Our existence is not static; we are inexorably moving toward the ends of our lives, leaving more and more of this life behind us. Taken this way, Shmuel’s argument is strikingly reminiscent of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger’s idea that existence is “dasein,” a term which literally means “being there.” Heidegger argued that to exist to is be “thrown” into this life without a choice in the matter, and to be inexorably moving towards death. Moreover, human existence in particular is marked by consciousness of this inevitable process. Shmuel may thus be best understood to be saying, “this life is short and fleeting, so make use of it while you can!” Whether you understand that as physical or spiritual pleasure is up to you.[2]

And now to turn to the second section of our aggadah.

אמר ליה רב לרב המנונא: בני, אם יש לך – היטב לך,

Rab said to R. Hamnuna, ‘My son, according to thy ability do good to thyself,

Rav’s instruction to Rav Hamnuna opens, as with Shmuel’s to Rav Yehudah, with a simple and seemingly hedonistic instruction: “according to thy ability do good to thyself.” If you have it, enjoy it. Once again paralleling Shmuel’s statement, Rav then provides a reason for this instruction. His reason, however, differs from Shmuel’s in ways that I think are significant.

שאין בשאול תענוג ואין למות התמהמה.

for there is no enjoyment in she’ol nor will death be long in coming.

In She’ol, an ancient and murky term for the afterlife, there is no enjoyment or physical pleasure. Moreover, not only is there no pleasure after death, but death is fast approaching. Thus it is imperative, Rav seems to argue, to get your pleasure now, while you can. Once again, there are commentators who understand this to refer to the pleasure of Torah and Mitsvot, rather than more hedonistic satisfactions, but Rashi is consistent as to hedonism being the plain sense of the aggadah.

This explanation differs from that of Shmuel in its consciousness of life after death. Shmuel simply argues that this life ends. Being disappears into Non-Being.[3] Rav, in contrast, is arguing that Being continues after death, only qualitatively differently. It is this qualitative difference that motivates his instruction to Rav Hamnuna. Death is coming and She’ol fast on its heels. We leave this life and and move to one without pleasure, spiritual or physical. It is thus incumbent upon us, argues Rav, to seek out this pleasure while we can.

 ואם תאמר אניח לבני – חוק בשאול מי יגיד לך. בני האדם דומים לעשבי השדה, הללו נוצצין והללו נובלין.

And shouldst thou say: “I would leave a portion for my children” — who will tell thee in the grave? The children of man [or more colloquially, “People” ~LM] are like the grasses of the field, some blossom and some fade’.

Perhaps the most immediate, natural, response to “If you have it, enjoy it” might be, “Can’t I share it?” Most particularly, what if a person wants to share what they have with their children, an act that manages to be caring for another person while simultaneously caring for oneself. This could be material wealth, or the knowledge and ability to succeed in Torah and Mitsvot, as per the consistent debate we have seen among commentators.

Rav preempts this response, suggesting that it fails on two counts. First off, it’s all very nice to say that you want to leave behind something for your children. However, Rav argues, what you really care about is their experiencing whatever you left for them, and you will have no way of knowing about it after you have died. Second, when a person leaves something for their children, it is generally with a specific idea in mind of how they want their children to use it, how they want it to affect their children’s lives. But after you have died, says Rav, your children will continue to grow without your supervision, and you will have no way of controlling how they develop. So it is pointless to deny yourself enjoyment, be it spiritual or physical, for this reason.

We have thus seen two distinct but similar reasons provided by sages to pursue some sort of pleasure in this world. Shmuel, whose reason I will call “Non-Being,” focused on the end of Being as we know it. This world is for pleasure and it ends, so you better use it quick. Rav, whose reason I will call “Death,” focused on not the end of this life so much as the beginning of a new way of Being, one which differs significantly from this one. In that existence, in She’ol, there is neither pleasure, nor knowledge of pleasure occurring in this world. And She’ol comes sooner that we expect.

While they differ in their discussion of Being after this life, Death and Non-Being share the same sense of the end of life as a crisis. There is something about this world that ends permanently, that cannot be regained or recalled even in the afterlife. This sense of loss is quite powerful, and moreover is a stark contrast to ideas we may be more used to hearing, such as how suffering in this world is compensated for by reward in the next, and how this world is just an entry-way to the more real existence in the next world. These ideas aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but it is a stark contrast. Other ideas from Hazal that indicate that death is a crisis might be Lo’eg LeRash, the idea that the departed are bothered by their inability to perform mitsvot. This is clearly the same idea as “Death” that we have looked at here, where there is a distinct form of existence after this life, but it is missing a crucial aspect of this life. So too the mishnah in Avot (4:17) which states that one moment of good deeds in this world is better than all of the next, though that also states that one moment of bliss in the next world is better than all of this one, and is thus more complicated.

As with my piece on the subversive aggadah about tefillah in Masekhet Berakhot, I don’t have a specific point I’m getting at with this piece. I just think that it’s an interesting and somewhat surprising viewpoint to find in Hazal, and it’s worth talking about. I would to hear any questions or comments.

 

[1] Sourced in the second chapter of Moshe Halbertal’s “People of the Book,” in a discussion of interpretation and the Principle of Charity.

[2] The ever-scholarly David Nagarpowers has pointed out to me that both historically and content-wise, Epicurus may be a more apt comparison than Heidegger. However, I’ve chosen to stick with Heidegger due to the sense of movement inherent in both Shmuel’s “the world that we are departing from” and Heidegger’s “being-towards-death.”

[3] This isn’t to say that Shmuel denies the existence of the afterlife. It simply does not feature in his argument.