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.

 

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