(JTA) — Perhaps the strangest part was sitting through a Sunday service in the 1,000-year-old nave of St. Albans Cathedral (the longest nave in England!) and hearing the Hebrew Bible (specifically I Kings 1:32-40) read aloud in English. Maybe stranger yet was hearing part of that passage set to the music of 17th-century maestro George Friedrich Handel! These, and many other oddities, were only a fraction of the wonderful and unusual experiences of being an American-born British rabbi during the first coronation this country has seen in 70 years.
As with the funeral last year of the late Queen Elizabeth, the scale of organization and competence required to pull off such an event is astounding. For a country where it often feels that small-scale bureaucracy can get in the way of day-to-day life, the coronation was, by all accounts, seamless. This of course makes it the exception rather than the rule, as coronations past were often marred by logistical issues, bad luck and sometimes straight-up violence.
It was the coronation of Richard I in 1189 that unleashed anti-Jewish massacres and pogroms across the country and led to the York Massacre in 1190, in which over 150 local Jews killed themselves after being trapped in Clifford’s Tower, which was set ablaze by an angry mob. During that year there were attacks in London, Lynn, Bury St. Edmunds, Stamford, Lincoln, Colchester and others. It was exactly 100 years later, in 1290, that Edward I would expel Jews from England altogether. They wouldn’t return (officially) for 400 years — or get an official apology from the church for 800.
This weekend’s festivities, thankfully, were of a very different caliber. Not only were Jewish communities front and center, but Jews, religious and not, were active and welcome participants in the ceremony in Westminster Abbey. Indeed, despite the ceremony taking place on Shabbat, the United Synagogue (a mainstream Orthodox denomination that accounts for 40-45% of British Jewish synagogue membership) was represented by Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who, together with other faith leaders, played a role in greeting the king as he left the church. This was especially unusual as it has long been the position of the United Synagogue that their rabbis and members should not go into churches (much less on Shabbat). In many ways, this demonstrates one of the consistent themes of the coronation: the interruption of normal routine and the continued exceptionalism of the royal family.
Judaism is agnostic, at best, about kings. Our own monarchy came about because the people insisted on it, but against the will of the prophet Samuel against the desire of God. Once it was established — a process which involved several civil wars, a lot of bloodshed and the degradation of many historical elements of Israelite society — it did, for a brief time, bring some stability to the fragile confederacy of Israelite tribes. But it was really only the half-century golden era under King Solomon that managed this feat. After him, and ever since, the monarchy has been a source of conflict and violence. While we still hope that a righteous heir of the Davidic monarchy will reappear and take their place as king of Israel, we, famously, are not holding our breath.
Our approach to non-Jewish monarchs is even more complex. Whilst King Charles III was being coronated to the words of our holy texts and being anointed in oil (the ceremony for our monarchs) from the Mount of Olives (in our holy land), we were at the same time reciting a litany of prayers, as we do daily, to remind us (in the words of our prayers): “We have no king but You” (Avinu Malkeinu); “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom” (Ashrei); “God is King, God has ruled, God will rule forever (Y’hi Khavod); “God’s kingship is true there is none else” (Aleinu).
These words were chosen by our sages for our prayers in part because they shared the biblical anxiety about monarchs. Halacha, Jewish law, does retain the notion of a king over Israel, but that king is so heavily bound by legislation, it is far from the absolutist monarchies of most of Europe.
However, since 1688 at least, after the brief (and failed) experiment with the notion of divine right of kings, England (and now the United Kingdom) has endorsed the notion of a constitutional monarch — a king or queen who is esteemed, but also bound by the law and by restrictions imposed by the people. In practice, this makes today’s monarchy an awful lot like that of ancient Israel, and very different from historic European monarchies, as well as very different from how Americans and others often see it. After nearly six years living and working on these green isles, I’ve come to appreciate the complexities and absurdities of the British monarchy, and to value the role that the ceremonies play in the collective life of Britons.
Many here are surprised to find that, being a Yankee, I’m not also a republican (an anti-monarchist, in the British context). Indeed, while I have my doubts about the idea of monarchy and while, religiously, there is a strong argument against human authority, the monarchy as it operates in modern Britain is fairly compatible with the idea of kingship as established by halacha — restrained, limited and primarily occupied with being a moral exemplar rather than an authoritarian ruler. Maybe then it shouldn’t be so strange that so much of the ceremonies this weekend were drawn from our texts, and so much of the symbolism referential to our tradition. We can be grateful that King Charles’s coronation, the first in a generation, went off without a hitch and without bloodshed, and with the support and involvement of a diverse representation of Britain’s peoples and faiths.
To the outside, this weekend has likely appeared to be just a lot of pomp and pageantry. No doubt, it is often Americans who are camping out on the Mall in see-through tents or wearing the royal family’s faces as masks in coronation parties — but this American, after more than half a decade here in Britain, can appreciate the depth of the monarchy in ways I couldn’t before. I see both its deep significance and history, its connection to our own tradition (sometimes through appropriation), and its negatives. As a rabbi and a Jew, I will always be of the opinion that there is only one Sovereign who truly rules, but there is something to be said for having a king as well as a King.