The following is a transcript of Episode 111 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institiute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording Friday, September 23rd, 2022.
A troubling story is told of king David in the first book of Kings, chapter 7. It involves the dangerous process through which the ark of the covenant was brought to the city of David. In fact, the first time they tried to bring the ark to the city, an unfortunate man named Uza, who seemed to be well-intentioned in trying to prevent the ark from falling to the ground, grabbed hold of it, and was struck down dead by God for the crime of touching it.
But when the ark finally does make its way to the city of David King, David himself danced wildly in front of it, gesticulating and swirling and twirling and twirling, the biblical verbs are really strange words. They sound like onomatopoeia, lifazez u’mikarker I don’t know, in maybe in contemporary parlance, they would be dabbing and twerking.
Michal, David’s first wife, watches the king dance wildly before the ark. That is to say before God, and she despises him for. She seems embarrassed for, for who? For him, for the monarchy. And David responds sharply, maybe with a little cruelty.
He says, quote, it was before the Lord who chose me instead of your father and appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people, Israel. He insists, I will dance before the Lord and dishonor myself even more. And I may be low in my own self. But among the slave girls that you speak of, I will be honored. David’s words are harsh, but they’re in some ways a shining moment of self-awareness. David, unlike Michal, it seems knows who is the true king.
Yehuda: So in case you haven’t heard the queen of England passed away recently. Her reign of 70 years and 214 days is the longest of any British Monarch, the longest recorded of any female head of state in history, and the second longest recorded reign of any sovereign in history. It’s pretty amazing.
I’m a big baseball fan. And my rule of thumb is that anytime somebody says the statistic about a player in which the record they’re setting involves Babe Ruth, it’s a good statistic. And if you’re talking about monarchs and you use the phrase second longest of all time, well, those numbers for the late queen Elizabeth the second are really incredible.
And when you’re the most prominent monarch on planet earth for a full 70 years, that means that billions of people have their very image of what a monarch is shaped by you. Literally billions of. Her death was a seismic media event, perhaps at another time in history, it would’ve been a seismic political event too, but between the fact that the British monarchy now serves mainly as a symbolic role and because the monarchic transition is so obviously and publicly seamless, the queen is dead, long live the king, the political ramifications of this change are a lot more subtle.
But what a media event it was. For a while, sitting on my desk here in New York, I was tracking the queue. There were thousands of British subjects lined up for hours at a time for the chance to view the queen as she lay in state, it was a massive state funeral, endless photos and montages and more. The evidence of the global fascination and reverence for the queen and for the crown are themselves indicators of their importance to all of us, even as the question of why that is remains a bit inscrutable. And I’ll confess that for me, it is a little inscrutable.
I really struggle as a Jew and as an American with a whole idea of the monarchy. I can say that because for my whole life and blessedly so, even though this makes me anomalous in human and Jewish history alike, I have never been a subject of such a sovereign. This country in which I was born has in its DNA, that it refused to remain a colony of the king.
And listen, I’m not naive about the way that power operates in America. I don’t think democracy is doing all that great. But there really is a huge difference between living in flawed democracy with ostensible division of powers and a complicated legislature and living under similar democratic conditions, but with a king or queen at the top of the pyramid and all sorts of the implicit spiritual theological associations accompanying their Supreme otherness.
We’re recording this actually right on the cusp of the high holidays. This is the time of year when we fixate most on metaphors of kingship and monarchy and sovereignty. And as a Jew, I really enjoy thinking about God, not just as like a better or divine version of the Royals that we know on earth, but as like something totally different, a different construct.
For so much of Jewish history and so many of our texts, there’s a deep and fundamental antipathy for Kings and Queens of flesh and blood. In rabbinic literature, it’s almost hard to separate the idea of malchut, the crown from the adjective of harasha, the wicked. As though we construct our moral worlds orthogonally to the way the world thinks about the realms of human power.
Back in the Bible, the king was a concession for Bnei Israel, for the Israelites, ostensibly for their failure to really process and digest the possibility of divine rule in their midst. The Kings in the book of Kings are almost entirely spectacular moral failures. If Solomon’s obsession with women and horses were a little much, what am I today to make of the crown jewels?
Or to go back to the story I started with, aren’t we all at risk of Michal’s misplaced concern for the dignity of the earthly king and queen at the cost of the true sovereign we’re all meant to serve.
But I know that I am in the minority on this. And my experience as an American Jew is probably equally foreign to British Jews and their experience of Royal sovereignty as their experience is to me.
The Jewish community of the United Kingdom pivoted in admirable speed and sincerity in rewriting the prayer for the queen quickly to celebrate and honor their new sovereign, King Charles III. The Jewish community participated as good British subjects in the many commemorative events.
And here today is one of the leaders of the British Jewish community Rabbi Joseph Dweck, who is the senior rabbi of the S&P Sephardi community of the United Kingdom. Rabbi Dweck, as we’ll talk about is American born, was a rabbi in Brooklyn of a Syrian Sephardic congregation, and the headmaster of a day school. He receives his rabbinic coordination from the former, late, Rav Ovadia Yosef.
And his capacity as a senior rabbi of this congregation in the UK, he also serves a number of what I imagine are both functional and ceremonial positions: the deputy president of the LSJS, the president of the council of Christians and Jews, and ecclesiastical authority of the board of deputies or British Jews. I don’t know that that fits on your business card. Um, and a member of the standing committee of the conference of European rabbis.
The S&P Sephardi community of the United Kingdom held a Memorial event, that’s why we thought to put this on the podcast, I saw it on Twitter, um, a memorial event for the queen and Rabbi Dweck offered a eulogy.
So thank you for joining us today, Rabbi Dweck, especially right before Shabbat. And I’d love to start just by asking you, you are an American-born Jew, um, serving in this role, what has it been like for you as a former American, now British Jew, uh, subject of the monarchy to live through these last few weeks of royal change and Royal loss in the United Kingdom?
Joe: Well thank you very much, Yehuda. I mean, first of all, you know, it’s an honor to be able to be on the podcast and to participate, so thank you for having me.
Um, listen, it’s been remarkable, really. It is as monumental an event, as you know, you describe it to be, and as people anticipate or think that it is. As you say, the queen has been sovereign of this country for 70 years. And I have to say for somebody who kind of may have a bone to pick with monarchy, as I’m listening to, you know, you’re opening, you describe the situation beautifully. You know, you described the situation precisely right.
I mean, you know, she, when you say the queen, there was only one person that anybody thought of. And when they thought of monarchy, they, you know, it was most likely her image that came into their minds. So, I mean, you know, it goes further than that, you know, we’re doing Selichot, for example, and one of the lines of our selichot, and we have eloheinu shebashamayim, and we have this whole list of prayers and requests that we say, and one of them is ten chayim, and for years it was l’malkah gevirateinu. Um, and so that had to change also, right, all of these little bits are, are changing.
I happened to be in Zurich, uh, when the queen died, cause I was on a speaking tour there and I had just finished a lecture and I came out and they said the queen died. And the first thing that I had to do was rewrite the prayer for the Royal family, as you say. Um, and that wasn’t just kind of, you know, filling in names. There were titles that we had to get right. And uh, the king appointed prince William, the prince of Wales, just before Shabbat.
And we had him down as the duke of Cambridge and Cornwall. And then all of a sudden before Shabbat, he got this new title, so we had to change it. But look, the experience has been, you know, you talk about malchut. I mean, since you bring in the Torah aspects of it, if I can I’ll come in on that, you know, on a certain perspective.
And one of the things that, you know, I recognize as far as Torah is concerned with regards to malchut, is that malchut, even in Torah, you know, everybody likes to talk about how Shaul came into the throne of Israel, and that it was contentious as you say, but there are precursors for that in Torah itself, in Parshat Shoftim, there’s no contention. It’s a mitzvah that tells us, som tasim alecha melech, you know, you’re to put a king, and, and one of the things, there are, there are caveats to that.
And one of them is that libalti rum levavo meachav. That the whole idea of a king is that the king is almost an emergent phenomenon, that the king doesn’t have a life of his own. It is something that draws from the populace, that comes from the collective, the collective of the people.
The Rambam writes, for example, a beautiful line in the end of, um, Hilkhot Melachim, lev melech lev kol kahal Yisrael, that the heart of a king is the heart of the entire community of Israel, the entire congregation of Israel.
So there’s a concept that, that monarchy is less about power and, and, um, you know, oppression in its worst iterations and, and ideally an emergent representation of the people as a collective. And when we say “your majesty,” what we are essentially saying is we’re not talking to an individual. We are talking to the embodiment as it were of the majesty of the entirety of the people, which is an emergent phenomenon.
Uh, and there’s a beautiful Maharsha on the Gemara that the Gemara says, when it’s talking about Shlomo’s interactions with Queen of Sheba, it says, kol haomer malkat sheva isha eino elah to’eh, anybody who says that she was a woman is mistaken. And then Marsha has a great gloss. He says, well, of course she was a woman. Yeah. What it means to say is that she wasn’t a private individual as a woman. She was the entire country. Right. This was an interaction on, on a political level.
So the queen really, really was that in a remarkable way. I mean, I say that she absolutely was one of the greatest monarchs of all time. And I don’t say that just because I’m starry-eyed and I’ve, you know, I’ve I drank the Kool-Aid over here. I think that when we look at monarchy in that sense, she quite literally sacrificed her entire personal life in order to be able to serve this role.
And she understood that what she was doing was representing the country to itself and to bring genuine, uh, you know, honor and majesty to the collective people. So she definitely did that. She did that in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen in a very long time, and I don’t know that we’ll ever see quite that way again.
And because of that, the people just adored her. I was, I wasn’t going to see all the flowers in front of Buckingham Palace, but a friend of mine said, you know, come on, let’s go. Let’s, let’s go see them. And they had moved all the flowers to Green Park, which is near the palace. And, and I walked through the park. And I mean, as far as you could see, there were flowers and notes and, you know, all kinds of tributes that people brought and you kind of get a feeling like, she really meant something to the people. And she did represent to the people what was best in us. And the consistency of it is, is, is no small thing.
So, you know, people talk about it, you know, 14 prime ministers and presidents and so on. And, you know, she’s always been there and she has, and that really, really means something as far as an icon and somebody that kind of represents the nature of our identity and what it is that we’re doing, and how we’re living day in and day out.
Yehuda: Yeah. 14 prime ministers and 59 starting quarterbacks for the Cleveland Browns.
Joe: Yeah. Sorry. I missed that statistic, but yeah.
Yehuda: Yeah, no, and, and even just the greatness that you’re describing, just the longevity is, is in a self extraordinary and a good indicator, you’ve never see anything like it. I mean, just her successor, her son is in his seventies. He’s not likely to rule over England for 70 years.
I, you said a bunch of things. I want to, pick them out. You know,, you spoke a bit about, and I’ve seen this a lot, around the notion of sacrifice and service. And I wanna just abstract out, even from the queen in general, to this language of leadership and servant leadership.
Cause it’s oftentimes like, I think a misunderstood dynamic between people who are in celebrated leadership roles, including a senior rabbi or the head of a major think tank, which are, thank God, usually reasonably well compensated roles, positions where you get you, you gain certain accolades based on the work that you do.
And, and yet at the same time, all of us are gonna have some internal monologue that what we’re doing is sacrifice that we are, we are serving others and you there’s a weird way in which that is supposed to be a discourse of humility. But if you take it too seriously, then it’s a way of also, making yourself, what a great martyr and sacrificial figure I am.
But it does feel like that, that’s a weird thing that it seems like a lot of British folk have about the queen, that she was engaged in a process of sacrifice, which is hard to witness from the outside when you talk about a person who inherits and then transmits over a billion dollars of net worth.
I wonder if you have some thoughts about like, what that really means when we think about leadership at that kind of scale, for it to have an internal language or even how does it project outwards as really being about servant leadership and service?
Joe: Sure. That’s a great question. I, I can approach it two ways. I, I think, you know, you bring up David and you didn’t mention Shaul directly, but you bring up David and specifically the dancing bit, right, which is, which is very famous. And remember that Michal is of course Shaul’s daughter and Michal was raised in a royal family.
And one of the major problems that Shaul had was this point that you raise of being of kind of a false humility in which he is very careful about how he’s seen by the people. He’s very worried about his public image. He is, you know, obviously a servant of the people as a king. I don’t think anybody, you know, negates that, but because he never was able really to relinquish his personal element, right, well, who am I? And how am I seen with the people?
To the point that he requires Shmuel to bow with him after, after you know, the whole Amalek situation, and uh, you know, he can’t even hold off eating the zevach that Shmuel tells him to wait till he gets there. He can’t even hold off with that.
And, you know, Chazal fill that in with, you know, he wouldn’t even let his wrist to be exposed in public. Every child that he has is boshet in some way. So Michal is looking at this and she’s saying, how dare you expose yourself like this? You know, my father would never do it. And I think that’s why David brings her father in, in the response, because what David is saying is I have essentially no element of self here. I’ve relinquished that for this role and what this is, is me essentially embodying the entirety of the people.
So you’re worried about, you know, my tunic is, you know, kicking up a bit more than it should be. I would nakloti od mizeh, he says, right, I would push myself even further than that. And I think that that’s why we talk about David as the quintessential melech, because on that level, there is a genuine relinquishing of the personal. And I think that that’s the point here.
For you or me, you know, you’re talking about our roles and, and yes, there’s always an element of sacrifice, but, uh, we can go to a restaurant, you know, we may have to say hello to a few more people than average. Uh, you know, we can go on holiday or we can go on vacation.
Yeah, so there may be a few more people that see us. We may go a little bit further, you know, than others. But there is a personal life that we hold, to a significant degree, which for all intents and purposes, uh, she did not. Now, I don’t mean to say that, you know, poor queen, obviously she was living in, in a great deal of luxury, but for all intents and purposes, there wasn’t really a personal life that she was, she wasn’t going off on her own pursuits. She wasn’t taking time to be able to develop her own goals. And, she at 25 years old, uh, put that on the altar for all I intents and purposes.
And so, yes, there’s majesty around it. That’s part of the role and, you know, give her something, she gets the, the honor and, and whatever that goes along with it. And I think that without saying anything critical about the the rest of the Royal family, the rest of the Royal family really struggles with that. They struggle and fail publicly with that.
And you know, his majesty the king, as you say, he’s getting on the throne in his seventies. When the queen came onto the throne at 25, we knew very little about her, and she remained a very private person for the entire 70 years, king Charles, we know a tremendous amount about him, his personal life, all of his, you know, ups and downs and humanity.
It’s a very, very different thing. So I think that if we were to think of ourselves genuinely relinquishing what it was that she relinquished, holding it for 70 years, without fail. Right. I mean, you know, scandal, uh, failure. And we don’t read of any of that, for 70 years, that is remarkable, uh, in my opinion, and I think that’s the opinion of a great majority of the country and even the Republicans in the country, when I say Republicans here, I mean, people who think it should be Republic, not a, not a constitutional monarchy, uh, respect her for having done that, for having been able to serve that way. So that’s, I, I guess in a, you know, in a nutshell how, how I might, you know, respond.
Yehuda: Yeah, I guess what’s interesting about the particular case of the queen, especially compared to the story with king David, is that the way that David relinquished himself is through effectively being willing to essentially embarrass himself in public, because it allows him to show, I’m dancing before melech malchei hamelachim, the king of all Kings, and the way that the queen of England relinquished self was by holding everything in very tight. You never got to see that side.
And I, I don’t know. I guess it’s interesting, cause I think about like great rabbinic teachers of mine, heads of Yeshiva. Once in a while they did the king David thing. On Purim, at a wedding, at a celebration, of losing control because of, in controlled ways, but losing control as a form of celebration to say, of course, I’m a, I celebrate because it’s part of my religious obligation, there’s something, um
Joe: Well, yes and no. I have to say, I’m, not to cut in, but yes and no. I think that when you take everything into consideration, you consider the history of the Royal family. The queen was as engaged with public as you get with regards to Royal family, right?
I mean the Royal family literally remained in the palace, they remained very aloof and removed from everybody before she came on. And she really revolutionized the Royal family. She moved much more into the public and into the, into the people’s realm. So she was holding garden parties, meeting thousands and thousands of average people in the country, every single year, she was traveling all around the country. She revealed like, I don’t know how many plaques and cut, I don’t know how many ribbons.
But she also, you know, she did a whole stint with James Bond, you know, I mean that, for her, that’s her way of dancing in front of the crowd. You know, her ancestors would be turning in their graves if they knew that she, you know, had a stunt double jump out of a plane, you know, and parachute into the Olympics, but she did that.
And for her, in her role in this country, given its history, that’s her mecharker recholoz, you know, she, she definitely put herself out there. You know, she’s having tea with Paddington and pulling a marmalade sandwich out of her bag. For the queen, you know, that, that’s, that’s her thing, you know, the people will enjoy this, so she’ll do it.
Yehuda: That’s letting loose. I, I am curious a little bit more about the theological piece, cause I, I think there are ways in which not being a place ruled by the king has shaped who American Jews are. We say a prayer for the government. We don’t say a prayer for the king. You know, you say
Joe: Well, there is no king.
Yehuda: There is no king. You say, yivarech et hanasi v’et nishneihu. You say, you pray for the president and his deputy, but it is quite different.
And I’m wondering if you have any observations about anything that you think that theologically is different for British Jewry, for living under the monarchy. How do you think it affects the way that the images of monarchic sovereignty operate in our prayers, which are gonna be one of the main themes of the next couple of weeks?
Like what’s different of being a subject of a British king or queen that you’ve observed, as part of the kind of Jewish mindset of British Jewry?
Joe: I mean, well, there’s definitely, you know, the analogy definitely holds a lot better, uh, because you know, Chazal certainly used monarchy throughout the generations as an analogy, right, to our relationship to God. So at the very least, you know, if it’s not the, the power, the grandeur of it is definitely there.
I, I had the opportunity of, last time was the Queen’s 90th birthday. And I mean, I don’t, I I’m an American kid. I’ve never been to anything like this where, you know, the queen walks in and there’s trumpets blowing and, uh, you know, everybody is, you know, immediately at attention, absolute silence, the minute that she walks into the room, God save the queen, and everybody, in immediate perfect queue and response, God save the queen.
That kind of thing uh, you know, you just don’t see outside. And so there is definitely something about the grandeur, the kavod right? This, this, this reverence of a monarch that I can tell you was still held by her pretty much every where she went. I mean, I remember I was once at a, I mean, I, because of my role, I do a lot of interfaith stuff.
So I was invited to an election of Anglican bishops, and the queen was present for that. And so, you know, we’re in this room, there are you know, maybe two, 300 people in the room and, you know, we’re in seats and, everybody’s talking as they do and there’s banter, and the queen walks in. And Yehuda, immediate silence, everybody on their feet in an instant, you know, I had never seen anything like that.
So, you know, you have kind of this, kavod, this standing at attention, this recognition of reverence and grandeur that, somehow goes along with it. You see that? I mean, it’s definitely something that’s there.
As far as the theological elements of it beyond that? Remember that England, there’s no separation of church and state. And even though the average citizen is not a religious individual, it’s a Christian country. And that runs through everything. I mean, you heard people, you know, on the news saying the queen of blessed memory, you don’t hear that really, you know, in the United States, from a secular, uh, newscaster, you know, people and that’s part of the rhetoric here.
And so there’s something to it, that certainly the queen herself was a woman of faith. She believed very strongly that her role was a divine calling. I might have mentioned in that eulogy that you mentioned. The oldest artifact that is among the Royal coronation paraphernalia is the spoon that is used to anoint the queen. Everything else dates back to the 17th century because they overthrew the monarchy and then they reinstated it and they melted everything down when they did, except for this golden spoon. And this golden spoon is 900 years old and it’s been used to anoint every king and queen of England.
And obviously they take the anointing from us as they take most, most of it. Um, but she insisted that that be done off camera. Cause remember the coronation was televised. She insisted that that be done privately, b’tzniut, off camera. She was, uh, you know, I say chagur rephot bat, she was wearing nothing but a linen tunic.
And to her, she took that very, very seriously. And I think because she believed and because she personally very much felt that way, that emanated, was broadcast, and the people believed because she believed. And so that definitely has a weight. Definitely has a weight.
Yehuda: What you’re describing about the spoon is very evocative. I’m gonna, I’m gonna read you something that I read from Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, another British rabbi.
Joe: Oh I know, Shoshana, she’s a very good friend, she’s wonderful.
Yehuda: Yes. So Shoshana writes as follows: I found the most moving part for me was when the symbols of monarchy were removed from the coffin. They were not handed to Charles. They were placed on cushions and sat independently. It was a striking ritual that for me, embodied the Magna Carta, the power of the state is separate from the individuals who bear it at any given time. We are all subject to it. While it’s skirted close to idolatry whenever you imbue objects with sacred power, I interpreted it at another level.
It meant that true power resides somewhere other than in human beings. And it’s a gift that is conferred by a higher power. And I, it sounds, it sounds a little bit like when you describe a 900 year old spoon, it’s like you can go and see inscriptions and art in the land of Israel from three, 400 CE of Jews who still are drawing images of incense shovels from the Beit Hamikdash, from the temple, because that’s a really powerful metaphor.
But there’s something very different when an incense shovel becomes a metaphor when there’s no temple to when there was a temple and the incense shovel was an object, like it held sacred value. So that sounds similar to how you’re describing this spoon. It didn’t belong to the queen. The queen was like connected in this much larger sense to the spoon.
Joe: Precisely. Yeah, absolutely. And I think that she, you know, she recognized that. She recognized that this was something that was being bestowed upon her that didn’t belong to her, that wasn’t personally hers, but that was being held in custody, so to speak. She was a custodian for this, for the time that she did. She took it very seriously, but yes. Yeah. As you say.
Yehuda: There’s gotta be, um, to move to a little bit of a different place. There’s gotta also be, and this may be a complicated thing to talk about publicly. There is a political calculus for the leadership of British Jewry, in how it responds publicly in a moment like this. Um, I don’t know, maybe you can help unpack this.
Is British Jewry more monarchic or Republican, because the chief Rabbinate is tied into the monarchy. Um, so if you could give any window into any of the political calculus of how does a Jewish community respond in a moment like this that actually relates not just to how they are as British subjects who happen to be Jewish, but as a community whose kind of identity is tied in, in some way, to the crown.
Joe: Yeah. I mean, I, I would have to say that for the majority of the Jewish community, they are loyal and very much admire the monarchy and they don’t have any desire really to see it go anywhere. There are certainly those among us. I mean, we’re Jews. We have, you know, our different opinions, there’s of course going to be, you know, Republicans around and there are, I know them, you know, I speak with them, but even so, even the Republican minded people that I know were very much engaged with this whole process of mourning the queen. So that was a big thing.
I think, you know, on a political level, I’ll share one, one element of it. It’s true that, you know, in constitutional monarchies, uh, power is not meant to rest with the Monarch. Uh, but there is absolute strength in their diplomacy, right? So they, they wield power that way. And the queen was really actually, uh, very adept at that. And, the king, who, you know, at the time, prince Charles, uh, when Corbyn was running, which I’m sure you know, was a terribly distressful time for the Jewish community here in the country.
The chief rabbi spoke out. I spoke out. We don’t usually take political stands on things. But we did here. And I think in no small part, the Jewish community certainly had an effect on how the outcomes, uh, ran, but Prince Charles, uh, during that time held a reception at Buckingham palace for all of the leaders of the Jewish community and, and you know, many of the workers of the Jewish community, to signal his embrace of the Jewish community in this country, to recognize what they had contributed to the country over 360 years.
And he, he spoke about it. You know, in his speech. My community is the oldest community in the country. We date back to 1656. Our oldest synagogue is 321 years old, on Rosh Hashana, Bevis Marks still, I mean, running for 321 years without cessation, uh, still it by candlelight. He acknowledged the presence and contribution of the Jewish people and wanted to signal at that time, that look, you know, I know what he didn’t say this in as many words, but I know what’s happening in government. But as the trustees of the identity of the country, we are communicating to you all, you matter. We care about you.
And that was huge. I mean, that was a huge thing. Everybody left that feeling like a million bucks, right. You know, a million pounds. And that was a meaningful act of diplomacy. Right, because we knew we were doing what we needed to do politically, but to know that the Royal family kind of was saying, we’ve got your back, or at least, you know, we, we’re recognizing, you know, the value that you bring to our country. That was huge.
So that is something and the, the Royal family is regularly engaged with Jewish life. So, you know, we had the 300th anniversary of Bevis Marks, and prince Charles was there. Her late majesty the queen was patron of many of our major charities, attended the dinners occasionally at, at, at significant points. You know, I, I was at a dinner at Buckingham palace, well, it must have been over two years ago cause before COVID, princess Anne was holding a dinner for the Woolf Institute, which is a Jewish based, you know, founded, interfaith institution.
This happens always. So for the Jewish community, we value it. We recognize it. And it’s something that we definitely celebrate.
Yehuda: Yeah, it’s, it’s so interesting to hear, especially because it kind of feels to me, you know, when you look back at Jewish history, the Jewish community always wanted to cultivate a relationship to the sovereign, but always did so with a good bit of caution, because too close to the sovereign, you lose the Nobles. And this is a different, we’re just looking at a different planet where there’s no political risk whatsoever of being identified with the sovereign. And in fact there are all sorts of material and other symbolic gains.
It’s interesting, also in particular about Israel, because there was an image that I saw that kind of went viral of, you know, sometimes they broadcast images now on the walls of the old city, you know, like at night, and the British flag was there and I saw somebody, it was kind of, been getting retweeted a lot of, can you imagine what Menachem Begin would think of, of the British flag? And I was like oh that’s actually really interesting.
Joe: It’s amazing what a little time does. And distance.
Yehuda: Well, it’s not just that, although the queen of course comes into rule in 1952. So she comes in after the British has left. And only while there’s an actual existent state of Israel. Do you have any insight into her attitudes about the state of Israel, given the antagonism that existed previously between,
Joe: That’s a really good question. Well, I mean, it’s known that she never made a diplomatic visit. She never made an official visit to Israel. And I can say that, you know, the Jewish community would have wanted her to, it was a bit disappointing that, you know, that didn’t happen.
But at the same time, there is an understanding of the political, uh, complexities that she would’ve had to navigate, uh, with regards to that. But there were unofficial visits that were made. So prince Philip went, you know, his mother is buried on Har Hazetim. And prince Charles attended Rabin’s funeral. Uh, and that was an official recognition of the prime minister, late prime minister. And prince William recently went and, and visited all over.
So, um, those things happen and we’re grateful for that, but yes, there, there, yeah.
Yehuda: They were static. Yeah. Um, there’s another piece that I wanted to delicately raise, which is, you know, the anti monarchic voices that exist both inside the UK and outside emphasize all of the history, all of the problematics of the British monarchy with respect to colonialism and race and so forth.
And the queen plays a, I guess, an ambivalent role in this because so much of her reign was kind of presiding over the walking back or the transformation of the relationship between the UK and its colonies, its relationship to colonialism. I’m curious how you as a Jewish leader had the Jewish community kind of enters into any of that conversation of the relationship, not just with the current monarchy, but with the history of a monarchy and all of its intended demons, I guess we would say.
Joe: Mm. Yeah. I mean, it’s a bit of a complex question because for us, you know, being that the empire is no longer the empire. And, uh, you know, all that you really have left is the Commonwealth and the queen definitely, definitely spent a great deal of effort and focus on cultivating and holding the Commonwealth together. And that was much of her diplomatic work.
It depends on where you’re looking and you know, where you’re sitting in shul on Shabbat, you know, and who’s giving the sermon, because I will say, and this is just for historical purposes, you know, I, my community, for example, because they were, have been here for so long and because they had a very strong tradition of be as British as you can be, uh, you know, the understated nature of, you know, of English life, that was very much a part of our community to the point that, when one of my predecessors Hacham Gaster, he was one the only Ashkenazi who held the, the position of the chief rabbi of the community.
The Balfour Declaration was drafted in his home, just up the road for me over here and because he was so staunchly Zionistic the unofficial, uh, understanding is that he lost his job as a result of it, because the elders of the community were very concerned that it would convey an anti-British sentiment.
And so that obviously was a very complicated issue between British Jewry at the time and what was going on in Israel, uh, with the British mandate. And at the same time, just up the road from my synagogue is where Ben Gurion used to live when he lived here in London. I don’t know if he went to shul, but he was definitely in walking distance.
Today, there isn’t a tremendous amount that’s spoken about with regards to the stains of empire. You know, what we have to do as far as that being part of the history. I don’t hear that a great deal. I mean, I, I can tell you, I don’t put that very much into my sermons because I believe that there is a lot that is pertinent for now that we need to focus on, that we need to kind of keep our sights on.
But it’s recognized in broader circles, right? It’s recognized when we are coming together, you know, for example, with regards to the Balfour Declaration, we just celebrated a couple years ago, the centenary of the Balfour declarations. So sure, that comes up in the broader discussions.
And even when we visit the British museum, you know, I encourage people all the time to go visit the British Museum, fr many reasons. I mean, there’s nothing like it, when you wanna have a sense of Jewish history and genuinely see, you know, the empires and you know, that we pass through. There’s no place like it. But the only reason they have all of that stuff is because, because of the empire and they just took it.
So, yeah, I mean, it’s always,
Yehuda: Yeah, I mean, it’s to the credit of the British museum that they continue to display it, unlike the Vatican. You know, who knows what else is in the Vatican?
Joe: Oh, hundred, absolutely, that’s a good point. A very good point.
Uh, you know, so yeah, it depends on where it happens, but it’s not prominent.
Yehuda: Yeah, I mean, it’s a fascinating dance because on one hand we wanna talk about venerating a 900 year old spoon and what that symbolizes, the conti, continuity with the past and heritage and all of that kind of, antiquity and the nobility that comes with it.
On the other hand, I think you’re, you’re toggling to, well, I gotta focus on what the monarchy actually is today and what it represents. And the more that I dwell into that story, the more that they start to peel themselves back. So just looking forward, because of all of the ways that you characterized the queen, what she represented in terms of her sacrifice and service, her nobility, her privacy. All of those pieces, they kind of make a lot of sense, they line up very well for a sermon in a synagogue about how that helps us access a story of divine rule.
Of course, the new king is very different, as you said. He’s the first king, who’s a kind of product of modern liberalism and individualism, for better or worse, complicated with his first wife and his children and the public narrative. And the question of do I actually wanna serve. How do you envision the continued ability to kind of shape a relationship that is consistent with the messages that we want to extract out of this story with this new face of the royal family?
Joe: Well, I’m not a prophet, but I, I have said, I think with the Queen’s passing, it firmly closes a door on a paradigm that we have been seeing shift for some time now. But this is a big mark in the sand. It’s a big mark in the sand. I don’t think that we’re going to be seeing much of that era, even in epoch, I would say, uh, moving forward and it’s for many reasons.
But the king is a very different person and coming into it in a very different way. And that may fit the time that we are moving into, we are in a time in where external institutions are being completely dismantled in every way, where individualism has tremendous surge, where there is definitely an embrace of pluralism and so on. Having no, uh, you know, moral qualifications on any of that, just kind of observing where it is that things are moving.
And yes, you know, he is in that space, even though he is the oldest and he remembers the old order and, you know, he sat on the lap of Queen Mary and so he does bring that. And I think that he’s been in training for a good enough time. So he’ll probably pull it off, you know, really well, but it’s going to be a very, very different world and a very different time and he will have to respond to a world in which he may very well be sitting on the throne of the last vestige of an old institution that still is holding in our modern Western world. Uh, and that will be very interesting to see how that, how he navigates.
Yehuda: Yeah. And for those of us on the outside, like it’s less how’s he gonna do, and what’s he gonna do, but it’s more kind of watching people like you who are building Judaisms that are in relationships to the institutions of state power. I mean, that’s so much of our literature and liturgy is we redefine what Jewishness means using the, we have only what we can see in front of us as the templates to help us understand the world.
So to see the monarchy undergo that evolution is gonna have really interesting effects on how we speak about Kings and Queens in our liturgy.
Joe: Without question. Without question. I mean, I can say that that uh, the king is a very good friend of the Jewish community, a very good friend of the Jewish community. I mean, he was a personal friend of the late Rabbi Sacks, he’s a friend of, of ours, you know, in our community. I’ve met him many times. We appreciate that, but you’re right. I mean, there is definitely a very different dynamic that’s going on and that will evolve.
Yehuda: Well, thank you so much, Rabbi Dweck for being with us. And thanks to all of you for listening to our show.
Identity Crisis was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Gareth Hobbes and Corey Choy at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by Socalled.
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