I remember my teacher Rabbi Louis Jacobs saying that one day they saw their Rosh Yeshivah scaling the roof of the building to put up a British flag. When his students asked him why he was risking his life in this apparently absurd manner, he answered that had they ever lived in Czarist Russia, as he had, they would understand immediately what he was doing.
It is both right and important that we as Jews should acknowledge and celebrate the diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second. We should be grateful not only for her reign, and her constant dedication to service, but for the long established democracy and the many freedoms for which Britain is famous. My parents, who both fled Nazi Germany in their teens, taught me that the privilege of living in a country which upholds, defends and deeply valued many freedoms, including those of speech and conscience, is never to be taken for granted. It’s true, Isca told me, that when she landed at Croydon Airport on 9 April 1939 it was the first time in many years that she’d seen a policeman smile.
In a beautifully written and timely article Jonathan Fishburn traces the first recorded prayer for the monarch to the community of Worms in the 11th century. But it is universally acknowledged that the tradition of praying for the welfare of the country in which we live goes back to the prophet Jeremiah’s instruction to the exiles in Babylon at the beginning of the 6th century BCE to seek the peace of the city in which they dwell. Jonathan Fishburn traces the history of this practice through the three and a half centuries since the return of Jews to England, including a reference in the diary of Samuel Pepys. This is strange, since, as is well known, Pepys visited the synagogue on Simchat Torah, a date on which we no longer pray for the leaders of the realm just in case the congregation is drunk by this stage in the proceedings and the intercession should appear unseemly.
Menasseh ben Israel, whose petition to Cromwell led to the readmission of Jews to this country averred that: ‘As for Fidelity, this same affection is confirmed by the inviolable custome of all the Jews wheresoever they live: for on every Sabbath or festival Day, they every where are used to pray for the safety of all Kings, Princes and Common-wealths, under whose jurisdiction they live, of what profession-soever: unto which duty they are bound by the Prophets and the Talmudists.’ (1655)
The relation of Jews to the monarchy in this country was affected not only by appreciation for freedoms granted, but by a deep respect for the institution based on the Talmudic understanding that earthly royalty was a reflection or an echo of God’s sovereignty in heaven, – ‘me’eyn malchut shamayiim’. Imagine, says the Shulchan Aruch, preparing the words you want to say before a king of flesh and blood: would you not be over-awed and terrified lest you become confused? Now consider that you are standing before your God, the King of the king of kings. How careful should you be then in concentrating on what you say!
I had the privilege of meeting her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at the 70th anniversary of the creation of the Council of Christians and Jews. It was Prince Philip who most caught my attention. Seeing Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Danny Rich (head of Liberal Judaism) and myself all chatting together, he called over as he walked past, ‘You’re not supposed to be talking to each other, are you’.
If we can be forgiven our foibles as a community, surely the Royal Family can be forgiven theirs, and celebrated and appreciated on this Diamond Jubilee which should inspire us all to value and work with renewed commitment for freedom, peace and justice.