He who giveth salvation unto kings

June 2, 2022 by  
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Sydney’s Central Synagogue’s Associate Rabbi David Freedman and his wife Ruth were born in London and emigrated to Sydney in 1988. He has written the following article on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee.

Rabbi David Freedman

Rabbi Jonathan Romain once related the following story – true or not – it certainly made me smile. He wrote as follows:

Princess Margaret was astonished. In 1990 she was attending a service marking the 50th anniversary of Maidenhead synagogue and was struck by the fact that we read a prayer for the good health and wise counsel of the Queen. When I explained that the prayer was not a one-off but recited every Sabbath in every synagogue in Britain, she remarked: “How lovely, they don’t do that for us in church; I’ll tell my sister.”

Whether the message was ever relayed back to Buckingham Palace is unknown, but the custom itself is symptomatic of the very particular relationship that Jews have had with ruling monarchs. It dates back to the period when Jews first went into exile from Jerusalem in 586 BCE after the Babylonian conquest and those taken there wrote to the prophet Jeremiah – still in the land of Israel – asking how they should behave.

It is an eternal question that faces every extraneous group: merge into the surrounding culture, be disruptively independent of it, or find some sort of accommodation? Jeremiah’s answer was unequivocal: “Seek the peace of the city in which you live … for in its peace is your peace.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

So it is that any regular visitor to a synagogue in the Anglo-Jewish world, and by that, I include not only the UK, but also most of the Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand, would be familiar with the following words: He who giveth salvation unto kings and dominion unto princes, may He bless Our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth. These words have been read out on Shabbat and Yom Tov mornings, week after week and year after year for all 70 years of her reign.

I wrote recently about the significance of the number seven in Biblical literature and Jewish mysticism, that being the case, it is only right and proper to pause and reflect on Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum anniversary and ask, as ever, how is this connected to the Jews?

Although our relationship with the kings and queens of England got off to rather a shaky start during the Middle Ages, leading up to the expulsion of the Jews by Edward 1st in 1290, the return of the Jews to England in the seventeenth century, created an entirely new dynamic. The Jews found themselves, at first tolerated, then emancipated and finally contented in their new home, and this generated an almost unique affiliation and appreciation of the Crown. Not that this happened immediately.

At the Restoration (1660, when the monarchy was re-established) there was genuine concern that the Jews whom Oliver Cromwell had readmitted might be thrown out – especially when the easy-going Charles II was succeeded by his aggressively Catholic brother James II (1685-88). It is often forgotten that Jewish money helped fund James’s overthrow and his replacement by the Dutch Protestant William III.

However, following these awkward moments, England and its ruling classes slowly warmed to the Jews, and the Jews to all things English. Take for example the attitude of the Jews in late Victorian times.

The Jewish population in London and other major cities in Britain at the turn of the century grew rapidly due to the influx of eastern European Jews who were escaping from persecution in Russia and Poland. Recognising that under the British, Jews could experience freedom, security and a measure of affluence – many Jews also moved to outposts within the British Empire, for example, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

It is not surprising therefore that in this new ‘Anglo-world’ the Jewish community’s central institutions held a distinctly positive attitude to the British Empire and all it stood for. The Chief Rabbi, for example, was designated as the religious head of the United Hebrew Congregations, not merely of England or Britain but of the British Empire, later – the British Commonwealth. The Anglo-Jewish pulpit was fulsome in its support for empire. In 1897 Queen Victoria’s jubilee was celebrated in every synagogue in Britain. Here, as in the nation at large, the celebrations delivered an imperial message. Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler marvelled that ‘nothing in the history of the world has been more remarkable than the growth and expansion by leaps and by bounds of the prosperity of the Empire, of its population, and of its wealth, its commerce and industry’.

The Rev. Michael Adler, minister at The Hammersmith Synagogue, surveyed ‘the political and social condition of our coreligionists at the present moment in the British Empire’ and found it ‘better than at any previous period of the exile’. At the Central Synagogue in London, Israel Abrahams connected the success of Jewish emancipation to the practice of toleration that, in his view, was required by successful imperial rule. ‘With off-shoots in all countries and climes, embracing under its banner men widely differing on race, in religion, and in language, England alone of all the empires of Europe has grown to understand that national life needs differentiation in a union of many forces on behalf of progress and righteousness.’

The colonies provided congregations for under-employed ministers and, by the start of the twentieth century, colonial congregations themselves provided ministers for congregations in Britain. Julius Goldstein, the minister at the North London Synagogue in Dalston, had been born in Australia. The most striking instance of this sort of movement occurred in 1912 when Dr Joseph Hertz, who had been the rabbi of Witwatersrand Hebrew Congregation (Pretoria), was appointed Chief Rabbi in succession to Nathan Adler. Hertz first came to notice in Britain on account of his noisy support for the British cause in the months preceding the Boer War. For his pains, he was expelled from Johannesburg. After Hertz had settled in the Cape, the British High Commissioner, Sir Alfred Milner appointed him to his advisory council. A decade later, Milner’s recommendation, and his friendship with Lord Rothschild, assisted Hertz in his candidacy for the vacant Chief Rabbinate.

It was in this context of recurrent if intermittent debate on the Jews that Nathan Adler preached a sermon at the North London Synagogue on 4 November 1899 in which he loudly aligned religious doctrine with imperial patriotism. Referring to the Boer War, he pointed out that while for Jews the aspiration for peace was second only to their belief in the unity of God, it was fully recognized in Jewish teachings that ‘certain wars are inevitable’, and this war to sustain the interests of ‘England’s sons in distant lands’ was just such a conflict.

The London Jewish Chronicle reported prominently the numbers of Jewish volunteers, printed pages full of photographs of Jews in uniform and reported whenever a Jew was mentioned in dispatches. It calculated that the casualty rate among Jewish troops was nearly double the losses among the troops as a whole. According to the newspaper these figures attested to the exceptional ‘zeal and courage’ of Jewish troops. Military service in defence of empire was both vindication and the highest expression of Jewish emancipation and loyalty to Queen Victoria and her heirs.

According to British historian Geoffrey Alderman it was during the short reign of Victoria’s son Edward VII (1901-10) that a close relationship was cemented between the British monarchy and its Jewish subjects. Edward was an easy-going cosmopolitan. He liked the company of accommodating women and of rich men – especially rich Jewish men. His friendship with the Ashkenazi financier Sir Ernest Cassel was the subject of much gossip, which he ignored. He was also on friendly terms with the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Hermann Adler, to whom he referred unashamedly as “my Chief Rabbi.” The king’s official biography (1925) was written by Sir Sidney Lee, aka Solomon Lazarus Lee, the elder son of a London-based Jewish merchant.

During World War II, in spite of rumours that King Edward VIII (following his abdication – the Duke of Windsor) had become a Nazi sympathiser, the Jews nevertheless appreciated greatly that in 1940, it was only Britain and its allies in the Commonwealth of Nations, who stood against the Nazis. What these nations had in common, in spite of their geographic, ethnic and cultural differences, was their allegiance to King George VI. As such he personified, for the Jews, the very symbol of British resistance, and a hope that Nazism, with its unashamed and repugnant anti-Semitic platform might yet be defeated. When King George VI died in 1952, that affection and allegiance were transferred to his daughter, Elizabeth.

As such, I recall on many occasions, watching the Queen on television as she attended important state occasions and noticed that there would always be a number of orthodox Jews in the crowd who simply wished to recite the unique blessing said in the presence of a non-Jewish monarch benevolently disposed towards Jewish people. In 2012, on a holiday in the UK, I ran into the Queen myself; she was on a royal tour of the City of London. I say ‘ran into her’ – of course I mean that metaphorically, not literally, otherwise no doubt, I would be writing this article from the Tower of London – nevertheless as she made her exit from one of the well-known buildings in the city, Ruth and I happened to be walking along the road. As she walked towards her Bentley with the Royal Standard attached, I stepped forward and recited the bracha in a loud, clear and proud voice:

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם שחלק מכבודו לבשר ודם

Blessed is the Lord …. who has given some of His glory to human beings.

I would like to think that the Queen, who was only about four or five metres away heard my words and perhaps even said amen to my bracha. The Talmud (TB Brachot 58a) explains why reciting this bracha is so important. Rashi, in his commentary, explains that when we see the honour ascribed to normal kings and queens, we will be able to appreciate even more the unique honour shown to Melech Ha’Mashiach – the Messiah himself. What emerges from this gemara is that there are two distinct, but related obligations. First, there is the obligation to recite a bracha in the presence of a king or queen; and second, there is the requirement to go and see a monarch in person and see how they are honoured by their subjects, even when one might otherwise be studying Torah. (Mishna Berura 224:13).

In a sense, Jews have always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards monarchy. This is most likely due to the way the institution of monarchy is presented in the Tanakh (see Deuteronomy 17, Judges 8 and I Samuel 8). Conditions are attached to the monarch for fear that they may abuse the power given to them and accumulate too many horses, too many wives and too much wealth. In addition, the Bible gives all too many examples of kings and queens who failed to live up to their mission: Saul, Manasseh, Jeroboam, Omri, Ahab and Jezebel to name but a few. Even King David and King Solomon – who are generally regarded as good and righteous kings, nevertheless failed at times to live up to the high ethical standards demanded of a Jewish king.

Nonetheless, in spite of this hesitancy regarding royalty, when Alexander the Great extended his empire by conquering Judea in 334 BCE, he granted the Jews freedom of religion, which resulted in an amazing gesture by the Jewish population – that every boy born that year to a Jewish family was given the name Alexander. With this in mind, I chose to give one of our own daughters the name Elisheva (Hebrew for Elizabeth) since she was born in 1977, the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee.

Not that every Jew from England supports the monarchy, or allows it to function without criticism. Take for example, Anshel Pfeffer. Pfeffer, a Manchester-born Israeli journalist and senior correspondent and columnist for Haaretz, is particularly critical of the British royal family. In an article entitled Why British Jews Are So Depressingly Deferential to the Royal Family he reveals that just months before World War II broke out, George VI’s private secretary wrote to the British Foreign Secretary that the King was concerned that ‘a number of Jewish refugees from different countries were surreptitiously getting into Palestine,’ and that he was ‘glad to think that steps are being taken to prevent these people leaving their country of origin.’ The ‘country of origin’ the Jews were trying to flee was of course Nazi Germany, and on King George’s orders the Foreign Office asked the Third Reich to check for any ‘unauthorised emigration.’

In addition, he criticises the Queen for never having visited the State of Israel. To a large extent, this is not of her doing, since it is the British Foreign Office that organises all international royal trips; but whether or not she felt it was incongruous that she could visit tyrannical countries of dubious ethics, but never visit Israel, a liberal democracy and a key ally of the West, we have no indication. At the very least, it is most perplexing that the Queen, a devout Christian, has never visited the Christian holy sites in Israel – the Church of the Nativity, the Via Dolorosa, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden of Gethsemane. It is true that the late Prince Phillip visited Israel in a personal capacity to attend a ceremony at the Yad Vashem in honour of his mother who had been granted the title ‘Righteous among the Nations’, and more recently there have been visits from both Prince Charles and Prince William – but it does remain an unfortunate aspect of her relationship with her Jewish subjects, that she has never visited the one and only Jewish State.

Nonetheless, there is much to rejoice about in the Queen’s special anniversary. A moving story revolves around the 60th anniversary of the Allied liberation of Auschwitz. Her Majesty met with Holocaust survivors at St. James’ Palace in London. While Queen Elizabeth II is very punctual and rarely diverts from her precise schedule, the then Chief Rabbi, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, noted, at the time, that the queen stood with each survivor “until they had finished telling their personal story. It was an act of kindness that almost had me in tears.” One survivor quipped, “I did not know whether I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen.” And who was not moved by the amazing tribute to Rabbi Sacks on his passing by the heir to the throne? In a heartfelt message, the future king said: “His sudden and unexpected death is an irreplaceable loss to the Jewish community, to this nation and to the world – but most of all to his family, to whom he was utterly devoted. He was a trusted guide, an inspired teacher and a true and steadfast friend. I shall miss him more than words can say.”

Such words were most obviously sincere and heartfelt, as is the support given by members of the royal family to the Jewish community as they routinely attend many Jewish events and support Jewish causes and charities. Prince Charles even has his own blue velvet yarmulke with a silver royal crest on it that he wears when he attends synagogue.

So as the Queen reaches this amazing milestone, what could be more appropriate than to reprint below the special prayer issued by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to commemorate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Whether one is a royalist or a republican here in Australia – I am sure we can all join with Jews throughout the Commonwealth in wishing her well and acknowledging the special relationship we Jews have had with Queen Elizabeth, Queen of Australia over many years.