The coronation from a Jewish perspective

(Photo: Unsplash/Tim Wildsmith)

Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on the coronation of King Charles III from a Jewish perspective.

Recently, this country has been imbued with Jewish teachings for one of our national events! Straight after the coronation, the sad period of the Omer period finished with the celebrations of Lag B'Omer on Tuesday.

Now we are leading up to the joyous Jewish festival of Shavuot, which takes place at the end of May. In between comes Jerusalem Day, celebrating the reunification of that city. All of these Jewish celebrations are relevant to the coronation of the monarch that we have just witnessed.

Let's start with the coronation of King Charles III, which for the first time in recent history, and certainly the first time in the TV age, was held on Shabbat.

Comparisons have been made with the coronation of Edward VII but his 1902 coronation was held on a Saturday only because the monarch became ill on the designated week-day.

Foreign crowned heads had to get back to their various countries, which in 1902 wasn't exactly easy. So his coronation was held on a Saturday as a last resort at a time when very few observant Jews lived in the country.

These, from whom the majority of Anglo-Jewry are descended, were to arrive in the wake of the Russian pogrom of 1903. Tragically, in 1903 the then English Chief Rabbi tried to prevent the arrival into this country of fellow Jews facing death and destruction, lobbying both Parliament and Church against. Is he therefore the role model that we should be emulating?

With this example in mind, it would therefore be remiss, as well as cowardly, not to mention the huge upset that the latest Shabbat coronation, the first of its kind in the TV age, has caused in the observant Jewish heartlands of this country.

The word 'discrimination' was mentioned in the joint letter of protest written to the monarch with former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Rowan Williams of Oystermouth. As you know, it was Lord Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who had officiated, on a weekday, at the wedding of the present monarch and his now wife. No response, but the former Archbishop was invited to be present on the big day!

Why could Jews simply not turn on the TV or phones and watch? As those Jews who participated in the event knew very well, observant Jews cannot simply turn on the electricity on Shabbat, as electricity is a form of work that is not permitted on Shabbat except to save life.

In addition, observant Jews attend Shul on Shabbat morning. But, the Archbishop of Canterbury had asked everybody to participate in an oath of allegiance through our TVs or phones at the moment of coronation. Observant Jews were therefore unable to participate in this act and people knew in advance that this would be the case.

A simple change of day for the event, based on precedent, would have included the Jewish community in the lived experience of this country, which was how the order of the day was described.

And I'm sad to say, this example of, at the very least insensitivity to religious practice, is a recurring feature of Jewish life in diaspora - in it, but certainly not of it. This despite around 85% of the coronation service being based in Jewish norms, Jewish teachings, and Jewish music (Christian Today has published a number of superb articles on the Jewish antecedents of the coronation).

So, what I would like to do is to endorse these articles and elaborate on some of their ideas.

There is something poignant for observant Jews on viewing the reenactment of the anointing of King Solomon by Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet, as described to us in the Hebrew Book of Kings 1: 32-39.

The accompanying music from Handel's 'Zadok the Priest', an aria from his Oratorio, 'Solomon', made us feel very proud. Handel (1685-1759) moved from Germany to England in 1712 and became a naturalized citizen in 1727.

In London, Handel was greatly helped in his oratorical oeuvre by immigrant Jews who had settled there and wanted to play their part in contributing to the innovative musical life of their new country, as they have of course, ever since.

For Handel didn't only compose the oratorio 'Solomon', but also others based on Hebrew Bible themes. These include 'Joseph and his Brothers' 'Jephta', 'Judas Maccabee', 'Atalia', 'Joshua', 'Deborah', Esther', 'Samson','Saul' and, most tellingly for this time of year, 'Israel in Egypt'. And these new types of musical invention were written to be performed not in churches, but in the theatre, and were therefore open to all, including the Jewish community.

Another feature taken from Jewish practice was the screen placed around the monarch at the time of anointing. The resemblance was more obvious in the case of the former monarch, his mother (married, by the way, on a Tuesday!). The screen is based on the simple chuppah used for Jewish weddings. These simple chuppahs are much in evidence at this time of year in the yards of local Jewish schools and synagogues.

The word 'anoint' comes from the same Hebrew word as 'Messiah' and simply denotes someone designated by G-d to serve. An example was Cyrus, the Persian monarch who allowed the Jews to return from exile and rebuild their Temple.

And as the onus on service has been a key part of the subsequent celebrations, let me just emphasize the place of service in Judaism. There are three main pillars of Judaism. Two are Torah learning and prayer, but without service these two attributes are like a tripod missing a leg.

Recently, I was asked to help out in a clothes 'gemach' housed across the road, together with a school and two synagogues, all in the same building. So, I turned up last Sunday, the day after the coronation, and was astounded. Expecting second-hand clothes no longer wanted by families, I found myself in what looked like a luxury outlet, similar to Harrods, or other shops favoured by royalty and the super rich, to which most people could never aspire.

These were designer clothes, with labels still intact, neatly hanging according to type, material and size in a way reminiscent of Lord St in Southport in the 1950s, at that time considered the best place to shop, or window-shop, in the country.

I had often wondered how not very well-off observant Jewish families with eight or more children always looked perfectly dressed in Shul, and now I knew. In honour of Shabbat, people who could afford it would buy up beautiful clothes, and leave them, unworn, for others. This is the modern interpretation of 'gleaning' as depicted for us in the Book of Ruth, which we are studying at present in the lead-up to Shavuot, when it is recited in Shul together with the receiving of the Ten Commandments.

But this clothes gemach, in which I felt privileged to help out, is only one of many examples of the colossal support system that makes up the Jewish community worldwide. Our Shul for instance, opens its doors regularly to the NHS as a blood donor centre for everyone in the area and further afield.

Then we have people who mend computers, provide electrical goods, organize emergency help for accidents and emergencies, find work and Shabbat invitations for the disadvantaged and generally function daily according to the best of Biblical Jewish norms.

Recently, I was asked by a refugee I encountered at the local library to help him with English. As the library didn't offer themselves as a venue for these lessons, I tentatively asked my Shul if they could house us for an hour a week, and they agreed.

Was I surprised when the 'refugee' told me that he had actually been 'trafficked illegally' first to Italy and then to England, which his uncle 'preferred'. He could not give me any reason for why he had left his place of birth, other than the zest for travel!

I asked him about the possibility of France with its much greater geographical size and similar population. He took this to be a joke. Actually not. This man is not what is meant by the 'stranger' in Biblical norms. The 'stranger' is a person who keeps the laws of the Land, as well as adhering to his own customs, as long as they do not threaten our own customs.

The Jewish community have understood this correct definition of 'stranger', which is what we are and what we will remain: intent on living as Jewish a life as possible in an increasingly alien environment, while remaining extraordinarily loyal to the country.

We are the only religion, for instance, which, every Shabbat, recites a prayer for members of the royal family. Which is why so many loyal members of the Jewish community were distraught at the deliberate choice of Shabbat for the coronation. And the largest number of distressed Jews came from the younger generation.

As the Dalai Lama has correctly stated, 'The Jewish community has learned the secret of survival in Exile, and we should all learn from them.' Up to now that is. For, parallel to the huge influx of 'refugees' and 'asylum seekers' since the mid 1990s, which has taken our population from around 45 million to around 70 million, there has been a concomitant Jewish exodus out of the UK. And if things continue in the same vein, and they probably will, Jewish life in the UK will peter out and disappear altogether.

Interesting that it was Oliver Cromwell, the regicide of the monarch Charles I who, in 1656, allowed the Jews to return to this country. That is how the Jewish community were able to contribute to the success of Handel's oratorios in the early 18th century, leading to their subsequent performance at successive coronations.

Another feature of the coronation was the singing of the aria 'I was glad'. This is Psalm 122, one of the 15 Jewish Songs of Ascent, set to music by Hubert Parry.

You will see that Psalm 122 is 'glad' (actually 'rejoicing') in praise of the unity of Jerusalem, with positive wishes for that great city's everlasting prosperity and flourishing.

And that fervent prayer, recited by many on Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, which starts this year on the night of 18 May, is also a Jewish favourite, just like 'Zadok the Priest' from the first book of Kings.

During the coronation, a reading was taken from the New Testament, in which the beautiful words of Isaiah 61, the Jewish prophet of hope, were addressed to the Jewish community suffering and excluded from the main populace while in exile.

Many think the words of Isaiah to the Jewish people in exile have never been surpassed. He is certainly the most-cited prophet in the synagogue liturgy through the Haftorah readings which accompany the reciting of the Torah (Pentateuch) reading for the week.

However, the true beauty of Judaism does not lie in monarchs, priests, or prophets. It does not lie in pomp, circumstance or triumphalism. For, here is a wonderful and well-known commentary on the Book of Exodus, known as the Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael (written in around 135 CE, during the dreadful persecutions of the Jews in Israel under Hadrian).

In the passage known as Shirata 3, the following scenario is depicted:

G-d has just delivered Israel from Pharoah's army and Israel stands free on the far shore of the sea. As promised, G-d has brought the Jewish people, known as the Children of Israel, out of the house of bondage. How shall Israel respond to the epiphany of G-d appearing to each individual. There are six interpretations of the line sung at the sea by Moses in Exodus 15:2 'This is my G-d and I will praise Him'

'Rabbi Eliezer says 'From this [source] you say that a maidservant saw by the sea [of Reeds] what Isaiah and Ezekiel and the rest of the prophets did not see.'

In Jewish commentary, the visions of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hoshea and the other prophets were, amazingly to some, not of the same order as the true sighting of a simple, uneducated Jewish ex-slave girl on the first step of her journey to Mount Sinai. Because at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:15), 'The entire people saw the thunder and the flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain.'

All the Jewish people hear the commandments, including the commandment to remember and observe the Shabbat. At this moment, the Jewish people entire, both at that time and at the present time, were enabled to have an experience greater than that experienced by the prophet Isaiah and others in their subsequent visions.

But of all the festivals and holy days, Shabbat is the most important of all. When the festival of Shavuot falls on Shabbat (as is the case this year), the laws of Shabbat precede it. The same goes for Pesach, Rosh Hashana and Succot. Yom Kippur, the major fast day and day of repentance, is itself known as 'the Shabbat of all Shabbats'.

That is why the coronation of the monarch on a Shabbat is a sign. Of what one cannot be sure. But, in times to come, whenever national events take place on a Shabbat, for many Jews at least: the ordinary Jew, the not proud, the quiet Jew, devoted to Torah, the Jew who organizes clothes gemachs, who works in the soup kitchens which abound in our community, all these will say to themselves once again, 'a national event is of course a significant moment for a nation, especially when based in Jewish scripture, teaching and norms, but the observance by every one of us of Shabbat is the crown of crowns and supersedes a national event, including the coronation of a mortal monarch'.

For we Jews only have one King and He is the only one we can rely on. That is probably the lesson that the Jewish community should draw from the recent coronation. For us there is only one true King, the only One with whom we have a true covenant. And He will be with us always.