5/01/2011

Crown without a King

Like so many others, I have been drawn into the pageantry of last week’s royal wedding. At first I tried convincing myself that I really did not care, but ended up tuning in anyway, compelled, like billions of others, to gawk. In fact, instead of apathy, I find myself curiously offended by the events—and indeed, by the very notion of royalty—as an American, Israeli, and Jew.

As an Israeli and an American, I am a citizen of two countries who fought for independence against soldiers of the British Crown, and to whom the British Crown represents the type of hubris that made a still-festering mess of vast swaths of territory. Though the British Empire undoubtedly had its fine hours, its sun has thankfully set.
But it was not antipathy toward Britain that caused me to take offense. After all, the crown is a symbol. Although the Talmud (Berakhot 58a) states that “[One who sees] gentile kings says, ‘[Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the Universe] Who has granted of His glory to flesh and blood,” halakhic consensus excludes symbolic kings who do not truly rule their subjects. The trappings of royalty do not a king make.
This is the source of offense: I can understand why it is prudent for a subject to respect and venerate a truly powerful king, but I will never understand the adulation of a purely vestigial royalty, whose line of succession have done and need do nothing in order to attain their status.
As a Jew, I am an heir to a tradition and bearer of a pedigree much greater than that of the British royal line. The Talmud proclaims on several occasions that “every Israelite is a prince.” Benjamin Disraeli, an apostate Jew and British Prime Minister, quipped to Daniel O’Connell in a Parliamentary debate when the latter insulted the former’s lineage, “Yes, I am a Jew and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”

And yet, Jewish pedigree has long been replaced by meritocracy. A vestigial priesthood and the primogeniture of certain Hasidic courts are all that remain of exclusive birthrights. “The crown of Torah,” writes Maimonides (Laws of Torah Study 3:1), “stands available and accessible to all, ‘the heritage of the community of Jacob’; whomever wants it may come and take it.” According to the Mishna (Avot 4:17), the crown of a good reputation surpasses the crowns of royalty, priesthood, and even Torah. I therefore find it offensive, as a Jew, that there are those whose stature stems wholly from pedigree.
As an American, I believe that veneration and honor must be earned, if not deserved. Admittedly, American cultural heroes often attain their status for their inherently trivial skill of throwing a ball through a hoop. And yet, even then, that respect is born of merit, of men gathering on the playing field to determine superiority through fair competition. I am proud that the country of my birth can elect a black man, the son of a foreigner, to its highest office. Men are judged not by the color of their skin (or blood), but by the content of their character. Israel, too, has seen the rise—and fall—of statesmen from a variety of origins. None are above the law, and none are beneath it.
A party was held in my neighborhood in Modi’in this past Friday night, celebrating the royal wedding. It garnered some significant media attention (in The Forward and the Jerusalem Post, among others), which is to say that they had good PR. As I considered how to succinctly explain why I would not be attending, I eventually hit on a quip that sums up several of the reasons outlined above: I would attend, but my Nazi costume is at the dry cleaner’s.
Post a Comment