This past Shabbat, King Charles III was crowned during a festive and religious ceremony at Westminster Abbey. More than 20 million people in the United Kingdom and approximately 250 to 300 million people worldwide tuned in to watch the coronation. In general, the world is fascinated by the royal family and I wonder. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? What is the Torah’s perspective on our relationship with a country’s monarch?
I think that some people are fascinated by and even obsessed with the royal family in the same way that they are fascinated by and obsessed with celebrities. We live in an environment where we pay attention to the people at the top of society and many of us view celebrities and certain the royal family in that category. Perhaps we love to identify with someone who seems to lead a fairy tale life and may have to undergo challenges in that fairy tale life. Perhaps we are enamored by these celebrities because they help us escape our often-monotonous lives. Of course, the Torah would frown upon this reason for our fascination with the royal family. We should not be obsessed with celebrities. We should be obsessed with emulating men and women in our society who exemplify Torah values and wonderful middot.
That being said, the Torah does value offering respect to a country’s monarch. The gemara (Brachot 58a) states that we should recite the bracha of “she’natan mikvodo l’vasar v’dam” – or “blessed Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood” when we see a non-Jewish king. Additionally, the gemara states that we should make an effort to see kings, even gentile kings. Rashi explains that this obligation refers to those who will see the coming of the messiah. By seeing both non-Jewish kings and the Jewish messianic king, they will appreciate how much greater the honor given to the Jewish messianic king is than the honor given by the various nations to their leaders in the world. Along these lines, Rav Chaim Palagi (cited by the Sefer She’arim Metzuaynim B’Halacha, vol. 1, 60:6) rules that we recite a bracha for non-Jewish kings so that we will appreciate how much more honor will be given to the Jewish messianic king.
However, based on his commentary to Megillat Esther (5:1), the Rambam seems to imply that Esther was punished for referring to Achashverosh in a pejorative manner. After all, Hashem had given of His kavod, or glory, to flesh and blood, which is the bracha that we recite when we see a king. As such, it seems from the Rambam that the reason for the bracha is to take note of the honor which God endowed a human being and there is religious value to expressing respect even for a non-Jewish king.
But I think with respect to the English monarch, there may be another reason why it is so important that we celebrate him and his position. The English king is the Head of State, but he does not have a political or executive role. The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy and therefore the ability to make and pass legislation belongs to Parliament rather than the king. The monarch retains a symbolic role in government. He will embark on goodwill visits abroad and he will host foreign heads of state. He will open Parliament every year. It is generally understood that he will remain politically neutral.
In this respect, he is similar to the President of the State of Israel. The President does not have a significant political or executive role. In Israel, the ability to pass legislation belongs to the Knesset and executive power is in the hands of the Prime Minister. The President awards the Israel Prize on Yom Ha’atzmaut and he serves as the main speaker at the opening ceremonies of the half-yearly Knesset conference, as well as at the annual official ceremonies for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hashoah. It is generally understood that the President will remain politically neutral and that is why President Herzog has emerged as someone who has tried to bring together the two political sides on judicial reform in Israel as a non-partisan mediator.
What, then, is the value of the King of England and the President of the State of Israel? Unity. The King of England and the President of the State of Israel act as a focus for national identity, unity and pride. We live in a heightened politicized world where we vigorously advocate for our political positions. There is value to this endeavor. Often our advocacy is an expression of chesed and/or tikkun olam when we advocate for policies that we believe will improve the lives of our society. But as we know all too well, the constant passionate advocacy can result in the deterioration of civil discourse, and feelings of anger, hatred and feelings that we are a nation divided. I would argue that the primary role of the King of England and the President of the State of Israel is to counteract that notion. The primary role is to remind us that, at the end of the day, what unites us far exceeds that which divides us. That is certainly a Torah value, one that we must passionately pursue. We can pursue that value by supporting and respecting the symbolic but critical position of the English monarch.