I am amazed that so many Americans are enamored with the British Monarchy and with its least impressive of its scions who hog the headlines precisely because of their limitations. How interesting that so many royals are seduced by actresses!
When I was the Principal of Carmel College in 1973, we hosted Prince Charles for the day to celebrate our 25th anniversary. He was surprisingly impressive in the professional way he went through the school, asking questions as if he really cared, making everyone feel he was interested, unfailingly gallant, and dignified, tolerating all the fawning sycophants with restraint and bonhomie. When he spoke in the evening he delivered an amusing, if juvenile, collection of his schoolboy memories at Gordonstoun. Most of the humor revolved around girls. Nevertheless, I thought he acquitted himself very well. A few years later when I met the Queen, she too was very professional. But she seemed uninterested when I told how well her son had done and only livened up when I said that I had seen her horse win at Ascot. Since then, Prince Charles has lost much of his luster and the queen has battled on, unflustered by her family’s disasters.
Growing up in the UK we tended to dismiss the Royal family as symbols of a bygone age, wheeled out to inspect factories and schools, bestow “gongs” and support charities. Functions they admittedly excelled at. Now they are interesting historical footnotes laid bare in documentaries and fantasies on our screens. They are part of the social media network of notorious, vapid celebrities, influencers, internet puffery, and commercialism (not to mention politicians). Rewarded for being materialist, humanoids of little intrinsic quality.
Kings and queens were once regarded as gods. But in the Bible, they were subject to the constitution of the Torah and are shown in all their venality and corruption, as much as their very occasional morality and spirituality. It was the rabbis of the Talmud who allowed kings extra-judicial power over life and death. The Romans invested their Emperors with Divinity which the Christian Popes then arrogated to themselves.
The idea of the Divine Right of Kings justified all kinds of horrors perpetrated on humanity all over the world. Richard the Lionheart claimed he ruled by heavenly approval Dieu et Mon Droit (It is God who gives me the right to rule). This remains the motto of the British Royal Family to this day. The English started chipping away at their power with the Magna Carta in 1215. From there it progressed through civil wars to decapitating Charles 1st. Protestantism undermined it to weaken the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope. In more remote parts of the world, their magical powers survived for longer. The record of kings and absolute monarchies has been more baleful than beneficial. This is why nowadays most of us prefer democracies ( unless you are Chinese). Yet monarchs persist as symbols, whose main value is display, ceremony, and tourism. Monarchs may have their uses.
Presidents, on the other hand, have tended to be no better. Either cruel autocrats or incompetent individuals. As for Chairmen, most of them are Marxist disasters who chair nothing other than their own backsides. There is no perfect system of government or rule. By nature, we humans are fractious and selfish (with rare exceptions). Chaos is the air we breathe.
So why do we Jews still ask in our formal daily prayers that God should restore a Davidic monarchy? The Bible itself is ambivalent. Deuteronomy says
“If you want to appoint a king to be like the other nations around, you may appoint a king, one chosen by the LORD your God … and when he is seated on his royal throne, he shall write down a copy of the Torah… so that he will respect God and not become haughty or turn away from the law.” (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
Maimonides, thousands of years later claims it was a Torah obligation to appoint a king. Abarbanel and his supporters claimed it was an option. And that’s how I prefer to see it.
The text goes on to say that a king should not amass too much money, wives, or horses ( read chariots or arms) because all these will deflect him from doing the right thing. As we know, King Solomon did all these three and argued that he was too wise to allow himself to be misled. This is why it is said that the Torah avoids giving reasons for its commandments because here, in the one case that it does, even as wise a man as Solomon proved that his confidence in his mental capacity was fallible.
But if the Torah approves of a monarchy, why did Samuel object when they asked him to appoint a king because his sons were not up to taking over from him?
“The elders of Israel assembled and came to Samuel at Ramah, and they said to him, you have grown old, and your sons have not followed your ways. Therefore, appoint a king for us, to govern us like all other nations… Samuel was displeased that they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to God and God replied to Samuel, “Listen to what the people say to you. For it is not you that they have rejected; it is Me they have rejected as their king. First Samuel 8:4-7
One of the most common themes that the Torah repeats is the phrase “do not be like the nations around you.” Then why here do the people repeat that they want a king specifically to be like the surrounding nations and God seems to agree?
If Samuel knew the Torah had said one could appoint a king, why did he object? And why did God say that this was a rejection of God not of Samuel? There is an obvious contradiction here. All the more so since the Torah has said that the king’s family could inherit the role. The record shows that heredity rarely works. Neither the sons of Moses nor Samuel followed in their parents’ footsteps and more Israelite kings were pagan than God-fearing. And we won’t talk about priests.
The Torah offers a range of different examples of authority and governance, kings, judges, priests, tribal elders, and divinely ordained like Moses and Joshua. I can only explain this by suggesting that on matters spiritual and legal, one should not imitate the other nations but be true to our own values. However, when it comes to science, technology, or methods of administration and governance then indeed one can and should look around.
One should be flexible enough to choose what system works best, whether it is more socialist or capitalist, and if democratic, in what way and to what degree? Or hybrids. Because no two systems are the same. We should not be afraid to change. To jettison what does not work and adapt to a different model as time and circumstances demand. Is good housekeeping. No human system can be perfect. Certainly, neither monarchy, democracy, nor autocracy. Wherever I look I see imperfection. Yet people seem reluctant to throw out the old. When the governing system does not work as it should or treat its citizens with respect, we should either try to get it to change or be ready to move on. And frankly, I think the Queen does a far better job than President Biden, but then they do have different job specifications.