What the Chief Rabbi could have said about the King’s coronation

Sir Ephraim Mirvis was suitably honoured and delighted to have been made to feel welcome by King Charles. But was there a mischievous subtext to his carefully crafted remarks?

May 11, 2023 12:51

I have long had my suspicions about the Chief Rabbi. First, he’s two years younger than me and no Chief Rabbi should be younger than me. Jonathan Sacks wasn’t and I didn’t anticipate that this would change.

Second, I suspect Sir Ephraim of being a mischievous person. I first wondered about this back in 2016, when reading reports of his fixing a mezuzah at the Cecil Park synagogue in Pinner as part of its 75th anniversary celebrations and his subsequent speech. “This is an incredible event at a historic moment for the community in Pinner,” he is reported as saying. “Pinner, take those wings and fly. The Promised Land lies ahead.” But, to borrow from Lloyd Bentsen, I have been to Pinner and one of my best friends is Baron Finkelstein of Pinner. What lies ahead of Pinner is Watford.

Harbouring these apprehensions about the Chief Rabbi, I felt trebly confirmed in them when I subjected to proper scrutiny the statement he made last week on the occasion of the coronation.

On the face of it, Sir Ephraim couldn’t have been more honoured and delighted that Charles had made his attendance comfortable and his participation possible, right up to accommodating him and his wife at St James’ Palace.

Quite right. The 19th and 20th-century division between palace Jews and burn-the-palace-down Jews was long ago resolved in favour of the former.

Besides which, as any of who were there at Buckingham Palace in December 2019, when the community was at its rawest, to hear the heir to the throne make an excellent speech of appreciation and acceptance, Charles is good on the Jews.

But then Sir Ephraim contrasted his treatment at the hands of Charles with that accorded to the Jews by one of the king’s forebears, Richard the Lionheart, at his coronation in 1189.

The would-be attendees were stripped and flogged and in the subsequent pogrom, Jewish homes were set on fire. Then, on the day itself, even as the sacred oil was being applied with the holy spoon, 30 Jews were murdered, including the most senior rabbi in England. He finished his address with the quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes from the passage beginning “to everything there is a season”.

So what’s so mischievous about all that, some might ask? To which I reply, look at the subtext here, which I’d say runs something like this:

Dear King Charles,

First, thanks for not murdering us on coronation day like your ancestor (your 25-times-great-uncle, to be exact) did. And let’s not forget that 100 years later, his nephew’s son, Edward I, threw us out altogether, confiscating our goods and land and reneging on the debts he owed us.

You, we like. Your ancestors, who are also being celebrated in this ceremony, not so much.
And since there is talk in the air of reparations for others wronged by Imperial Britain, just imagine what the interest on loans due be repaid in 1290 should look like. But note, we’re not asking.

Second, yes the English monarchy goes back a long way, even if it has had to import Dutch princes and Hanoverian dukes to keep it in business. But compared to us, you’re just beginners.

Old? You want to know from old? I mentioned zemirot and Havdalah. That’s old. Maybe bear it in mind with all the “ancient this and ancient that” talk we’ve had to listen to this week.

Third (and related), you’ll notice I quoted from Ecclesiastes, which, I should tell you, was not written by an archbishop or a monk or one of your saints.

Sure, it almost certainly wasn’t written by Solomon either, but it was definitely penned by one of ours, probably several centuries before you-know-who was even supposed to have existed.

And though the sublime passage I quoted is one of the most famous parts of Ecclesiastes, you may remember — as you slip on the golden robe and look out on a sea of ermine, medals and fascinators — how that book begins and ends:

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
“I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house… I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces.
“Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.”

But carpe diem. Have a great day.

Yours subtextually,

Sir Ephraim

May 11, 2023 12:51

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