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Why Queen Elizabeth mattered

It turns out we needed a queen all along.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II visits the set of the long-running television series

(RNS) — For a patriarchal religion, you must admit Judaism does not lack for feminine images, typologies and role models.

Even when they seem to be redundant and/or contradictory.

This occurred to me several weeks ago, during Friday evening services. As we were entering Shabbat, we sang two traditional hymns. Both of them featured imaginary women in starring roles.

First, we sang the classic Shabbat evening hymn, Lecha Dodi.” “Beloved, come, and let us greet the Shabbat bride.” These were the words, penned by the Safed mystic, Shlomo Alkabetz, who actually embedded his own name as an acrostic into the verses of the song.

Here, Shabbat is a bride. At the end of the song, just as you would do at a traditional wedding, the congregation rises, turns toward the sanctuary entrance and, with a bow, welcomes the invisible bride.

But, wait. Right after that, we sang an almost equally famous hymn, “Ha-chamah mei-rosh.” In the words of the Hebrew literary giant, Bialik: “The sun on the tree tops no longer is seen. Come let us welcome the Sabbath, our Queen.”

Shabbat is a queen because you must show deference to her and obey her.

First, it was Shabbat as bride. Now, it’s Shabbat as queen. Which is it?

The answer: both. Both bride and queen, manifestations of the Divine Presence. Both of them aspects of God. Both of them mythical memories of ancient goddesses.

Shabbat is both a bride and a queen, because the way you relate to a bride is very different from the way you relate to a queen.

You go to a wedding, and you are able to talk to the bride. You might even hug her, kiss her and dance with her.

That’s the bride. But, the queen is different.

Try as I might, I cannot give up my thing about the royals. I watched the Netflix series “The Crown” all the way through — twice.

But, one of my favorite cinematic excursions into royalty is “The Queen.” It is about the annus horribilis, the horrible year in which Princess Diana died in that infamous automobile accident in Paris.

The English people are grieving terribly. In their grief, they no longer want the traditional stiff upper lip of the monarchy. There are many who are not even so sure they want the monarchy. They want the queen to be with them in their grief — which literally means they want the queen to grieve with them over this terrible loss. They want her to express ordinary human feelings — even if those feelings are laced with appropriate ambivalence about the broken relationship that preceded Diana’s unhappy and untimely death.

They not only want the queen. They want their mother.

My favorite scene is the one in which Prime Minister Tony Blair must prepare himself for his first meeting with Queen Elizabeth. He must review the entire protocol — where to stand, how to stand, how to bow, what to call her (at first meeting), what to call her subsequently.

In “The King’s Speech,” speech therapist Lionel Logue takes personal liberties with the soon-to-be King George VI, whom he calls by his nickname “Bertie” — a name reserved only for Bertie’s family members. Logue tells Bertie he could very well be a good king — to which the royal responds, “That’s very close to treason!” Mrs. Logue gets a quick tutorial by Queen Mary on how to address a queen: You start with “your majesty,” and then it’s ma’am, which really is supposed to come out as “mum.”

The bride? No rules. The queen? Rules.

So, that’s Judaism. Bride and queen.

The bride nature of Shabbat is about delight. “I enjoy Shabbat.”

The queen nature of Shabbat is about rules. “I obey the laws of Shabbat.” 

It turns out you need both — in whatever mixture you choose.

So, let’s talk about monarchy.

America rejected a king in 1776. We find the idea of kings and queens to be quaint but irrelevant, perhaps even dangerous. Most kings and queens in the world today have only symbolic power. 

So, why do we love the royals? Because symbolic power is real power. Because it symbolizes.

Because it turns out we have not entirely cast off our desire for a queen. Perhaps the roots are ancient and mythical, but they are there.

There is something within us that still wants, and needs, a queen. (Even more, I daresay, than we want and need a king.)

As the world says farewell to Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history, we remember a woman who served, in many ways, as a maternal and grandmotherly presence to her subjects, and to the world itself. Not always perfectly, of course — as any human mother or grandmother might also, invariably, fail.

We remember a life well-lived, a great and generous heart — and a woman who had the same kind of family chaos and issues we all have.

Moreover, we remember a woman who, for all the traditional rules and protocols, broke those rules and protocols in one memorable moment.

On January 27, 2005 — the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — the Queen welcomed a large group of Holocaust survivors to St. James Palace.

The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks would recall that when the time came for her to leave, she didn’t. Rather, she stayed far beyond the time the schedule had allotted. She gave each survivor her full, undivided attention. She listened to each one, until that person had finished telling his or her own story.

Perhaps at that moment, she was remembering the legacy of her mother-in-law, Princess Alice of Battenberg.

Princess Alice had a life that was both tragic and transcendent. Congenitally deaf, she was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. She became a nun, lived in Athens and sheltered Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. Yad Va Shem named her as among the righteous among the nations, and she is buried in Jerusalem.

Within a few short weeks, Jews shall once again encounter the God who is simultaneously “avinu” and “Malcheinu,” father and king, a loving parent and distant sovereign.

No, not so distant. For in Jewish lore, that “king” is loving and kind and accessible as well.

Some liturgists would render it: “Our Mother, Our Queen.”

Now you see why that might, indeed, work.

I shall never forget praying at a synagogue in London and coming to the traditional prayer for the government, and praying with the congregation for “Our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, and all the Royal Family, her advisers and her counsellors.”

Sweetly done, as I recall — and with great love.

May Queen Elizabeth rest in peace. As for her son and heir, King Charles III, may God save the king.

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