Prince William, the second-in-line to the British throne and its future heir, visited the Western Wall of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem Thursday. His visit was the first official visit by a member of Britain’s royal family to Israel, and his appearance at the Kotel has enormous significance. So did the earlier visit of Donald Trump, the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Kotel. The two heads of state of the English-speaking world thus acknowledged the undying connection of the living Jewish people to the ancient Jewish Temple, as well as the State of Israel’s sovereignty over Judaism’s most holy site. This is of such high moment that no American head of state ventured to do so before.
The prince and the president did more than validate Israel’s claim to its holy sites in Jerusalem, though. They came not only as rulers but as pilgrims, offering prayers at the retaining wall of the Mount on which the Temple once stood. By doing so they did homage to the most importance pillar of Western governance, namely that government itself depends on a sense of the sacred.
What makes governments legitimate? What makes it possible for a nation-state to rise above the mere affinity of tribe and clan and assert its permanence as home and refuge of its people? What entitles it to inflict violence on those at home or abroad who would harm it, and require of its youth that they shed blood in its defense? In one form or another the nation-state must embody a sense of the sacred, by which I mean the aspiration to eternity that makes possible our individual hope of transcending earthly existence, and in extreme conditions takes precedence even over the bonds of family.
In an essay for the London journal Standpoint earlier this year I argued that Britain and the United States, mother country and daughter, embody a sense of the sacred in different ways. In America the locus of sanctity is the individual, an extension of the Protestant belief that every individual receives revelation directly from Scripture without mediation; in Anglican Britain, the monarchy is the locus of the sacred. As I wrote in Standpoint:
The sanctity of the British Constitution is embodied in the monarch, who is anointed in emulation of the ancient kings of Israel for this reason. The sanctity of the sovereign rises above race; Elizabeth II reigns in Barbados as well as in Birmingham. The rites and rituals of the monarchy infuse Britain’s popular culture. Popular support for the monarchy bespeaks a perception that it protects the rights of Britons against the prospective tyranny of passing parliamentary majorities, by incorporating the distilled experience of centuries of British political life. The sense of the sacred that Britons attach to their Constitution provides the basis for a wholesome and successful nationalism, without making excuses for sometimes sordid acts undertaken by the British Empire in the past. The monarchy is the filter of Britain’s collective memory through which its people forms its sense of identity.
My revered teacher, the Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod, reminded us that Jews are required to say a blessing upon seeing a monarch: “Blessed are Thou, Lord of the Universe, who has given of his glory to flesh and blood.” The Kings of Israel reigned by the grace of God and under God’s laws, disrespect for which brought a terrible punishment. The kings of Europe who rebuilt the continent after the collapse of Rome and the Dark Ages modeled their monarchies on the Davidic kingdom, under the tutelage of the Church.
The European states were not concocted in the laboratory of liberal political theory. Nor did they arise from mere agglomeration of tribes. Tribal society requires no state. Where it persists, for example in Papua New Guinea, nearly a thousand languages each are spoken by an average of a few thousand people. The European states arose out of the ruins of Rome with a sacred purpose, around monarchies founded in emulation of the biblical kings of Israel: the Merovingians under the guidance of St. Gregory of Tours, the Spanish Visigoths with St. Isidor of Seville, and the kingdom of St. Stephen in Hungary. After the fall of Rome, the Church turned the Germanic, Slavic and Magyar invaders into Christian European kingdoms, as the English historian Father Adrian Hastings showed in his 1996 book The Construction of Nationhood.
As an American I believe that republican government as provided by our Constitution is the best form of government — surely the best for us — but I recognize that the sense of the sacred can be embodied in different ways. Conservatives devote a great deal of thought to Constitutional theory, the plumbing of the American republic; we need to give more thought to what drives the steam through the pipes.
Again, from my Standpoint essay:
The Americans are Hebrews of the imagination; their mother country hopes to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land, and identifies its monarchy in symbolic as well as mythological fashion with the throne of David. Curiously, this divide mirrors a Biblical ambiguity over the desirability of monarchy which persisted through ancient and medieval rabbinic commentaries. Selden and Milton cited rabbinical sources who eschewed monarchy on the strength of I Samuel 8. Yet Jewish redemption is founded on the restoration of the Davidic monarchy. Jewish tradition remains ambivalent on the issue. Michael Wyschogrod proposed to resolve Israel’s difficulty in choosing between secular and religious nationalism through monarchy: Israel’s head of state, now a president, would become instead the regent for an absent king, namely the successor of David who can be identified only by prophecy. All other political functions would remain as they are, but the regent would embody Israel’s messianic hope.
Constitutional monarchy and constitutional republican government are the two great embodiments of free societies in the English-speaking world, and in different ways, both derive their sense of purpose and their ultimate legitimacy from the revelation at Sinai and the ancient kingdom of Israel. The Temple Mount retains the imprint of God’s Indwelling in the world, the shekhinah, for even the destruction of the Temple itself cannot strip the place of its holiness.
I cannot help but think it providential that the heads of state of the two great free societies, Britain and the United States, came as pilgrims to this holy site, for the first time within the same year. May their prayers renew our awareness that our freedom depends not only on human will but on our sense of the sacred.