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Megxit, a Very Jewish Story

A boychik abandoning his grandmother’s ancient tradition for a new and exciting life outside the fold? Philip Roth could’ve written that story.

Liel Leibovitz
January 15, 2020
Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex on January 7, 2020 in London, England.DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex on January 7, 2020 in London, England.DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS - WPA Pool/Getty Images

These last couple of days, I’ve been obsessing over a story in the news. It’s about a young man who grew up in a very traditional household, one with very specific and onerous customs that go back hundreds of years if not more. The whole observance felt stifling to him; he’s a fan-loving lad. And then, he meets a woman: beautiful, vivacious, and as far removed from his insular and small circle as you could imagine. With her came promises of a life far freer: He could follow her away from home, shed the bothersome rituals he’d found so boring, and pursue nothing but his own exquisite pleasures.

He is, of course, Prince Harry, but he might as well have been every character in every Philip Roth novel ever written, the young male who marries outside the faith and relishes in removing himself from the airless quarters of the family and the Old Religion to which it still, for some strange reason, adheres. Take away the crown and Frogmore Cottage and the other machinations of the monarchy, and Sussex may very well be a Stein by any other name.

Which means that Queen Elizabeth is now learning the same lesson that had stung many a bubbeh, the painful realization that modernity is a mighty force that imperils any and all tradition, no matter how deeply rooted and fabulously endowed.

It is, of course, not a very new story. Leaping into life in 1894, Tevye the Milkman was already endowed with regrets; his way of life, he fretted, was being gnawed at by outside forces beyond his control, and his daughters swept away by outsiders with shiny visions for the future. John of Gaunt would’ve commiserated: He lived in the late 1300s, and when Shakespeare brought him to life two hundred years later, in Richard II, he delivered a timeless lament about England’s constant decline. “This royal throne of kings,” he howled, “this scepter’d isle… This little world, this precious stone set in the silver sea, which serves it in the office of a wall, or as a moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands” has now made a “shameful conquest of itself.” The English used to stand alone and apart; now, John kvetched, they were becoming ordinary, abandoning the zeal and the devotion that had made them unique.

Any rabbi in America might’ve delivered the same speech. And any president of any Jewish federation likely tried, as have the Windsors, to bring the franchise up to date. The family that had once resided in a mist of heavenly mysteries, ruling by divine order and inaccessible to any but the few and the fortunate, now communicates with the tabloids via PR flacks and opines on Twitter under the handle @Royalfamily. You can hardly blame Harry for sounding less like a prince and more like a Silicon Valley dudebro quitting his startup—all that talk of making transitions within the institution and “collaborating” with the Queen, as if she wasn’t Her Royal Highness but simply Lizzie from HR.

And so, Harry’s off the derech now. You may empathize with his frustrations, and even more so with those of his wife, who has had to endure more than her share of calumny, some it likely racially motivated. But none of that changes the picture in any fundamental way. Seen from the outside, the royal family, like the Jews, is small, stubborn, and senseless. Why insist on so much ceremony when the world has moved on to newer and cooler things? Why engage in prescribed charity work when you could be doing voiceovers for Disney? Why demand fealty to the family when everything outside your palace, from children’s books to graduate courses, insists that one must always be embracing and letting the whole world in?

There are, as the Windsors are now coming to realize, no good answers to these questions. And there is no Reform royalty. The Queen may take away Harry and Meghan’s titles, but when you call yourself the Firm, as the royal family reportedly does, you’re bound to learn that there are always bigger, richer, and more powerful firms out there happy to snatch away your prince. Instead, Buckingham Palace should look at any half-empty shul as a cautionary tale, and understand this: You can spend all the money in the world and you’re still not going to be able to buy continuity. If you want your values to live on, you have to live them fully and passionately and without reservations. You have to show your kids, not tell them, that the joys far outnumber the constrictions. You have to instill a sense of pride, not just duty.

These are guttural, instinctual sentiments. They’re not likely to occur naturally to someone as reserved and removed as Queen Elizabeth, who had thrived for so long precisely because she placed herself and her family in a carefully controlled bubble that is neither irritating nor particularly inspiring. To keep Harry—and, quite possibly, the future of the monarchy—the Queen should now make a passionate argument about why Britain needs a sovereign anyway. This argument shouldn’t be rational: It should draw much on the incomprehensible magic of yore, on those beliefs that move so many of her subjects yet fail to succumb to the harsh logic of balance sheets and pros-and-cons lists. She should set the young prince free while simultaneously showing him, and us, better reasons than money and titles to want to dedicate his life to this larger cause. Chabad has done all of this very well; the Windsors, too, can follow suit.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.