12 September 2011 09:00 | Residenz, Kaisersaal
The Spirit of Assisi: 25 years of history by Oded Wiener
At the gathering held 25 years ago in Assisi, Italy, the late Pope John Paul II envisioned intense worldwide activity over a period of many years aimed at strengthening interreligious and international understanding in order to increase peace in the world and encourage acts of charity and kindness for all the poor and needy of the world.
As always, the community of Sant’Egidio stood at the forefront and was the first to volunteer to take this important human and humanitarian challenge upon itself. And although the community of Sant’Egidio is not large in size, what led to its success in realizing the Pope’s vision and in recreating the special spirit of Assisi is the quality of its members and their great devotion to the concept and the ideal.
This important conference, by its very existence, expresses the desire that we all share to use dialogue to bring about a good, exalted and better world, in which the spirit has the upper hand – and violence, aggression and force have no part. Naturally, these subjects fit in well with the historic spirit of Assisi.
Man is obliged as a human being to behave in a manner that dignifies the image and spirit of G-d within him, and the image and spirit of G-d in his fellow man. Whatever his religion and his opinions, whatever his nationality, man is first and foremost a human being made in G-d’s image, and must treat his fellow humans accordingly.
The Mishna and the Gemara in tractate Sanhedrin teach us several truths in this context: "Man was created as a single individual to teach us that anyone who destroys a single life is as though he destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a single life is as though he saved an entire world," since the entire world and its contents were created from Adam, who was a single individual.
"And also for the sake of peace among mankind, so that no person should say to another, 'My father was greater than your father' – since everyone is descended from Adam.
"A single man was created to show the greatness of G-d, for a man stamps many coins from a single die, and they are all alike, but the King of Kings has stamped every man with the die of Adam, yet not one of them is like his fellow. Just as their faces differ, so do their opinions – and all are made by the Creator and are his children."
Abraham was the father of modern human civilization; he was a man of charity, faith, vision and action, whose tent was always open in all four directions to feed the hungry and needy regardless of their religion or views, thereby drawing all people closer to their Father in heaven.
This is apparently the reason that the Almighty decided to choose Abraham to lead forth all of humanity.
In this regard the late Pope John Paul II declared "as the children of Abraham we are called to be a blessing to the world. In order to be so, we must first be a blessing to one another."
The task of the believers, and particularly of the religious leaders, who should be the world's compass and conscience, is to criticize and condemn any injustice. They must not leave political leaders and heads of countries to their own devices and allow them to sink into apathy. They should hunt down and bring to justice terrorists who in the name of G-d or of religion murder innocent people and undermine the divine universal order.
Religious leaders and their views are of unique importance and strongly influence the inter-religious mosaic. At many events, we have found that where politicians and statesmen have failed, religious leaders have succeeded in inflaming or calming down various groups. The religious leaders, can encourage dialogue, educate, teach, influence, bring people closer and achieve positive results in these areas.
The emphasis of course must be on the formal – and primarily the informal – educational frameworks, where religious leaders have great influence.
There is a wonderful essay by the late Rabbi Kook, the founder of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, on the subject of dialogue and peace. The main idea expressed there is that just as the beauty of the melody in a choir or an orchestra does not come from identical voices but rather from the dissimilar and varied voices that join in harmony together – in the same way universal truth, dialogue and peace will be constructed from diverse thoughts and perspectives, from varying opinions and methods, all of which have a place and importance in the harmony of life. And it is this very uniting of forces, contrasts and opposites that endows dialogue for peace with added strength, beauty and perfection.
True and comprehensive peace encompasses all circles of life, one’s home and family, one’s social circles, the members of one’s people and all the peoples of the world with one another.
Rabbi Meir Simchah of Dvinsk pointed out that the vision of the end of days of the Prophet Isaiah, as we all know and of which we all dream: “And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid” has in fact already been fulfilled.
During the time of the flood, all the animals mentioned in this prophecy along with all the animals on earth lived together for an entire year, without any animal harming any other. If so, then, this does not appear to be so difficult after all.
However, during the flood, peace among the animals themselves and with human beings was an artificial peace, forced upon them because of a common enemy – the flood that threatened to destroy them all. The ark was the only refuge where they could be saved and consequently, for lack of any other alternative, they lived in peace.
However, the peace that we strive and yearn for, the peace that the prophet Isaiah envisioned, is different. We do not want our peace and togetherness to be based on fear, fear of unbridled terrorism that lashes out and attacks innocents, women, children and babes – carried out in the name of G-d and religion, or because we fear mad rulers who possess weapons of mass destruction and who have the ability to destroy us and anyone else in the world that does not agree with them.
The darkness and the violence cannot be chased away with sticks, certainly not with knives and guns. A little light repels much darkness! The light of faith and the light of positive action on the part of religious leaders, as a living and dignified personal example, will help chase away the darkness and the evil in our world.
This is in fact the spirit of Assisi, and this is the path and the way of life that the community of Sant’Egidio has emblazoned on its banner. For us, this dialogue is especially important and apt, because as the late Pope John Paul II described it, Christianity's relationship with Judaism is "unique and unlike the relationship that Christianity has to any other religion".
We may say that the Jewish-Christian dialogue is essential for overcoming bigotry and prejudice.
We deeply appreciate and esteem the community of Sant’Egidio for its work, in its marches in Europe to commemorate the Holocaust and the visits by its members to Yad Vashem every time they visit in Israel. Their concern for world peace and for the weak and needy is their constant priority, and this gathering highlights these important activities.
If the message that emerges from here today is the vital need for mutual respect and understanding among the peoples of the world, it will be of tremendous value and will help usher in the fulfillment of the messianic vision to which I have referred. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation and they shall not learn war anymore… and the Earth shall be full of knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the seas.’
Director General of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel