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World Religions in Assisi with Pope Francis

Memory of the Poor

The Everyday Prayer

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September 7 2009 09:30 | Franciscan Convent – Hall A


Oded Wiener

Former General Director of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel


I have had the privilege of participating in several conferences organized by the Sant'Edigio community, and there is no question of their significant contribution to awareness and understanding among religions and to the advancement of world peace, and the value of the life through productive dialogue and individual face-to-face meetings between leaders of the various religions.

In this important conference, which by its very existence expresses the desire that we all share to bring about a good, exalted and better world, in which the spirit and the value of life has the upper hand – and violence, aggression and force have no part.

Before and beyond the desire for a better world that is free of violence, there is a common denominator that unifies all of us gathered here today, and that is: the belief in one G-d, and the knowledge that man is not an independent, unrestrained creature, one that is free of limitations and criticism. Not at all.

Lets look into our common roots and see together what essential lessons we derive from them .

We believers know that it is no coincidence that man was born in the form as we know it. Man was created "in the image of G-d" as the Bible describes him immediately at the beginning of the creation of man.

"And G-d created man in His own image, in the image of G-d created He him." What is the meaning of the idea that man was created "in the image of G-d"? It means that we can see in every person a kind of likeness of the Creator.

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 God, 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."

The description of humanity’s origin is designed to make every individual aware of their own worth, as someone created in G-d's image, so that they will preserve and nurture this worth.

These things are of tremendous importance, with implications for man's obligation as a human being to behave in a manner that dignifies the holiness of life, 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, and must treat his fellow humans accordingly.

Moreover, the Bible also shows us how important the actions of a religious leader can be in the influence he can have on his flock, his generation or even the entire world.

Abraham, the father of modern human civilization, 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.

The value of human life is a major and essential component of Judaism. In the Bible, we can see how the value of human life is cherished and this is a theme that runs throughout all the Scriptures like a scarlet thread.

Already at the beginning of Genesis, after the flood, G-d makes a covenant with humanity, and once again repeats the commandment that appears earlier in the chapter of creation: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land,” and the Almighty stresses: “And surely the blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it; and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man's brother, will I require the life of man. Whoever sheds a man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God did He make man. And you, be fruitful, and multiply; teem in the earth, and multiply therein.” (Genesis 9: 5-7).

The unique importance and value of human life are explicit and unambiguous as is the punishment that is to be meted out to whoever takes a human life. And of course, in the Ten Commandments – which serve as the foundation that underlies all the monotheistic religions – we have been commanded “Thou shall not murder.”

The prophets repeatedly reiterate and emphasize the value of human life and the importance of safeguarding it at every opportunity, since it is for life that the world was created; and they vehemently condemn all murderers.

Jewish law underscores the value and sanctity of human life in every aspect. For example, despite the enormous importance of the sanctity of the Sabbath and the strict requirement to observe it, Jewish law permits, even requires, the violation of the Sabbath’s sanctity in order to save people if their lives are in danger. For example, if people may be trapped in a building that has collapsed, even if there is no certainty that there are any survivors in the debris, we must make every effort in order to save them, even if it involves violating the sanctity of the Sabbath.

The same legal situation exists for a terminally ill patient: We are required to do whatever we can to save such a patient, even if we know that he will survive only for a short time more. Moreover, anyone who carries out any action to speed up the death of such a person is considered a murderer. Suicide is absolutely forbidden, because life is a gift we have received from the Almighty, the Creator of the universe, and we have no right to take it from anyone, including ourselves.

An underlying principle is that our Torah is the Torah of life – as it says in Leviticus 18:5 – You shall live by them – that is, not die by them, meaning that the value of human life takes precedence over the fulfillment of the commandments. When there is a conflict between these values, it is human life that must take priority.

I would like to bring to your attention the historic meeting between the representatives of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel and world Jewry and the Vatican representatives. At the beginning of the discussion, we acknowledged that the basis for our ongoing dialogue must be truthfulness and honesty.

We take into account our different traditions and respect each other in our otherness. We feel the call to proclaim testimony to the One G d in the world and we are willing to cooperate in fostering common religious values, peace with truth and love.

Concerning our issue, I will now present two of the most important resolutions with a major historic and moral importance.
The sanctity of human life
Human life is unique and of the highest value in our world. Any attempt to destroy human life must be rejected, and every common effort should be made, in order to promote human rights, solidarity among all human beings, respect for freedom of conscience.
As religious leaders of faith communities, we have an extraordinary responsibility for the education of our communities and particularly the younger generation to respect the holiness of human life. We should not permit any killing in the name of G d who commands, “Thou shalt not kill”. Fanaticism and violence are an abuse of religion and they contradict faith in G d, the creator of man, who cares for humankind and created it.  No religious leader can condone terrorism anywhere in the world. We should all unite our energies towards the construction of a better world for life, brotherhood, justice, peace and love among all.

So we see that those who favor dialogue and peace should respond positively to any idea, opinion or emotion without arrogance and negating the other. They see the good and positive in every person, nation and ethnic group.

It is important to emphasize that the role of people of faith and especially religious leaders is to be the moral compass and conscience of the world, to emphasize the precious value of life and awaken mankind with an outcry at any killings, injustice or evil, not to allow political and national leaders to sink into apathy; they must condemn and hunt down terrorists who in the name of G-d or religion murder innocents and undermine the divine order in the world. Only a firm, immediate and unequivocal response will deter these people from carrying out their evil plans.

Unfortunately we saw during the terrible time of the Holocaust when we went “through the valley of the shadow of death” to what depths the so-called enlightened world sank, when the extermination of the entire Jewish people, men women and children, was planned with cruel, cold and meticulous calculation. The Nazis succeeded in killing millions of our people only because they did not belong to that supposedly superior Aryan race. It is therefore our obligation to thank the leaders of the Sant’Edigio conference for organizing this year’s ‘Prayer for peace’ here in Krakow, and concluding it with the memorial ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau to remind the world that the disregard of human life leads to the most terrible disasters. The Holocaust must never be forgotten!!! All of humanity must remember it forever, and never forget.

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. 

If we remember that “we are all the sons of one man”, and if “each person will help his fellow man and strengthen his brother,” then the prophecy of Isaiah “they shall beat their swords into plowshare, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” will be fulfilled.

Oded Wiener
Director General
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel

Cracow 2009

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The Everyday Prayer