Former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, AJC, Israel
Remarks of Chief Rabbi David Rosen at the opening session of the
Sant Egidio Meeting, Krakow, September 2009
I am honored to be part of his illustrious dais and it is always a joy to be with my brothers and sisters of the community of Saint Egidio,
Moreover, being in Krakow is always special for me personally, as it is where I have roots; as I am descended from Rabbi Moses Isserles, known here as the Remu – probably Krakow's greatest rabbinical luminary and indeed among Ashkenazi Jewry as a whole. He epitomizes the Jewish learning, religious piety and intellectual creativity that Krakow once knew.
That history in itself is significant. To a degree, the tragedy of the Shoah has eclipsed much knowledge of the history of creativity and cooperation that was experienced in Poland and particularly in Krakow.
When other monarchs of Europe treated Jews as an anathema, King Casimir the Great opened up the borders of the Polish Kingdom for them. Because of him and members of Jagiellonian dynasty ruling at the Wawel Castle for the next two centuries, Poland and particularly the Jewish town he founded and which bears his name – Krakow's Kazimierz – became one of the most , if not the most important religious and cultural centres of the Jewish Diaspora.
This Jagiellonian tradition of Polish identity, friendly towards peoples of other faith and origin, influenced John Paul II, as testified in his book Memory and Identity, published in the last year of his life. Recalling the 1930s, just before the outbreak of World War II, he wrote:
A further element of great importance in the ethnic composition of Poland was the presence of Jews. I remember that at least a third of my classmates at elementary school in Wadowice were Jews. At secondary school they were fewer. With some I was on very friendly terms. And what struck me about some of them was their Polish patriotism. Fundamental to the Polish spirit, then, is multiplicity and pluralism, not limitation and closure. It seems, though, that the "Jagiellonian" dimension of the Polish spirit, mentioned above, has sadly ceased to be an evident feature of our time.
(And in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II stated:
In the course of its millennial history, Poland has been a state of many nationalities, many religions – mostly Christian, but not only Christian. This tradition has been and still is the source of a positive aspect of Polish culture, namely its tolerance and openness toward people who think differently, who speak other languages, or who believe, pray, or celebrate the same mysteries of faith in a different way.)
However, we may say that the Jew uniquely embodied the other in the course of history of this land and city (as in many other places) and the condition of the Jews served here as elsewhere as a litmus test of the health or disease of society at large.
As mentioned, the evil of anti-Semitism and the tragedy of the Shoah has often obscured the positive aspects of Krakow's history.
However, in our times Krakow has once again personified the triumph of hope and of religious humanism, especially in the person of John Paul II who was the great hero of not only of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, but of interfaith dialogue at large.
Pope Paul VI called dialogue "a new name of love" and Pope John Paul II embodied that spirit. It is, therefore, appropriate that we should celebrate this spirit – the spirit of Assisi – here in Krakow.
This time of the year is a special time for many of us. For Muslims, we are in the holy month of Ramadan.
For Jews, it is the month of Elul, preparing us for the solemn high holy days.
It is also the period of the seven Sabbaths of comfort that preceed the Hebrew new year, rosh Hashanah.
In synagogue during these Sabbaths, we read passages from the prophet Isaiah – from chapter 40 to 61 – reassuring the people of Israel of God’s eternal love and fidelity that would bring them back again to their land and enable them to rebuild their national religious life.
However this messianic vision is not an exclusivist one. This messianic vision is a vision of Universal peace, when “many nations will go up unto the mountain of the Lord” “nation will not lift up sword against nation and they shall learn war no more”.
In this messianic Age, the prophet envisages that "the wolf will dwell with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the kid" (Isaiah 11v.6).
For Maimonides this image is a metaphor for the nations of humanity - the strong dwelling in peace with those who are weaker.
Many of you will be familiar with the comment of Rabbi Meir Simchah of Dwinsk on this verse. He pointed out that this vision is not new and had already taken place in Noah's ark when all the animals had dwelt together in peace. However, he noted that that was when they had no choice as they were all threatened with destruction by the flood. The vision of Isaiah on the other hand is one in which we all live together out of choice: out of respect and love for one another.
This indeed is the spirit of Assisi: the spirit of Sant’Egidio. However, those who are not ready yet for this vision should still feel bound to live in peace with one another, no less than the animals in Noah's ark, for there is no shortage of danger in our world that threatens us – war, disease, hunger, global warming, environmental destruction – and above all, the loss of spiritual and moral values.
Yet, it is the vision of Isaiah that gives us the greatest hope vision for the future and it was a son of Krakow who led us so remarkably towards that vision – may it be fulfilled speedily in our days. Amen