Opening Speech Dr. Weissman

For the past several years, I have opened the annual ICCJ conferences by mentioning my own family connections with the city or at least the country in which we’re meeting. For the first time, I can honestly say I have no family connections to the UK in general or to Manchester in particular. On the other hand, coming to this country definitely resembles a homecoming for anyone from the English-speaking world. But even beyond the English--speaking world, Great Britain is a cradle of democracy and human rights, from the time of the Magna Carta.

As we shall see very shortly, it is also a cradle of inter-religious dialogue. We are here to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Council of Christians and Jews, going back to the difficult days of the Second World War.  I also want to mention that we have another member organization in this country, the Three Faiths Forum, which is now marking its 15th anniversary.

Since I’ve never been to Manchester before, I had to do some research about the history of the city, which I knew about before mainly through its status as a football super-power and its mention in the musical, “Hair.” It turns out that this is the world’s first industrialized city, with the world’s first RR station. Scientists first split the atom here and developed the first programmable computer. An interesting connection with Manchester is Chaim Weizmann, who taught at the university here and later became first president of Israel. Appropriately, Manchester is twinned with Rehovot in Israel, which is the venue for the Weizmann Institute of Science. Finally, I was happy to learn that two important rock groups from my youth--Herman’s Hermits and the BeeGees—originated from Manchester. Of course, it’s not Liverpool and the Beatles, but it’s close. Other famous Mancunians have included writers Anthony Burgess and Howard Jacobson, diplomat David Lloyd George, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, and, of course, opium-eater Thomas de Quincey.

This is a great year for a great country. First, you celebrated the 60th jubilee of Queen Elizabeth.  Later this summer you will host the Olympics. An, in between, the ICCJ conference. Thanks—in the booklet. Too many names.  But I do want to say a word about the theme of the conference.
The question of social responsibility goes back to the first brothers on earth, according to our shared Biblical narrative. Cain asks in the 4th chapter of Genesis, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Religious communities respond resoundingly in the affirmative. In English, we can play on the words "brothers and others." In Hebrew, the word for brother is "ach" and the word for other is "acher." Interestingly, the Hebrew word for responsibility is "achrayut." (All of these words are from the same root.)

 I have a favorite Midrash, a rabbinic interpretation of a Biblical text. I have used it before, but I don’t think I’ve ever used it at an ICCJ conference: Twice in the Torah—once in Leviticus 11 and once in Deuteronomy 14—we find a list of nonkosher birds. Among those listed is the chassida, the stork. It would appear that the name of this bird is derived from the word chessed, “lovingkindness.” Our great medieval biblical commentator Rashi, following the Midrash, asks, “Why is the bird called chassida? Because it performs acts of chessed by sharing its food with other storks.” It took hundreds of years for the next logical question to be addressed; namely, then why isn’t it Kosher? This question was asked in the 19th century by the Gerer Rebbe known as Chiddushei HaRim. The answer he gave: “Because it performs acts of chessed by sharing its food with other storks. Only with other storks.”

In this short parable we have the strength and the weakness of communities; we have the dilemma of particularism and universalism. Strong particularistic communities do chessed towards members of their own group, but how do they relate to outsiders, who may be members of other communities? Or even to those “rare birds,” who are not or not yet members of any particular community. This is the educational challenge we have today: to develop proud young people, grounded in their own particular culture, who will not be like the storks, but like human beings who can shown compassion and concern for members of other communities, as well.

But we should conclude with a quotation or two from the English tradition—in the 17th century, John Donne wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself…therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” And several hundred years later, Winston Churchill said:” The price of greatness is responsibility. “I wish us all a great conference.