Ishaya Gisser is an educator, rabbi, spiritual mentor, and editor of books and periodicals in Russian. At present he is in charge of a series of projects at the Lechaim publishing house, and works as a spiritual adviser in the Kiev Jewish community.
Wikipedia says that you’re a spiritual mentor…
That’s my official position. The word “mentor” is a clumsy translation of the concept of “mashpia”. This term literally means a person who influences people who take him seriously.
Accordingly, my task is to influence people so they do not stagnate and do not end up in a spiritual quagmire. In Judaism there is a clear provision that any person who does not develop becomes degraded. It’s like in “Alice in Wonderland”: even to stay in one place, you need to run very fast.
It’s hard to say how many pupils have passed through your hands. Among them are rabbis and community leaders. Could you express the most important thought that you conveyed to them?
I always try to impose a model on people which I believe is the only correct one. You can’t work with people, you must live with people. When you share your own ideas and experience, when you understand yourself and let others understand that you do not differ from them and that you are tormented by the same things, when your words acquire some meaning and weight. This is a way of interacting with people and ensuring that people give your words their trust and attention.
What is the most interesting thing about working as a rabbi?
There are many different kinds of rabbi. When you say the word “rabbi”, you’re not in fact saying anything at all. There are administrator rabbis – managers who work in the organizational sphere. There are rabbis who concentrate on raising funds for their communities. There are teachers of various religious disciplines. There are specialists in legislative spheres. All of these things are absolutely different, they require different abilities, talents and so on. As you can easily guess, this does not show the specific nature of their personalities and work abilities.
If we’re talking about mentorship, which we discussed earlier, for me a huge advantage of my work is that when I communicate with people, I constantly have to think about religious issues. I can’t get tired and relax, because I’m being pushed all the time. This isn’t a question of empathy, but about how to communicate with people and give them answers to questions, I have to think about them myself all the time.
This is not trivial at all. For most people in life, mundane matters crush their soul. People cannot get off the treadmill of their daily activities and concentrate on spiritual matters. But for me this is something that I work on every day.
You were the head of the Odessa community at an interesting time, immediately after the country gained independence…
Not quite. I came to Odessa for the first time in 1988, and after that I went there in the summer of 1989 and stayed there until December 1998. This was the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev, monetary reforms…
It’s clear that this was a period of spiritual resurgence. People could start to visit synagogues freely and study Hebrew. But what was the most difficult thing at that period?
The difficulty of that time was in the instability of the contingent. There was a mass exodus. This was provoked by the high level of interest in everything Jewish, people didn’t understand that Israel is not a country full of Jewish tradition.
On the other hand there were many people who came along several months before Aliyah and began their path. When they had just started to understand something, they left the country, and new people came in their place. This was like living at a train station. It was very difficult to create a core around which a community could start to form. We were able to do this, but it was a true miracle. Later everything started to calm down, the interest dropped, and the contingent became smaller.
At present, 80% of the members of the Jewish community are children of mixed marriages. They have a huge problem with self-identification. And there’s also a big problem with “Jewish sentiment” – the emotional attitude towards Jewishness. Their empathy is less developed, people used to have more of it.
In one interview you said that “Jews must co-exist with the non-Jewish world, but not live in it.” Won’t this approach become another wall between religious and secular Jews who live in the non-Jewish world?
Coexistence doesn’t mean blocking oneself off. I’m sure that you coexist with a large number of neighbors and coworkers, but that doesn’t mean that you share your personal life with them. I didn’t mean alienation and a lack of mutual respect. I mean that you need to understand where the police ends and Benya begins [a quote from an Isaak Babel story from “Odessa Tales” – ed.] Where Jewish life, interest and specifics end, and the layer begins of many interesting and important things, but which are not Jewish. Things that no longer belong to your family and are not related to you as a part of the Jewish community.
Circles form around a person. There is the circle of the family, coworkers, ethnic group, fellow citizens and so on. A normal person has a hierarchy of interests and attitudes to these circles. People don’t feel the same way about their family as they do towards members of other circles, they give it greater priority. This doesn’t mean that people don’t care what happens to others, and that they are absolutely uninvolved. But there is a difference in what happens to your children and to your neighbor’s children.
But how can family members who still don’t realize that they are part of this family be returned to it?
They can only be returned in one case – if people want to have these relatives. But if they don’t want them, you can never return them.
I once explained that the only reliable method I know to ensure that your children follow in your footsteps is to make them like you. If you want your children to grow up as religious Jews, you need to be a person who makes them want to be religious Jews, and to resemble you. This is the only pedagogical method I know to bring up children in the spirit of tradition.
The same thing applies here. God, of course, has his anti-Semitic guard dogs which chase lost sheep back into Jewishnesss, but this happens because of an outside threat, and I don’t like this. A person should return to their family because they want to be among people like themselves. And not only by origin, but by common interests. If a person hides from me, then my calls for brotherly love will be ignored.
When a relative come to ask you about what you are like, you should be prepared to talk to this person.
Do you see prospects in the development of the international movement of the Noahides? Can it become a mass movement?
That’s a terribly difficult question for me. The fact is that we live in a time of change. The last chapters of the book of world history are being written right now. The world is changing, and it is doing so harshly, drastically and irreversibly. This has its pluses and minuses.
The world we are accustomed to is falling apart before our eyes. Everything that seemed an unchanging constant 30 years ago no longer exists today, or is evolving and changing. In this atmosphere, there is a breakdown in the traditional concepts that formed within Judeo-Christian civilization, and Christian civilization is collapsing. And so with an equal degree of probability, an increase an interest in spiritual matters and the search for truth may take place, as well as the search for “decoys”. People may start to run away from questions, and not raise them. And so cults will start to flourish, and ritualization, when no one is interested in the essence, and the form becomes important instead.
We live in a period of crisis. There may be very many possibilities in the development of events. I don’t have an answer to this question.
Why is Christian civilization collapsing?
Because over the last two hundred years, Christianity has not occupied itself with development for the masses, but with populism. At the same time it has been subjected to constant attacks and discrediting from the outside. In order to preserve the congregation in some way, Christianity has become increasing Godless and ritualized, but has not given an answer to intellectual inquiry.
The process of the popularization of Christianity and the process of destructive criticism, combined with the permanent ignorance of the masses, since Christianity has never required an understanding of dogma and theory from the laity, show us that this approach cannot withstand the test of time. Christianity is in a profound crisis…
Pope Francis has been called the greatest friend of the Jews in the history of the Papacy. Why, in your opinion, has the Vatican accepted Judaism as a “permitted path”, and the Jews as a people who can achieve salvation without Christianity?
This is a sign that Christianity, represented by its most thoughtful members, realizes that no child can achieve success by spurning and discrediting their parents. No one acquires glory for trampling on the ones that brought them into the world.
Christianity is an affiliated branch of Judaism and grew on its soil. This is the great calamity and great fortune of Christianity. It is a calamity because Christians have always tried to distance themselves from their parents and call them frail and senile. It is fortunate because Judaism is alive and by its existence shows the genuineness of tradition and God. As the Christians accepted the sacred writings, which they called the “Old Testament”, by their existence the Jews prove that the foundation of Christianity is genuine.
Christians have become wiser, what can you say… it was about time…
Can we say that the time has come to move closer together?
For what reason should we move closer to them? In what sense? Sane people have always been in contact at a personal level. A person for whom the human aspect is an important factor will always find a common language with other people. The amount of good common things that can be shared is without number.
Theologically we have no reason to come closer. If they wish to borrow something in dogma or ritual, then they are quite welcome, we have never hidden our treasures.
Can a similar process take place with Islam?
Islam today is regressing to childhood. Instead of maturity and wisdom, it resorts to violence and infantile teenage hooliganism. With a wise person who has gained experience and is trying to organize their future sensibly, you can reach an agreement and make plans. With people who are hysterical, driven by an inferiority complex and teenage rebellion, there is nothing to agree upon. When they calm down, we will talk.
Rabbi Baruch Abuhatzeira (Baba Baruch, son of Baba Sali, one of the greatest Kabbalists) said in a discussion with Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef that the time of the rule of the Ishmael over the land of Israel had ended, and that the Mashiach would come in our generation. Do you believe that we are living in Messianic times?
I am a Chabadnik. It is obvious to me that we are living in Messianic times. It’s another matter that when we say “Messianic times”, we are not actually saying much at all.
The global changes foretold by the prophets may take place at any given moment in time. A maturing of the situation does not mean that this situation has been resolved. This depends on people. A huge number of people today are resisting and doing everything to stop Messianic times from arriving. They do this by their behavior and their attitude to the very idea of the coming of the Mashiach. For many people this idea is completely irrelevant.
In popular usage, the phrase “waiting for the Mashiach to come” means to wait for something that will never happen. People accustom themselves to the fact that this should never and will never happen. And the human mind is a very powerful thing.