Most Jews know that sin and failure define a whole season of Jewish practice during the High Holy Days. It is then that we repent for what we did wrong and dream of how we can do better. However, the deeper one looks into the tradition, the more apparent it becomes that responding to sin and failure are woven into the very fabric of nearly every facet of Jewish life, not just one season. Few books make this more clear that David Bashevkin’s scholarly exploration, Sin*a*gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought.
This book is eclectic, matching the many passions of its author. Bashevkin is at once an educator, a scholar, and a rabbi. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in public policy and management with a focus on crisis management. As one reads his book, we watch him vacillate between these lenses. At times, the book is instructive, at other times academic, and still at other times sermonic. Though the transitions between these foci at times can take us by surprise, eventually one realizes that this is the charm of the book. In one chapter entitled “When Leaders Fail,” Bashevkin moves from unpacking Dostoevky, to a scholarly piece about our ancestor’s reticence to criticise biblical characters, to exploring the legacy of Judaism’s most famous apostate, Elisha Ben Avuyah, finally bringing all the strands together. One leaves this book with a profound admiration of Bashevkin’s ability to place the whole of the Jewish tradition in dialogue with modern text, scholarship, and life.
This is not a book one reads quickly. Each section is full of information and nuance. It also requires some Jewish knowledge for understanding. Although it is written for the Jewish layman, it will best be appreciated by an educated lay person, someone with enough secular and Jewish knowledge to follow his sources. However, even for those with much Jewish knowledge, Bashevkin opens his reader to worlds of undiscovered learning. He finds rare Talmudic sources, interesting modern anecdotes, and oft forgotten chassidic lore stretching his reader far beyond their specific area of expertise.
When one writes less than 150 pages of text on a subject as expansive as “sin,” it frees the author up to explore the subject in his own way. Since no reader expects him to cover everything, he can take his time with some discussions, pausing to consider them in depth. Bashevkin is perhaps the most passionate and articulate in unpacking the nuances of chassidic thought. These sections are the most discursive of the book but also the most thought provoking. Whether exploring how Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Rabbi Zaddok of Lublin look at whether we should tempt ourselves with sin or unpacking Rabbi Elimelekh of Lezhinsk’s view on the tzadik, Bashevkin invites us to sit at the feet of these masters and becomes their interpreter and advocate.
Sin*a*gogue is an invaluable resource for anyone who seeks to better understand the roles that sin and failure play in each of our lives. In his introduction, Bashevkin goes out of his way to acknowledge his own missteps, even changing his byline to reflect the many prestigious fellowships and awards he did not receive. In this simple act of humility and humanity, he challenges us to embrace our failures and his book gives us a model for the many people through Jewish history who have. Thankfully, his book is not a failed attempt. Unlike these missed fellowships, he can add Sin*a*gogue proudly to his resume as a true accomplishment.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort (Turner Publishing), which was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.