Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Fail­ure in Jew­ish Thought

  • Review
By – May 8, 2020

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.

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