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

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

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David Bashevkin

Cherry Orchard Books
ISBN: 9781618117960 (hardcover) / 9781618117977 (paper)
Pages: 216 pp.
Publication Date: March 2019

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It is no more possible to think about religion without sin than it is to think about a garden without dirt.

By its very nature, the ideals of religion entail sin and failure. Judaism has its own language and framework for sin that expresses themselves both legally and philosophically. Both legal questions—circumstances where sin is permissible or mandated, the role of intention and action—as well as philosophical questions—why sin occurs and how does Judaism react to religious crisis—are considered within this volume. This book presents the concepts of sin and failure in Jewish thought, weaving together biblical and rabbinic studies to reveal a holistic portrait of the notion of sin and failure within Jewish thought.

The suffix "agogue" means to lead or grow. Here as well, Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought will provide its readers frameworks and strategies to develop even in the face of failure.

David Bashevkin is the director of education for NCSY, the youth movement of the Orthodox Union, and an instructor at Yeshiva University, where he teaches courses on public policy, religious crisis, and rabbinic thought.  He completed rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, as well as a Master's degree at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies focusing on the thought of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin under the guidance of Dr. Yaakov Elman.  He is currently pursuing a doctorate in Public Policy and Management at The New School’s Milano School of International Affairs, focusing on crisis management. David has been rejected from several prestigious fellowships and awards.


Too many of us find ourselves staying up late to gawk at cable news shows. We scour Facebook for any sign of our friends expressing opinions we find unacceptable. We insist that our every conversation—about literature or film, about history or art, about our careers or our families or our future—be repurposed as a partisan polemic. We’re exhausted. Our rage yields no result. Increasingly, we feel as if we’re failing at life. How fortunate, then, that we’ve just the book to guide us along in this uncertain season. Entitled Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought, it’s a meditation on sin and failure in Jewish thought, and its insights couldn’t be any timelier or any more essential.
— Leil Leibovitz, Tablet Magazine
Bashevkin ... presents the reader with a series of powerful, dark-of-night meditations on sin and failure in Jewish thought that are wonderfully offset by his eccentric and irrepressible sense of humor. Prayerful yet not preachy, sophisticated yet unburdened by jargon, the book is a highly appealing guide to teshuvah for postmodern readers.
— Henry Abramson, Jewish Action
In Sin•a•gogue, David Bashevkin, director of education at NCSY and instructor at Yeshiva University, has chosen a subject that most of us shy away from discussing – sin and failure. He has penned a thought-provoking, well-written study about sin and failure in contemporary life, as seen through the lens of classical Jewish thought and contemporary Jewish thinkers. … It is a fascinating study of Judaism’s attitude toward sin and failure that provides the reader with a better understanding of human nature, and the constructive role that failure can play in our lives.
— Alan Rosenbaum, The Jerusalem Post
[Bashevkin] has succeeded in writing an entertaining, edifying, and eclectic (if at times a bit too much so) survey of an important aspect of Jewish thought. ‘A person cannot stand on words of Torah until they have caused him to stumble,’ Bashevkin quotes from the Talmud, and those who stumble across Sin-a-gogue will no doubt discover, within its pages, much to stand on.
— Ilana Kurshan, The Forward
Although he is a profoundly learned man, he wears his learning lightly in his lucid, witty and wholly winning new book. … Dr. Esther Hess, a colleague of my wife, always poses a thematic question to the guests at her Shabbat dinners, which invariably leads to table talk of extraordinary richness and meaning as each of us proposes an answer. The thought occurred to me as I read Sin•a•gogue that David Bashevkin has provided enough questions to sustain the participants in a thousand such meals.
— Jonathan Kirsch, the Jewish Journal
Sin is out of our vocabulary these days. Most people avoid the term and openly boast that they are not judgmental. If the topic is raised, it is immediately neutralized by being termed old fashioned, irrelevant or worst of all—boring. That is why Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought is a very troubling book—but in the very best sense of the word. It simply does not let us off the hook. There is not one dull page in the book and the insights from many worlds of knowledge are constantly surprising—and enlightening. We all know that we sin and have a vague notion that there are ways to deal with sin and overcome it. However, what we know best is how to put off doing this. Rabbi Bashevkin unsettles the thinking reader, in a way that few other contemporary writers do, because he presents simple, yet sophisticated steps to self-recognition and rectification. In a world full of shame—this is a profoundly honest book that without preaching, leads to more knowledge and better deeds—and to a great deal of reflection.
— Shaul Stampfer, Sandrow Professor of Soviet and East European Jewish History (emeritus), Hebrew University
Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought is a courageous attempt to elucidate some of the most laden and difficult facets of religious life. Rabbi Bashevkin writes with rare sensitivity and courage. Despite the complexity and ambivalence latent in many of these topics, his presentation throughout is confident, upbeat, and ultimately positive. This is a work of impressive depth, scope, and erudition, honest and informative. Bashevkin’s spiritual integrity illuminates his presentation.
— Ora Wiskind-Elper, Associate Professor in the Graduate Program in Jewish Thought, Michlalah Jerusalem College and Ono Academic College, Israel
With Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought, Rabbi Bashevkin has presented us an immensely valuable work on this most essential and universal aspect of human and religious experience—sin. David draws from the depth and profundity of Jewish thought and wisdom, notably the school of Izbiza and Rav Zadok of Lublin, and successfully translates these insights with great relevance, wit, and fidelity for a contemporary audience. This is a must-read for those thinking about the lived experience of religious life, whether as student of religion, community, or psychology, and the largest of all categories— those struggling with failure. David‘s intellectual, spiritual and redemptive view is truly inspiring.
— Dr. Isaac Schechter, Chief Clinical Officer, Achieve Behavioral Health, Founder and Director, ARCC Institute
David Bashevkin knows that sin and failure are inescapable elements of the human drama. He has thus written a book that can be read as a masterful theater production, upon whose stage a wide-ranging variety of characters are in dialogue with each other: Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor with Jonah, the biblical prophet; 19th century Chassidic masters with 21st century thinkers; and giants of classical literature with their modern and post-modern counterparts. The reader/spectator cannot help but enjoy the provocative, nuanced, and wide-ranging conversation of such a cast of characters. Together, they make ‘sin and failure’ come alive! Bashevkin combines erudition with an engaging literary style, and with the ability to demonstrate the relevance of Jewish religious thought for the contemporary reader, of whatever spiritual orientation.
— Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union

Table of Contents


Introduction: The Stories We Tell

Section I: The Nature of Sin
What We Talk About When We Talk About Sin
Sin’s Origins and Original Sin
Sick, Sick Thoughts: Intention and Action in Sin
What to Wear to a Sin: Negotiating With Sin
Can Sinning Be Holy?
Does God Repent?

Section II: Case Studies in Sin and Failure
Once a Jew Always a Jew? What Leaving Judaism Tells Us About Judaism
When Leaders Fail
An Alcoholic Walks into a Bar: Putting Yourself in Sin’s Path
Rabbi’s Son Syndrome: Why Religious Commitment Can Lead to Religious Failure
Jonah and the Varieties of Religious Motivation: Religious Frustration as a Factor in Religious Motivation

Section III: Responses to Sin and Failure
I Kind of Forgive You: Half Apologies and Half Repentance
To Whom It May Concern: Rabbinic Correspondence on Sin and Failure