Title: Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought
Author: Rabbi David Bashevkin
Publisher: Cherry Orchard Books
In his new book, Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought, Rabbi David Bashevkin shares his thoughts about sin and failure. But, while this is a serious book, it is certainly not a heavy one. If you are looking for a mussar sefer, this might not do the trick. But if you are seeking insights on the human phenomenon of sin and its spiritual repercussions, you have come to the right place.
Following the engaged yet content-filled style of Malcolm Gladwell, the engaging chapters offer a pastiche of loosely-related insights on the topic at hand, woven together to present lucid arguments to the reader. The average chapter might draw from a recent article in the New York Times, an episode in Bashevkin’s own life experience, an academic work on chassidut, a classical Lomdish chakirah in the Gemara, and insights gleaned from Twitter-conversations with a friend.
This eclecticism works because Bashevkin makes sure to both draw everything together organizationally and ensure that the reader’s attention is held throughout. The overall result is a work brimming with insights and ideas on sin and failure, ranging from the famous to the esoteric.
The variegated sources drawn upon in this volume are worth noting. While the book certainly cites Litvish thinkers, including such luminaries as Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rav Moshe Feinstein, the book leans heavily on chassidic thinkers in the modern period. From Rav Tzadok to the Izhbitzer, the reader is presented with a bevy of insights on biblical and Talmudic passages, and even on the human condition, by the chassidic tradition. Certainly this is due in part to the interests of the author, who completed an MA focused on chassidic thought, and it also reflects the increasing prominence of chassidic thought in the Modern Orthodox community.
But it also makes sense for another reason: chassidic writing is much more open to speaking to the average person, to engaging in “real talk” and in dealing with human challenges. It might be most fitting that this volume on failure draws many of its insights from the world of chassidut.
The volume features a certain playfulness and humor, which readers of Bashevkin’s Mishpacha magazine columns might be familiar. This is clearly evident on the book’s cover, which features both the intentionally misspelled title Sin•a•gogue and an illustration of a chassidic child hiding under the communal tisch, and also in Bashevkin’s ironic take on the biographical blurb. Humor is incorporated into the content, as well; it is used to drive home some of the volume’s broader themes, including a push for humility.
This volume – Bashevkin’s first English language book (he also wrote a sefer on a related topic) – is a fitting tribute to its author. Bashevkin’s “day job” is as director of education for NCSY, while he also teaches at Yeshiva University. The capacity to engage various audiences and also to deliver real substance is a feature not only of his regular jobs, the reader discovers, but of this volume, as well. It is highly recommended read in this season of confronting sin and failure.