Review by Ch, Lt Col Joseph Friedman, CO ANG
What first caught my eye was the title: Sin·a·gogue. Was it about talking during services (one of my pet peeves Perhaps it was about the struggle many congregations have getting a minyan (quorum) for weekday prayers? The second thing that caught my eye was the author. I have had the privilege of hearing Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin speak about various topics at a number of rabbinic conferences I have attended over the years. In each case, I found him incredibly creative, erudite, genuine, and—most compelling—someone who thinks out of the box. He didn’t disappoint with this book.
It must be said that Rabbi Bashevkin, director of education for the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the youth movement of the Orthodox Union, has an incredibleability to knit together remarkably disparate sources into a magnificent composite. On just one page he cites the poets Donald Justice and John Milton, the Book of Genesis, Archbishop James Usher, and the Talmud Sanhedrin. And that was not atypical. Rabbi Bashevkin’s breadth of sources, both Jewish and secular, classical and contemporary, Hassidic and Mitnagdic, is nothing short of breathtaking. If he intended to impress, he succeeded.
Sin·a·gogue is really two books. In the first half of the book, Rabbi Bashevkin ventures into a broad analysis of the traditional Jewish understanding of sin. Okay, so that doesn’t exactly sound like a page-turner. Yet it was precisely that. As he explains in his introduction, the greatest lessons are learned not from people displaying perfection, but rather from narratives which “integrate moments of success… with moments of failure.” It is such stories that enable the reader, who is acutely aware of their own successes AND failures, to draw inspiration. In a time when the biographies of our rabbis are scrubbed clean of any vestige of failure, their humanity—and concomitant ability to inspire—is actually diminished.
The six chapters of the first section each address different elements of sin. After first defining “sin” from a classical Jewish perspective—after all, many of us carry conceptions of sin that more closely reflect the perspective of our Christian neighbors than our Jewish forbearers. Rabbi Bashevkin addresses the mistaken assumption that if Christianity embraces the doctrine of Original Sin, then Jews must reject it. In the third chapter, we are introduced to the Torah’s view on the classic legal doctrine of mens rea, (literally “guilty mind,” or evil intent) versus actus reus (literally, “guilty act”). While a crime requires the latter, what of sin? Can one be guilty of violating Jewish law just by thought alone, or is action required as well? And more importantly, why should we care?
The fourth chapter was the most esoteric. Rabbi Bashevkin does a deep dive into the philosophical world of Izbica, particularly the Rebbe of Kotzk and Rav Tzaddok of Lublin. Simply put, a literal read of the Izbicer philosophy could lead one to believe that sin is fated, ergo one cannot be responsible for its commission. The author argues that this thinking is inaccurate and primarily based on a failure to recognize certain contextual realities of their time. His next chapter goes even deeper, examining the question, “Can sinning be holy?” After all, we are taught that the High Priest cannot stand in the place of a truly repentant person. Clearly, penance is an elevating experience. However, penance requires a sin for which to repent. Does that elevate “sin” to holiness?
I was blessed to read the book right before the High Holidays. I say blessed because the sixth chapter—“Does G-d Repent?”—was not only so beautiful it literally brought me to tears when I read it, I took its message into my Yom Kippur that year, altering my prayers and my relationship with G-d forever
The second part of the book is a series of unrelated essays loosely connected to the theme. Rabbi Bashevkin addresses apostasy, failed leaders, tempting sin, and the book of Jonah. However, as a former congregational rabbi and father of six sons, it was his essay entitled, “Rabbi’s Son Syndrome: Why Religious Commitment Can Lead to Religious Failure,” which shook me to my core.
In Sin·a·gogue, Rabbi Bashevkin masterfully addresses a taboo topic about which we speak so rarely but relates to our lives every minute of the day. He does it in an engaging, witty, and honest way, written in such brilliant yet accessible prose, citing a myriad of sources from movie scripts, the Bible, Shakespeare, and the Talmud. I truly loved reading every page of this book.