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.
At the outset, Bashevkin quotes an Emory University study on the importance of discussing sin and failure in the family narrative. The researchers discovered that the more children knew about their family, the greater the chance of success when faced with adversity. In addition, they learned that the most successful family narrative was the ‘oscillating’ type, which integrated moments of success with those of failure.
“When children hear their family’s oscillating narrative and know that nonetheless their family persevered, a sense of courage and resilience is conveyed that will allow them to transcend their own moments of tribulation,” he writes. Religion also tells a story, says Bashevkin, and it is equally important to retell and recall the failures, as much as the successes. “Greatness does not emerge despite failure; it is a product of failure,” he notes.
Bashevkin examines the different words and meanings used for sin in the Torah, ranging from het, an inadvertent misdeed, which he translates as “missing the mark;” avon, which he posits is an intentional sin, and pesha, which is a sin not only committed deliberately, but in a spirit of rebellion against God.
What of the term aveira – a transgression – used frequently in the Mishna, but absent from the Bible? Bashevkin points out that with the introduction of this term, sin changed from an action, and became a concept. He associates the word aveira with the Hebrew word avar, which means “past” and suggests that this may be “a subtle reminder that our past sinful experiences should not hinder our will to repent.” One should not allow one’s mistakes to take control over future actions.
Turning to the story of Adam and Eve, and their eating from the Tree of Good and Evil, Bashevkin poses an unusual question – when did the story of Adam and Eve take place? While a cursory reading of the text indicates that the story occurred immediately following creation, Bashevkin cites the Talmudic account, which states that the story took place during the seven days of creation. He uses this explanation as a springboard to show that sin and failure are needed elements in our world.
Sin, he explains, was an integral part of the creation itself, particularly according to the Izbica-Radzyn hassidic school of thought. Adam’s sin, explains Bashevkin, created the possibility for man to form his own expectations, as well as the possibility of failure.
“No longer simply an extension of God, Adam emerged with an independent sense of self,” he writes.
NEXT, BASHEVKIN tackles intention and action in sin, citing a well-known Talmudic passage which states that God does not punish man for thoughts about committing sins, with the exception of idolatry. But what if someone attempts to commit a crime and fails? Is he culpable? Can a person be found guilty for attempting to commit a crime that is impossible for him to commit? Bashevkin suggests that impossible attempts at sin that involve both intent and a completed action require atonement, and that impossible attempts incur guilt only when the sin is an abrogation of a commandment against God. Interpersonal sins, such as the feud between Joseph and his brothers, are only assessed based on the actual outcome.
Bashevkin discusses a Talmudic statement that recommends that if one is overcome with a desire to sin, that one should go to a place where he is not recognized, don black clothes, and commit the sin, rather than desecrate God’s name in public. Is this a dispensation for one who has the urge to sin, asks Bashevkin? Or is the Talmud suggesting that following this course will cause the person to avoid committing the sin?
Bashevkin utilizes this Talmudic passage to discuss the concept of determinism in Judaism, and the theology of the Izbica-Lublin Hasidim on the subject. Ultimately, Bashevkin concludes, while some sins are unavoidable, the inevitability of sin does not mean that the law is no longer relevant.
Can sin be permitted, or even holy? The author examines biblical figures of Esther and Yael as examples of cases of where violating a prohibition in the service of a higher purpose was permitted. He then discusses a case that occurred in the 18th century, when a group of Jewish travelers were accosted by a group of outlaws who threatened to kill them all. One of the married female travelers offered to sleep with one of the outlaws, in exchange for the group’s safe passage. The travelers were spared, and Rabbi Yaakov Reischer (1661-1733), a prominent rabbi of his day, was asked if the woman’s actions were permissible in this case. Rabbi Reischer ruled that she had acted correctly.
Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (1713-1793) disagreed. Bashevkin then compares these events to the more recent case of Mordecai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear technician who endangered Israel’s security when he revealed details of the Israel’s nuclear program. Vanunu was eventually captured by the Mossad, after being seduced by an undercover agent, known in the world of espionage as a ‘honeypot’ plan. Bashevkin concludes that there seem to be situations when “sin can serve a holier purpose.”
While Sin•a•gogue could have benefitted from a final chapter summing up the points raised, 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.
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