February 23, 2020

A Jewish Guide to Facing Up to Sin

Nowadays, we hear a lot of talk about bad behavior, both public and private, but rarely does anyone use the word “sin” to describe it. Not so David Bashevkin, who is perfectly willing to use that theologically freighted three-letter word in “Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought” (Cherry Orchard Books/Academic Studies Press). 

Typically, Jewish storytelling is associated with lofty tales of hagiographic piety that recount the greatness and righteous deeds of religious leaders, T Bashevkin announces.  This, however, is not one of those stories. It is not a racy exposé or tell-all but a frank and honest discussion of some of the lesser-known aspects of sin and failure and their place within Judaism.”

Bashevkin is the director of education for NCSY, the youth organization of the Orthodox Union, an ordained rabbi, and an instructor in public policy, religious crisis and rabbinical thought at Yeshiva University. Although he is a profoundly learned man, he wears his learning lightly in his lucid, witty and wholly winning new book. Indeed, he is perfectly willing to poke fun at himself, as when he pauses to inform us that he “was rejected from the Wexner Graduate Fellowship” and then he adds, “Twice.” And he concludes: “It may take only one sentence to remind yourself that you can laugh at yourself.”

His sources include rabbis and sages, theologians and philosophers — ancient, medieval and modern — but he also invokes poets and authors ranging from John Milton to George Orwell to Raymond Carver. He even pays homage to Leonard Cohen’s iconic song, “Hallelujah,” when he ponders the moral test that God administered to King David: “As students of King David’s life know, he did not pass his test with Batsheva,” he writes, but “the baffled King” was ultimately redeemed. After all, though struggles with sin may cause a minor fall, they can also create a major lift.” 

He freely uses Hebrew words and phrases, always transliterated and translated, including the four different terms that are used for “sin.” He invokes the now-discredited notion that the Eskimo language includes numerous words for various kinds of snow: “Sin for Jews may be the linguistic equivalent of snow for Eskimos.” He ponders the varying kinds and degrees of sin in Jewish tradition, ranging from idolatry, adultery and murder — “sins that require Jews to succumb to martyrdom rather than commit any one of the three” — to mere infractions. “Every word in biblical and rabbinic language for sin tells a different story about the nature of sin itself.”

For author David Bashevkin, the question of sin must always be considered even if Judaism does not provide a single decisive answer.

Bashevkin ponders the finer points of sin in all of its variety. Does God punish us for thinking sinful thoughts? No, he says, “except for thoughts about committing idolatry.” Then again, he allows, one passage of the Talmud states that “thoughts of sin are worse than the sin itself.” What is the commandment against coveting a neighbor’s possessions, he wonders, if not “a prohibition of covetous thoughts”? And is there such thing as an attempted sin? His answer comes in the form of a story in the Talmud about a pious rabbi who engages in intercourse with a woman he thought to be a prostitute but who was actually his wife in disguise: “All the days of that righteous man he would fast for the transgression he intended to commit, until he died by that death in his misery.”

The Bible itself provides numerous examples of sins that are regarded as sacred acts. Esther, he points out, is only “the most prolific” among them. Even in the here and now, “if a life is at stake, Shabbat can be violated,” perhaps the prime example of a doctrine in Jewish religious law known as aveirah lishma, which “arbitrates when it is permissible to perform an action that has components of sin and components of mitzvah.” Sin, after all, is always an occasion for atonement and purification: “[T]he deeper the sin, the deeper the experience of repentance which follows,” writes the author, quoting an article in “Tradition” by Pinchas Peli.

Jewish tradition allows that even God can make a mistake: “God may be perfect, but creation is not,” writes Bashevkin, quoting Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik for the proposition that “[t]he Jewish people bring a sacrifice to atone, as it were, for God’s not having completed the work of creation.” As examples of “the enduring imperfection found in creation,” Bashevkin points to “the diminished size of the moon” and, more disturbingly, the fact that God “allowed for the possibility of sinning.” Bashevkin is always courageous and challenging in the pages of “Sin•a•gogue,” never more so than when he suggests that God is culpable. “As I read through the litany of sins from the previous year while solemnly beating my chest, I wonder (dare I say protest), ‘Why, God, has sinning become so easy?’ ” he writes of the Yom Kippur services. “Why does failure become so inevitable? Our reflections on the previous year are supposed to center around our transgressions, but sometimes my mind can wonder and consider God’s distance.”

For Bashevkin, the question of sin must always be considered even if Judaism does not provide a single decisive answer. “Religious life has both a floor and a ceiling,” the author writes. “The ceiling is built upon the ideals and values we reach toward, which we may never attain. The floor, however, is the framework and perspective from which we deal with failure and those still mired in sin. Much of religious life is spent vacillating somewhere in the middle.”

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, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.