Sin, failure, and the Haggadah

Sin, failure, and the Haggadah

NCSY’s director of education, Rabbi David Bashevkin of Teaneck, publishes two books

Rabbi David Bashevkin
Rabbi David Bashevkin

Rabbi David Bashevkin of Teaneck has been rejected from several prestigious fellowships and awards. That, at least, is the claim on the back cover of his new book, “Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought.”

On a more positive note, Rabbi Bashevkin, 34, is director of education for NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth movement. And in that capacity, he has a second book out this season: “Just One,” a Haggadah published by NCSY.

And behind both books is a seemingly unorthodox origin story for a man who grew up in a “right wing modern Orthodox” home in Long Island’s Five Towns, surrounded by books. His father is an oncologist and his mother a writer. But he was bitten by the writing bug as a child when his letters were published in Wizard, a glossy magazine that covered comic books and other pop culture.

You can see the influence of Wizard in his Haggadah, which features a frenetic graphic layout as it focuses one central idea for each passage of the Haggadah. And perhaps you can get a glimpse of the origins of his interest in sin and failure when you start talking about the poster of Batman in his office. “You can judge a character by his enemies,” Rabbi Bashevkin said. “Batman has the best enemies.”

Which leads to the question of his book.

Is sin a good thing?

“I don’t look at sin as a good thing or a bad thing. Sin is a reality that’s part of the world. Understanding sin is a good thing. Understanding failure is a good thing. To a degree it’s inevitable. It’s woven into the fabric of reality and the fabric of our lives. Whether it’s good or bad is more a function of how we react to it than of its existence.”

The hero of Rabbi Bashevkin’s understanding of sin and failure is a 19th century chasidic rabbi, Rabbi Zadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin.

Rabbi Bashevkin discovered the writings of Rabbi Zadok, as he is known, as a teenager — “I like to say Rabbi Zadok found me,” he said. After studying in the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Rabbi Bashevkin went to Yeshiva University to study Rabbi Zadok in the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and to earn his ordination.

“He was a very modern thinker involved in the chasidic world,” Rabbi Bashevkin said. “His life was marked by a lot of failure. He had a marriage that fell apart. He never had children, which weighed on him tremendously.

“The theme underlying his books was how failure emerges from experience, and the importance of understanding failure as a window to a person’s sense of self. At the heart of our self-conception is how we view our own failures.”

How did Rabbi Zadok, as he is known, relate to his own failures?

“Rabbi Zadok only writes autobiographically in a few places. He used to write down his dreams. This was the same time as Sigmund Freud — there was something in the zeitgist. In the most autobiographic of his dreams, he relates that he shares the root of his soul with the sinful generation of the biblical flood. He looked at his life’s mission as giving people a pathway to understand even their failures.”

Rabbi Bashevkin’s writing on sin is influenced by Rabbi Zadok, but “I tried to filter it and give context to his ideas in the larger drama of Jewish and non-Jewish thought. My audience is not chasidic and not living in the 1800s. If the book is a grand drama, Rabbi Zadok has a very central role. But the ultimate actor is the reader, who I hope to beckon to come onto the stage itself.”

Rabbi Bashevkin did not write Sin•o•gogue for an NCSY audience. “It’s not an NCSY book,” he said.

Nonetheless, “tangentially it’s related” to his educational work.

“NCSY tries to create an aspirational vision for teenagers about what their Judaism can become. Part of the process as you develop religiously is you look at your own past and your own future and the gap between what you want your religious life to become and where it is now. This is a book about negotiating between your aspirations and your present self.”

Rabbi Bashevkin’s aspirations for his Haggadah were simple, even if the graphic design is not. “I wanted a Haggadah that is something visually resonant with simplicity and sophisticated ideas,” he said. If one end of the Haggadah spectrum is “long-winded intricate commentaries where you have to turn eight pages to get through Kiddush,” and the other is Haggadahs where the focus is on the art, Rabbi Bashevkin thinks he found a middle ground in his “Just One Haggadah.” Just one, because he tries to bring just one idea for each two-page spread.

“I wanted to distill them down to their essential idea. It doesn’t weigh the reader down with a lot of rabbis and Gemara. The Haggadah is different from the Purim Megillah. When it comes to Purim, everyone is careful to hear every word of the Megillah because of the sanctity of the text. With the Haggadah, the text is a springboard to conversation. The question is, are our Haggadahs taking responsibility to healthy conversations? If this Haggadah does its job, it’s like a trampoline, where people bounce off the pages and share ideas with one another.”

How to tie the two books together? Does sin and failure connect to the Passover seder? Rabbi Bashevkin is willing to venture a suggestion.

“Passover is the holiday where we celebrate our Jewish identity, particularly on the familial level,” he said. “So much of Passover is built around how you forge and create the culture to build Jewish identity. You’re bringing individuals together with different values and experiences. Which is why it’s no wonder that of all the holidays we have, it’s the only holiday which has a built-in second chance. In biblical times, people who couldn’t bring the Passover offering could bring it a month later. We don’t have this for Yom Kippur. That’s because at the heart of Jewish identity is the fact that people need to create their Jewish identity for themselves, and learn to negotiate between their reality and expectations. The Torah recognizes that when it comes to building your own Jewish life, not everyone can get it right the first time.”

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