By Mohan Xu
Maryland Hillel held “Shabbat with Rabbi Bashevkin” during parents’ weekend in Hillel’s multi-purpose room Saturday afternoon.
Bashevkin is a scholar in residence at this university.
Before Bashevkin started to teach a class through his published book, “Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought,” more than 40 attendees were given a seven-page handout on failure to read and discuss while snacking.
Bashevkin began his teaching by saying a picture caused him to write and publish his book. In that picture, people were seated in chairs except for a child, who did not have a seat. Instead, he was underneath the table.
“It was for that child. I realized that I wanted to pick failure, a crisis, difficulty to write something to share ideas to create ideas for people who otherwise are not being spoken to — people who otherwise are not really a part of that experience,” he said.
Bashevkin explained that society has many books written about aspiration and how to be inspired and fulfill the commandments.
“We need a book about how to fail; failure and difficulty is part of the human condition and religious condition,” he said.
Bashevkin read a few sentences from Samuel Beckett’s “Worstward Ho,” the famous quote reading, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. No choice but to stand. Somehow up and stand. Somehow stand. That or groan.”
He went on to emphasize that religious life is not a binary event in which people succeed or fail, for example, by attending service or not attending.
“We need to talk about that middle, all of the numbers in between zero and one,” Bashevkin said. “We can’t look at religious life as just being they are or they aren’t, we need to flesh out what that middle is.”
To further explain the concept of failure, Bashevkin discussed a poem by the Jewish poet Philip Schultz called “failure.” The poem covers how failure can make someone feel like a nobody, or someone who does not belong in religious life.
Later, he talked about a course he taught at Yeshiva University in New York City.
“Teaching courses on failure has become almost commonplace on college campuses,” Bashevkin said.
The course he taught was about failure in a religious context. He also wrote an article about this teaching experience. Bashevkin shared some ideas from his article with attendees by reading a few parts.
He explained that there are three different types of narrative, or family stories — ascending narratives, descending narratives and oscillating narratives.
Bashevkin mentioned that he is a moderator of the Frum/OTD Dialogue Facebook community, a group that consists of people raised in the Frum Orthodox community and those who have left. Moderators help engage the thousands of members in discussions, and through discussions, Bashevkin said, “I realized that talking about failure and difficulty in a more realistic way in our community is incredibly necessary.”
Bashevkin provided his own example of when he felt inadequate and had no sense of community. He traveled to a community when he was a scholar in residence and felt like an outsider.
Additionally, Bashevkin emphasized the importance of flexibility.
“When you have flexibility or ideals about what life is supposed to look like, what life is supposed to feel like, you are going to be able to thrive and have the resilience to move forward,” Bashevkin said.
After Bashevkin’s teaching, Tal Ullmann, a sophomore engineering major, reflected on the talk.
“I think it is an important topic and I appreciate it,” Ullmann said. “It is applicable to not only young people in Jewish communities who certainly need to hear it, but also to college students in general.”