Failure Goes to Yeshivah: What I’ve Learned From the Failure Narratives of My Students

In June of 2017, the New York Times ran a story entitled “On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus” that detailed some of the new programs emerging on university campuses across the United States teaching students how to fail. Of course, at first glance, teaching someone how to fail seems puzzling. But along the lines of larger trends taking place in the business world, failure has become vogue. Harvard Business Review’s April 2011 issue was dedicated to failure. A 2015 article in Fast Company wondered, “Why Are We So Obsessed with Failure?” And in 2017, the Museum of Failure, with the largest collection of failed products and services, opened its doors in Helsingborg, Sweden. So it was not entirely surprising that failure would eventually go to school. As Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist at the Wurtele Center for Work and Life at Smith College who developed the failure program at the university, explained to the New York Times, “What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature.” The question I wondered was whether such a course could enter yeshivah.

Two years ago, I began teaching a course at Yeshiva University’s Isaac Breuer College that focused on failure in a religious context. In the course, we begin with the sin of Adam, specifically exploring whether sin was a deviation from the Creation story or an act of Creation itself. We then explore an array of central issues related to sin and failure in Jewish thought, such as whether sinning is ever predetermined, how and why rabbinic leaders sin, the halachic status of sinners and apostates, as well as a broad overview of rabbinic correspondence consoling those who failed. The highlight of the course, however, is not what I say—it is what the students share. In lieu of a midterm, each student shares a story of religious development—his own or that of someone he knows (anonymity is fine).  This unconventional test structure is obviously attractive for many students. Who wants a formal midterm in a class on failure—if you fail the midterm, wouldn’t that be a success? Instead, the course asks students to share a religious narrative and then write a letter addressed to the individual who is struggling; many students end up writing a letter to themselves.

Toward the beginning of the course, based on a somewhat famous New York Times article by Bruce Feiler entitled “The Stories That Bind Us,” we talk about three different types of narratives. Ascending narratives begin with some crisis or difficulty (“my parents forced me to sit through shul and I hated it”) and end with a positive resolution (“now I’m the rabbi of the shul”). A descending narrative begins positively (“I loved learning Gemara in high school”) but ends negatively (“I haven’t studied Torah in decades”). Most common, however, is the oscillating narrative, which has both ups and downs, reflecting the natural vicissitudes of life and religious commitment. Students are asked to consider, some for the first time, what is the arc of their religious narrative? What types of stories are their religious lives telling?


Discussing Failure

Of course, developing such a class in a religious setting is not without its challenges. As opposed to a secular university, Yeshiva University fosters religious commitment; it’s not looking to highlight religious decline. Some students in the class have fallen out of faith; others’ relationship with Judaism could best be described as “frenemies.” One could justifiably be concerned that giving a voice to different religious narratives and story arcs would only encourage religious deterioration or, perhaps worse, aggravate the religious commitment of those who are comfortable. More so, why not just teach a class on teshuvah? Surely, the Rambam’s Laws of Repentance contain universal truths that should be enough to religiously inspire without providing a platform for potentially religiously harmful personal narratives.

The answer, I believe, has to do with the changing nature of religious identity in general and the increased pressures of Orthodox Jewish life in particular that have, in turn, made it easier for those within our community to feel like failures. In terms of the latter, I have often bemoaned the fact that particularly within the Orthodox community there is a “Bermuda Triangle” of sorts that has been snaring many of our yeshivah and day school graduates. As we transition from the institutional auspices of the schools and yeshivas that have guided us during our first two decades, and go on to build independent religious lives of our own design, we are losing travelers in this proverbial Bermuda Triangle. There are three points to this triangle—marriage, religion and career. There is a sense in the Orthodox community that by the time men and women are in their early twenties, they should have their romantic, religious and career lives figured out. This ideal, however noble, places a lot of stress on college students and makes the pressures of navigating a healthy identity in the Orthodox community far more challenging. Our young adults aren’t oblivious to the conversations they overhear about the expectations of paying tuition, the anxious tone with which we discuss older singles, the whispered references to camp counselors they once admired who have since left the Orthodox community. As we mobilize communal efforts to deal with our shared systemic crises, individuals are left bereft wondering if they are heading into the breach. Falling short of high communal expectations in these areas can easily cultivate a premature sense of failure in students. The Laws of Repentance don’t directly address such contemporary angst. Many students are not necessarily struggling with an act of sin that requires teshuvah, but with an overarching sense of being a failure. They are grappling with their relationship to a community that is at once both a source of comfort and concern. It is the place in which they seek to find validation, while at the same time it can be the very root of their pain. One remedy, however, is listening to others grapple with the weight of their aspirations. Irvin Yalom, a psychologist who is a prolific novelist, wrote, “Even though you’re alone in your boat, it’s always comforting to see the lights of the other boats bobbing nearby.” Everyone needs to find his or her own path in negotiating communal expectations, but hearing others tell their stories is a potent reminder that you’re not alone in your journey.

Our institutions cannot just welcome ascending narratives, because many feel their story is either oscillating or descending and such people deserve the dignity of a communal space as well.

Another development that this course addresses—that perhaps a class focused on teshuvah could not—is the growth of online communities that have provided newfound means of connection for those who otherwise have not found validation within their own communities. Whereas two decades ago religious frustrations and failure needed to be shared in hushed tones while carefully gauging if one’s interlocutor was indeed like-minded, nowadays a myriad of Facebook and WhatsApp groups have appeared that provide a sense of community when our Torah institutions are unable to do so. Years ago, someone struggling with the trajectory of his own story had few addresses to share his concerns and anxieties; today, any aching concern or theological dilemma can be posed to an online universe. In the nineties, a New Yorker cartoon famously depicted a dog surfing the Internet who turns to his fellow canine and says, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” I’m afraid that nowadays the only place people feel comfortable being a dog [i.e., their true self] is online. What was once a place of reclusive anonymity has, for many, become their true source of community.  

Far from being critical of such online communities, we should ensure that our own institutions provide similar havens of emphatic honesty and constructive catharsis that would otherwise only be found online.


Neon Entrance Signs

In a 2018 blog post for the New York Jewish Week, Gerald Skolnick, the Conservative rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, New York, made a powerful plea for the development of Jewish institutions that would be more welcoming places to share feelings of failure and inadequacy. Contrasting the environment inside of shuls to that inside of churches, he wrote:

For whatever reason, everything from their hymns to their liturgy to their theology encourages Christians to understand church as a place to go to when you feel less than whole. I know that’s a broad generalization, and the church world is not without its fair share of alienated Christians. But the point remains valid. It’s not an accident that there are so many AA chapters in churches.

The synagogue world, by and large, has done a much less than adequate job of selling that idea within its ranks. A synagogue is more often a place to be avoided when you’re feeling broken, when you’re feeling in disrepair, when your family isn’t what you would like it to be and you don’t represent some paradigm of perfection. You walk in and people ask how your kids are, how many children do they have, where are they at school, where are they working, and all of these kinds of probing questions. And if you can’t give the answers that represent the very model of a successful thriving family, people tend to come across as judgmental, even when they don’t mean to. Our self-image as a community is one where, to borrow Garrison Keillor’s famous sardonic comment on Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” It’s one of our big problems, among many.

You are welcome to disagree with the portrait the writer paints, but it is the perception of many. There was a time in my life I shared this sentiment. I was twenty-nine when I got married and the place I wanted to avoid most during my single years was shul.

Irrespective of whichever point of our community’s Bermuda Triangle a young person may be dealing with, we need to do a better job of ensuring that his or her unfulfilled aspirations do not metastasize into feelings of failure. Whether it is a classroom, shul, yeshivah or day school, we need more spaces that welcome different narrative arcs. Our institutions cannot just welcome ascending narratives, because many feel their story is either oscillating or descending and such people deserve the dignity of a communal space as well. To be sure, our institutions need not condone or validate anything less than our loftiest communal ideals, but they must at the same time find a way to humanize those who aspire but have not yet obtained their goals.

For fire safety, most buildings require neon exit signs. Our communal institutions need brighter entrance signs. My class may be one example of such an entrance, as we create a small community collectively finding nobility in our struggles. But as we develop more classrooms, schools and shuls, I hope our entrances continue to outshine our exits.

Dovid Bashevkin, director of education for NCSY and a member of the Jewish Action Editorial Committee, published a Hebrew work on failure in rabbinic thought entitled B’Rogez Rachem Tizkor (trans. “In Anger, Remember Mercy”). His book, Sin-a-gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought, was recently published by Academic Studies Press (Boston, MA).

This article was featured in the Spring 2019 issue of Jewish Action.
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