Resonating and Reinterpreting at Congregation Beth Adam

During one of our weekly meetings this past summer, my supervisor, Rabbi David Burstein, explained to me the concept of the three Rs. He said that when we encounter something in Judaism, three things might happen: we might resonate with the ritual, prayer, or concept; we might reject it as outdated or not reflective of our beliefs; or we might choose to reinterpret it. Navigating the three R’s and seeing how they operate within a humanist congregation have been the theme of my summer as a TJF fellow at Congregation Beth Adam.

One of my main areas of work last summer was on the curriculum for Beth Adam’s Sunday school (called Our Village) for the upcoming school year. In this shmita year and the year when we hoped to return to life as normal following the pandemic, Our Village focused on something fundamental to Judaism and our lives: Shabbat and rest. Shabbat is the lens through which the Our Village children are encountering Judaism, holidays, and self care and telling their own stories this year. As we brainstormed core themes and studied Shabbat, it became necessary early on for me, a Reform Jewish rabbinical student, to understand how Beth Adam, a humanist congregation, sees Shabbat.

All of the liturgy at Beth Adam was written by a committee of congregants with the guidance of the senior and founding rabbi, Rabbi Robert Barr. They sought to create a home-based Shabbat liturgy that decentered worship at the synagogue and emphasized family time around a Shabbat table; as a result, the three core blessings that they wrote were new blessings over candles, wine, and challah. The theology and philosophy of Beth Adam rejects the concept of a God who commands individual mitzvot, so the members reject traditional blessings that contain God-language with which we are all familiar. Still, the tactile rituals and symbols of lighting Shabbat candles, drinking wine, and eating challah resonated deeply with the congregants. In order to unite the theology they rejected with the rituals that continue to resonate, the committee reinterpreted the traditional prayers to write liturgy that is reflective of the Beth Adam community. For example, their candle blessings read in English translation: “Blessed is the light within the world. Blessed is the light within each person. Blessed is the light of Shabbat.” To further draw out and emphasize the part of the ritual that resonates with so many Jews, members at Beth Adam sings their original liturgy to the same tune that Jews everywhere sing when they light the Shabbat candles with the traditional blessings. 

While the committee was focused on Shabbat liturgy, I worked with the team at Our Village this summer to try out the three Rs on other forms of Shabbat practice. The core theme of rest and renewal was deeply resonant for everyone involved, and has guided all of our work. We rejected the rigidity of strict Shabbat observance and replaced it with the principle of “curiosity, not commandedness,” encouraging each other to explore pieces of Shabbat practice with an open mind, rather than adhering to a list of rules. Finally, we reinterpreted traditional family practices, such as blessing the children and Friday night dinners in order to provide families with the framework and tools they need to design their own meaningful Shabbat rituals. 

I am especially excited for the actualization of another three R’s exercise at Our Village this year. During an early conversation this summer, Rabbi Burstein mentioned that he was ready to outright reject Purim, citing discomfort with the “beauty pageant” trope and the violence in Esther. I responded that the book of Esther actually resonated with me, as I had helped lead a Purim text study connecting the Book of Esther to the experience of the LGBTQ+ community. Rabbi Burstein was energized to give Purim another look, and we have since reinterpreted Purim to be a celebration of pride and queerness. I’m looking forward to the debut of this reinterpretation in the form of a schoolwide program this school year, and I hope to keep the three R’s framework with me throughout my rabbinate. Whenever possible, I want to reinterpret, rather than reject, in order to help every aspect of Judaism resonate in our modern world.

Madeline T. Budman is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, Ohio. She served as a TJF Fellow at Congregation Beth Adam in the summer of 2021 and is currently the student rabbi at Temple Israel in Marion, Ohio

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