"In Reform Judaism there is no one doctrine. It is up to the individual to make this decision to what he or she believes. Individual choice is the hallmark of Reform Judaism," Rabbi Martin Lawson told me.
The roots of Reform Judaism are traced to the Enlightenment in the 1800s. As Jews were given access to public schools, the Torah was viewed under modern interpretation and criticism. Traditional clothing, circumcision, keeping kosher, and other Jewish laws no longer governed how Reform Judaism expressed its beliefs.
"There is a movement to bring many of these traditional elements back into the service. The old style of Reform was trying to assimilate and become part of the American community and not be too Jewish. Today, there is a reexamination of these old traditional patterns," said Rabbi Lawson. "At our services, you will find many people wearing a tallit or kepah."
At the Shabbat service I attended, two-thirds of the men chose to wear a kepah, also called a yarmulke. Yarmulkes are provided for visitors at the entrance to the sanctuary. The kepah or yarmulke is a skullcap worn on the head during religious prayers and services. Orthodox Jewish males wear a yarmulke at all times. A tallit, also pronounced tallis, is a rectangular-shaped prayer shawl worn for prayers.
"We are not wearing them for the same reason as an Orthodox Jew would, but we are reinvesting them with new meaning," explained Lawson. "Wearing these items is about people finding meaning on their own. People look back and examine the ancient texts and try to bring new meaning to these rituals."
I asked Rabbi Lawson about the differences between Reform and Orthodox Judaism. "One of the differences with Orthodox Jews is the status of women," Lawson replied. "Men and women sit together in a Reform congregation. In an Orthodox congregation, they are separated. The separation boils down to women menstruating. In the Orthodox tradition, a woman is unclean during that time when she has her period. You don't want to walk around and ask every woman, 'Do you have your period today?' So they make a blanket thing of isolating women from men. Also, there is the sexual connotation. Women are considered provocateurs of men.
"Reform Judaism says that women and men are equal. We have women rabbis, women cantors, and women educators. The same thing would apply to gays and lesbians or bisexual people. We don't accept the biblical teaching about homosexuality. Our congregation was the first in San Diego to march in the Pride Parade, and we've done it every year since."
Rabbi Lawson summarized the differences between Orthodox and Reform Jews saying, "Orthodox Judaism is based on Jewish law and adhering to that. Reform Jews believe those teachings are a guidance not a governance to how we live. They guide us, and we make decisions based on them. So we don't just throw them out."
The evening was dark as I arrived for the 6 p.m. Friday service. Inside the sanctuary, pillars wrapped in golden metal support the peaked ceiling. An altar stands in the center of the sanctuary. It is from this altar that the Torah is read. A large stained-glass window illuminated by light depicts a scroll covered with Hebrew writing.
I counted just over 80 people, which was close to capacity for the intimate sanctuary. The congregation, primarily an older group, wore suits and dressy attire.
The Shabbat service followed the Gates of Prayer, a gender-sensitive book written for Reform Judaism. The service was conducted in Hebrew, but English was included in the readings when Lawson spoke to the worshippers. Rabbi Lawson led the a cappella singing in Hebrew. Through the evening, various men and women stepped forward to read portions from the Gates of Prayer and from the Torah. Often, the congregation would stand and sing, read a response or a prayer.
Rabbi Lawson shared historical stories, quotes, and poems from a variety of sources. These sources included scholars, poets, Jewish mystics, Kabbalists and other rabbis. The teachings were informational, providing insight into the meaning of words and language used throughout the service. The service ended with the Kiddush, when the congregation moved to the back of the room to partake of wine and bread.
As always, I asked Rabbi Lawson, "What happens to a person after they die?"
"There is a wide range of what people believe about life after death. These vary from 'When you are dead, you're dead'; some believe the soul lives on; others even believe in a bodily resurrection. I believe in some kind of existence after death. I don't think it is physical. You are reunited with God, the source of life. There is no hell or heaven in Jewish thought. You do have to stand for judgment. I taught an entire semester's course on this issue, so I can't really answer it. It would take me hours to explain it.
"Our focus in Judaism is not on life after death. The focus is on here and now. To quote a prophet, it is 'To do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God.' "
6299 Capri Drive, San Diego
Denomination: Union for Reform Judaism
Address: 6299 Capri Drive, San Diego,
Founded locally: 1964
Senior pastor: Rabbi Martin S. Lawson
Congregation size: 1400
Staff size: 15
Sunday school enrollment: 165
Annual budget: would not discuss
Weekly giving: would not discuss
Singles program: no
Worship: Friday varies (6 or 7 p.m.); Saturday, 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour