September 26, 2018

In tribute to Rabbi Michael Roth

Dec. 5, 1920-Jan. 6, 2017

“Our grief is according to our blessing”
— Union Prayer Book

I have been blessed by the presence of Rabbi Michael Roth in my life for more than 43 years. He was my Rabbi and Rebbe. He was such a unique constellation of qualities as to defy easy labeling. Naturally, he was a teacher, a scholar and a pulpit rabbi. He was also a spiritual explorer — diving deeply into the mysticism of Gematria and the Kabbalah.

Forty years ago, long before the hip fusion of Judaism and Buddhism known as JewBu, he was sharing Buddhist tales along with stories and analyses from scholarly journals of anthropology. From medieval Jewish and Muslim philosophers to great Yiddish writers, from talmudic commentaries to contemporary commentaries on the Talmud, nothing was foreign either to his great intellect or his limitless curiosity.

His friendships reflected his fearless explorations of life, literature, myth and our place in the enormity of existence. He sold no single answer or approach. He had no single rabbi, rebbe or guru. Nor did he play the part of a guru — but rather of a fellow explorer.

He really didn’t have a single denominational home. Trained at New York’s New School, his attitude often paralleled that of his friend Mordecai Kaplan — taking Judaism seriously without being obligated to taking it literally.

He could fluently quote Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and his friend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach of New York and Safed Israel. Rabbi Roth resonated and moved to the music of religion. Song and dance, poetry and ecstasy moved him — spiritually and physically.

Even in his 90s when he spoke of Hasids dancing, a slight movement, a gesture from his increasingly limited body, conveyed ecstatic dance. His face radiated a light, an energy that doesn’t really have a name.

And maybe this is a key to how special he was, and how special he remains in my life. His spiritual vocabulary was far greater than mere words. Words might be the building blocks of poetry, but like musical notes, they create experiences that transcend literal meaning.

I remember him quoting Amos Oz that “Today we read the words and letters on the page. When the Meshayach comes, we’ll read the spaces between the letters.” He understood and taught that the silence between the notes of music was as important and necessary as the notes themselves.

Rabbi Roth was born in Romania and came to this country when young. His father was a rabbi, as are his brothers, Max and Harry. His brother Jack is a famed seller of Jewish books. He was married to Geula for more than six decades and is survived by his loving and attentive daughters, Lynn and Dena.

rabbi-roth-copyHe founded and led Congregation Beth Ohr in Studio City for close to 50 years.

His life, both personal and professional, can’t be understood as resume, nor by dates of entry and departure. In truth, the personal and professional were not distinct — they were integrated with great integrity and authenticity. His life was lived in study, in thought, in contemplation and in the action of the example of his passion for Judaism and curiosity about creation, life and destiny.

I will certainly mourn him and miss him, but I will never lose him. Whenever I consider my own spiritual journey, I find his gentle fingerprints wherever I look. He has become a part of me. In grieving, I begin to move the picture in my mind’s eye from this last Yom Kippur to his face as he stood under the marital chuppah conducting my marriage ceremony 25 years ago. As I grieve, his back straightens, his eyes shine again with enthusiasm, as he remains for me, and countless others, a source of strength and inspiration, blessing our lives with his unique gifts.

Jonathan Dobrer is a teacher at American Jewish University, specializing in comparative religion with a sub-specialty in Islam. He is a lecturer in many synagogues and writes opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Daily News.