Guitar in hand, accompanied by his soothing voice, Rabbi Jeff Roth channeled the message of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century Polish founder of Hasidic Judaism, that “Everything is G-d and nothing but G-d.” Breath was the instrument of connection to the divine.
Roth, known for his Jewish meditation retreats, facilitated a weekend-long Meditation Shabbaton hosted by Temple Beth Tikvah. At Friday night Shabbat services, Rabbi Alexandria Shuval-Weiner invited him to share his message and music.
During Saturday’s experience, the intimate group of participants envisioned the Yud Hey Vav Hey, (how we refer to G-d) in a vertical pattern, which resembles the human form. The yud, the smallest letter, was the empty beginning point of the breath. Hey, deepened the breath, expanding the area of the heart. Breath traveled down the spine, to the full point of vav, before emptying again on the release of hey. After several rounds of moving our breath up and down, we began to move it through our hearts and out into the universe. We breathe and G-d breathes with us.
I interviewed Rabbi Roth to discover when and how he stepped into the stream of consciousness through meditation. In his 20s, prior to becoming a rabbi, he joined with other like-minded Jews who were pursuing social justice. They shared the belief that individual actions have an impact on the whole world. Through a series of what can only be interpreted as divine connections, he met Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal movement, and his life changed. Roth received private ordination from “Reb Zalman” and worked for him for eight years while completing rabbinical school at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
When Rabbi Roth spoke of him, he put his hand to his heart.
Segal: What about meeting Reb Zalman impacted you?
Roth: That first weekend, I began to reframe my life as a spiritual journey. He taught me how to pray and make prayer exciting, real and relevant through the lens of Jewish mysticism.
Segal: Were traditions from other religions included?
Roth: Yes. His teachings were infused with insights from various spiritual traditions and then brought back into the Jewish community. Reb Zalman was an ordained Sufi Sheikh and also had influential teachers from the Christian world.
Segal: Did you ever try Sufi trance dancing?
Roth: Yes. Reb Zalman integrated movement and dance with Jewish prayer.
Segal: What is the underpinning of Reb Zalman’s teaching?
Roth: That a rift occurred between human beings and the divine because of the development of language and speech, which created conceptual thinking. Since everything is G-d and nothing but G-d, the result was a state of separateness and disconnected-ness.
Segal: How do we fix that?
Roth: That’s the Tikkun (healing or repair). It happens through loving kindness and awareness of the four worlds of Divine Manifestation (included in his books.)
They are: Being, knowing, feeling, and making/doing. He also outlined the human nature that pulls away from that which is unpleasant and toward that which is pleasurable. Along with the I/Thou teachings of Martin Buber, we must strive to have a sense of the connectedness of ourselves and to each other as all part of the divine unfolding of being.
The Shabbaton included an all-day Saturday program ending with Havdalah, and Sunday learning and meditation, culminating with brunch at the home of Sharon Khoury.
I asked a few participants to share their experiences. “I think this was a great introduction to Jewish meditation for our community,” said Carol Lipinsky, who coordinated the event. “Through my studies with Jeff, I’ve enhanced my personal practice with an increased awareness and powerful insights.” Sharon Khoury said that the elements of her Judaism and meditation practice mindfully merged. “It feels like watching a flower in bloom. It’s not only lovely but an affirmation of the divine.”
Rabbi Roth’s Meditation Focus: Imagine that your heart asks you, “Ayekah? (Where are you?)” What is your heart telling you? Listen, and then act, from a sense of mindfulness and “heartfulness” in commitment and connectedness to self and each other.
Rabbi Roth is the founder and director of the Awakened Heart Project for Contemplative Judaism, and co-founder of Elat Chayyim, a spiritual retreat in New York, where he served for 13 years as executive and spiritual director. He’s on the faculty of the Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training with the Institute of Jewish Spirituality and is the author of “Jewish Meditation Practices for Everyday Life: Awakening Your Heart, Connecting with God,” and “Me, Myself & God: A Theology of Mindfulness,” www.awakenedheartproject.org.