He has been described as an eccentric maverick. He prays with nuns, meditates with Buddhists and loves a pint with atheists in local pubs. Ori Golan takes tea with Rabbi Blue who regales him with gentle humor, homespun wisdoms and insights on how we might see life's problems in a more positive light.
Until Reform Rabbi Lionel Blue delivered his first ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC’s Radio 4, he was largely unknown. Thirty-something years on (his rounds off years to the nearest decade) and several hundred guest appearances later, his three-minute thoughts, shortly before 8 am, have turned him into a popular representative of God who wears his religion, and his (homo)sexuality, very jovially. He compares God to fairies under the bed, comments on ‘the mess we are in’ and contemplates aloud his relationship with God. He muses without preaching; reaches members of all – or no – faiths without moralizing; and finds spirituality in mundane and unlikely places ("airports are a wonderful place to look for God"). His insights are all laced with humor and wit, refuting Mark Twain’s claim that ‘there is no humor in heaven’. "Humor is very therapeutic. It helps you cope. And Judaism if full of humorous anecdotes and witzes" he explains. He is a broadcaster on religious matters, contributor to a number of publications, a patron of several charities and author of a number of books, including a cookery book. "As a small child, I used to watch my grandma making Lokshen. Let me tell you, there is a strong link between food and kindness."
Although there was Yiddishkeit in Blue’s childhood home, there was no God. He stumbled – quite literally – into religion in his mid-twenties.
"I was a confused young student reading History at Oxford. At the time, I didn’t have a soul (I was a Marxist) and rejected my body (because of my ‘sex thing’). As I was coming out, so was my hair, and I was deeply depressed. One day I was ambling in Oxford when it started to rain, so I took refuge in a doorway. The door opened and a lady invited me in. And there I was; in the middle of a friends meeting for Quaker farmers. As I listened to them testify, it dawned on me that perhaps my problems weren’t a curse, but in fact, a blessing. Suddenly I saw myself in a completely different light. I came out of this meeting feeling elated. My internal conversion followed swiftly, but I wasn’t sure what to convert to.
"Initially I didn’t go for Judaism," her recalls. "The first thing they’d do is put you on some committee. And then, of course, there was my sexuality." So he flirted with Christianity. His parents were so worried about him becoming an Anglican Monk, that they sent him to Israel, to work on a Kibbutz. "The ‘Kibbutz thing’ wasn’t for me. I longed for English houses in the rain". A month of socialism was enough. He returned home to study at the Leo Baeck College for progressive Judaism, and ended up as a reform Rabbi. He now teaches comparative religion at the same place. Today, he feels as much at home amongst Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and atheists, as with fellow Jews. Angela Tilby, a Catholic commentator, once described him as an ‘ecumeniac’. "I have no problem meditating with Buddhists or praying with nuns. I find that everyone is asking the same questions and facing the same problems."
Orthodox Rabbis view Blue as a maverick and a loose canon. Blue cheerfully agrees. There is not a scintilla of malice, or the faintest streak of nastiness in him. "[Chief Rabbi] Jonathan Sacks has been very nice to me. We see things differently, but I like him enormously and whenever I meet his mother in the library we have a chat."
Blue was a young child growing in East London when the Nazis seized power in Germany. He remembers the Jewish refugee children coming to Britain and also the black shirts of the British Union of Fascists in the streets of London. "I sometimes wonder what would have happened if a holocaust directed primarily against another minority group had taken place in Britain. Would I have gone against the grain? Would I have risked my life for them?" He looks pensively and after a silent pause replies quietly: "I don’t know."
Rabbi Blue rejects the claim that there is a rise in anti-Semitism in Britain. "The extreme Right are now more active; but they have always been present. I feel very much part of Britain. You see, that’s one of the problems. I once asked some rabbi friends of mine whether they have non-Jewish friends and most said they didn’t. None of them go to pubs – a national institution and a social hub - except for me. I feel very much part of the fabric of this society. Our existence depends largely on finding a purpose in the dominant Christian-pluralistic society in which we live."
The current situation in Israel has been a source of torment for him over which he has agonized as a contributor to the Catholic magazine, The Tablet. "Israel has won every war, but it has yet to win peace. It goes without saying that bombing innocent civilians is an outrage. The thing is, this business of terror and counter terror and back again…. You have politicians, but not statesmen. What we now need is a great leader or the Mashiach to sort it all out. Neither has turned up yet."
"I heard that Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer visited a young Palestinian woman who intended to become a suicide bomber, but desisted at the last minute. It is good for the two sides to listen to each other. Already in the 60s I watched the occupation and feared for the worst: if you add a religious dimension to a political problem, you’ll get a lethal cocktail for which there’s no answer. Back then, I was told by Israelis that ‘Israel was running the occupation beautifully’. I don’t blame Israel. It does the same thing that I do: when there is a problem, it closes its eyes in the hope that it will go away or solve itself. From my own experience I know that the sooner you face the problem, the better. It’s time to make contact again. We must get a dialogue going again." He falls silent and, after reflection, asks softly "what do you think will happen?"
There is a certain simplicity, even naïveté, in this slightly frail man with his round bespectacled face and softly spoken voice.
Asked if he attended the rally in support of Israel in Trafalgar Square last May he looks quizzically. "What rally? I rarely reads newspapers and wasn’t aware of one".
"At any rate, I’m now past demonstrations and rallies. At 72 I’m crumbling. My heart is ageing, I have had prostate cancer, I am epileptic and I take 20 tablets a day. And still, against my expectations I am thoroughly enjoying my 70s."
As for his mortality, Rabbi Blue smiles benignly: ‘It might be sentimental but I think that in this life you only get a reflection of love. When you leave this world, that’s when the real love starts. This world is not the place for perfection or permanence. When this world ends I shall have a meeting with my inner voice."
And after this life? He pauses, reflects, and smiles: "It’s too far from Marxism for me to understand".
Rabbi Blue lives with his partner, Jim, in North London. He is currently at Durham University writing his autobiography.