Interview: Rabbi Lionel Blue

Being gay helped him get close to God

By Simon Round, November 4, 2010
Lionel Blue attempted suicide when he discovered he was gay

Lionel Blue attempted suicide when he discovered he was gay

There are not many rabbis whose transformative experience occurred at a gay sauna in Amsterdam. However, there are very few rabbis like Lionel Blue.

Blue, known as the gently avuncular voice of Radio 4's Thought For the Day, was the first British rabbi to come out publicly as gay. His gayness has presented him with religious and emotional challenges but also has enabled him to establish his own religious philosophy, which he has shared with Radio 4 listeners and now with readers in the form of a new book, The Godseeker's Guide.

In it, he relates how as a young man he travelled to Amsterdam where he was free to follow his sexual orientation. However, even in Europe's most liberal city he still felt shackled. Blue, who now lives with his partner of 25 years in more sedate Finchley, recalls: "What finally persuaded me to come out with the whole business was when the lady who managed the sauna that I used to go to contracted cancer. She died and I found out that the funeral was the next day. Because of who she was I felt I daren't go. I later discovered that hardly anyone turned up - they all had the same problem I did. My inner voice told me I couldn't use religion as a get out. I knew that if I carried on this way I would be living a false life. So I came out in the open with it."

Blue feels that his gayness helped him to get in touch with this inner voice - his personal connection with God. "If the answers to your problems lie outside the Jewish tradition, then you have to listen to your own inner voice," he says. This resonates well with his radio "congregation" - a disparate group of people who want, claims Blue, "not religion, but God".

This difference of emphasis is what Blue, now 80, feels marks him out from many in the mainstream Jewish world. "Judaism in Europe has rebuilt itself so far as things like synagogues, institutions, rabbis, classes etc, but God is a kind of untouched area at the centre which is too hot to handle - perhaps as a result of the Holocaust, we have been forced to ask questions about where God was when this was happening."

My inner voice told me I couldn't use religion as a get out

Blue first confronted his faith as a child. His grandmother told him that were he to pray for something which was for the general good, the prayer would be answered. So he prayed for the speedy demise of both Adolf Hitler and British fascist Oswald Mosley, only to open a copy of the Daily Herald several weeks later to see them both "flourishing like the bay tree".

His faith shaken, he took on the Communist allegiance of his uncle only to ditch that too. "Their answer was that everything would be solved come the revolution. I didn't really believe that either," he says.

But still he searched for the answer. The stark discovery of his homosexuality while he was a student at Oxford led him to attempt suicide. During that time he searched for the answer in Christianity but pulled back, partly because he had problems with Christian scriptures, and partly because his mother threatened to take her own life if he embraced the religion.

Instead he found his "inner voice" - which told him that his problems might actually be opportunities - and underwent a form of extreme Freudian psychoanalysis. That allowed him to go on to become a Reform Rabbi and later a broadcaster. However, when the call came from the BBC, he thought they may have contacted the wrong person. "At the time there was a Rabbi Green who was much better known than me so I wondered if they had the right colour. But they said, no, they wanted Blue, so I said OK."

It was on the way to that first broadcast that his inner voice again spoke to him. He had intended to speak about "the Jewish problem" but changed his mind on the way to the studio. "This was at a time when the pound was going down and people were expecting redundancy notices every day. My inner voice told me: 'Lionel, your job is very simple. On a cold winter's morning in a depression your job is to help people get out of bed and give them enough strength that they don't dive straight back under the covers'. It was that simple. Humour is the unofficial scripture of Jewish life. It takes away the anger and bitterness and replaces it with kindness and charity. That was the scripture my audience could accept.

'The Godseeker's Guide' is published by Continuum at £9.99

Last updated: 9:18am, November 5 2010