Lionel Blue: Rabbi to the nation

Rabbi Julia Neuberger pays tribute to her friend, who has died, aged 86

December 20, 2016 12:18

The Jewish world - and the wider world - has lost an amazing figure in the wake of Rabbi Lionel Blue’s death. He was an inspiration, an original, a humourist, a chef, an interfaith advocate, and a passionate broadcaster, and that’s just for starters.

Like many of my generation of rabbis, I first met Lionel properly when he was one of two teachers of the practical rabbinics course at Leo Baeck College. The other teacher was Rabbi Hugo Gryn z’l. We were fortunate in both teachers of a programme designed to inform us of what organisations we needed to know and spend time with (Hugo), and what not to do as very young and inexperienced rabbis (Lionel). Being Lionel, this part tended to be very funny, like his instruction - which I’ve never forgotten - not to put your prayer book down on the coffin during a cremation service and then press the button for the coffin to slide away, as you won’t be able to finish the service! Black humour, of course, but incredibly useful, as was all his advice.

His guidance on getting to know local Christian clergy at that time - always remember they will be very keen to meet you, but will often know very little about Judaism - was spot on. His life’s work has been highly instrumental in encouraging most Christian training colleges, from Church of England to Roman Catholic to non-conformist, to teach Judaism, in contrast to the 1970s.

But it was Lionel the broadcaster we’ll remember best. There, he was rabbi to the nation and beyond. Lionel- a curiously private person for such an accomplished broadcaster- was most at home on his own with a microphone in front of him. Though he loved the hustle and bustle of the Today programme studio, it was that intimate relationship with the microphone, and his millions of listeners, that affirmed his reputation as one of the great religious teachers of the age. In a few well-chosen words, he would make a serious point. He would make us laugh, and then stop and think about life and death, the nature of humanity, our relationship with the universe, and our relationships with each other. Some of it was profoundly Jewish. Some went well beyond.

His public "coming out" as gay, very early on, encouraged many thousands of others to "come out" too, and he made the widest spectrum of non-orthodox Judaism a comfortable home for many gay Jews, far beyond anyone’s expectation at the time. He was brave, and clearly right, but he didn’t feel courageous about it then or later. To which we can only say kol ha-kavod.

But, above all, Lionel was a generous, kind friend and colleague, a provider of wonderful meals in his earlier days (including a memorable occasion when he let a treacle tart cool in oven and rendered his dinner guests incapable of speech with temporary lockjaw) and an amusing raconteur, who could change the world with his words. Fundamentally a shy man, he made us all feel loved - the world will be the poorer without him.

December 20, 2016 12:18

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