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Rabbi Lionel Blue will present his own obituary tonight

Rabbi Lionel Blue will present his own obituary tonight

One of the very few individuals remotely capable of uttering anything sensible on BBC Radio 4’s ghastly ‘Thought for the Day’ was Rabbi Lionel Blue, and I was sorry to learn that he had died yesterday, aged 86.

I remember some years back telling a co-member of the National Secular Society that if NSS were ever to award its Secularist of the Year prize to people attached to the world of faith, Blue and South Africa’s Desmond Tutu ought to be considered for the accolade because both were rare examples of humanism in action, despite their affiliation to Judaism on the one hand, and the Anglican Church on the other.

Reporting on Blue’s passing, the BBC said that he was the first openly gay British rabbi and was known for his liberal teachings and supporting other gay members of his faith.

Representatives from the liberal synagogue Beit Klal Yisrael described him as “an inspirational man” and the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, said he was “a pioneer in many senses”.

Death didn’t put an end to that pioneering. Tonight, Radio 4 will broadcast Blue presenting his own obituary programme at 9.30 pm GMT.

After he became ill with prostate cancer in the early 2000s, his close friend and producer at the Today programme, Phil Pegum, called him with the idea of making his own tribute in case the worst happened.

It is not every day you call someone with cancer and ask them if they want to do their own obituary. But he was such a unique broadcaster, if anyone should do it, it should be him.

Blue’s response was first laughter followed by enthusiasm, and the pair set off to travel around his old haunts and talk to people from his past. Pegum added:

We spoke to his first psychotherapist, who also had recordings of their sessions and made him sing songs from his childhood. Then we spoke to his first long term partner, his first friend from Oxford and people from Holland, which was so important to him in discovering his sexuality.

We just gathered memories. It was such great fun to do and it was so wonderful.

Blue had struggled with his sexuality through his teens, leading to a nervous breakdown that saw him leave the Army. But after attending university, he rediscovered his faith and became a rabbi in 1960.

Soon after, he came out publicly and throughout his life lent his support to organisations including Liberal Judaism UK and the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews.

Announcing his death on the synagogue’s Facebook page, Beit Klal Yisrael representatives wrote:

Lionel was a wonderful and inspirational man, who spoke with such wisdom and humour and whose words reached out far beyond the Jewish community.

Arkush added:

Lionel brought his Jewish view of the world to a mass audience with signature warmth and wry self-deprecating humour.

Today programme presenter John Humphrys said he was “technically a terrible broadcaster,” but “a great man”.

He was such a human man, there was real humanity in everything he said, and people loved him.

Gwyneth Williams, controller of BBC Radio 4 said:

We have lost the huge warmth and humanity of Lionel’s instantly recognisable voice with its charm and irreverence. He seemed to understand and welcome all human foibles and during his ‘Thoughts’ he smiled on us, making the days that followed just a little easier, just a little richer.

BBC religious affairs correspondent Martin Bashir said:

He once said that he had no time for the solemnity and stiffness of religion. He said he preferred the people who stumbled honestly into their faith. He was almost like an agony uncle on behalf of the Almighty on the serious issues, but then, of course, he was hilariously funny too.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said:

He was not only a respected rabbi, teacher and mentor for the Jewish community, Rabbi Lionel Blue was also a wise and good-natured voice of reason for us all. His legacy will be that his common sense and great humour will remain in our thoughts each and every day.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead synagogue said Rabbi Blue was:

God’s best PR man in Britain. He never pretended that life was easy, or that religion solved everything; instead, he shared his own failings and foibles, and showed how to get through the rest of the day.

A former pupil of of Rabbi Blue’s, Rabbi Charley Baginsky, said:

Lionel was the archetypal rabbi’s rabbi – always there for us as individuals, helping us understand our own personal and spiritual journeys. And he leaves a legacy like few others. As the first British rabbi publicly to come out as gay, in the 1970s, Lionel paved the way for many others, including clergy of all faiths.

Sociologist and writer Dr Keith Kahn-Harris paid tribute on Twitter:

Rabbi Lionel Blue died. One of those rare people who are both brave pioneers (being an out gay rabbi) and universally loved.

Rabbi Blue was made an OBE for his services to broadcasting in 1994.

His funeral takes place on today.

Hat tip: Vanity Unfair

26 responses to “Rabbi Lionel Blue will present his own obituary tonight”

  1. L.Long says:

    So he was gay and tolerant…in other words a hypocrite to his own religion! Sorry but I will believe and honor these so called moderates when they do what Jefferson did…and do so publicly….take their book o’BS and a black marker and delete the hate filled bigoted BS….which they can’tand wont do, which means no matter how moderate a single person may be its religion is still a hate filled bigoted pile of crap!
    So cheers for him being nicer than his religion!

  2. Daz says:

    I always felt that his religion was more an ever-evolving philosophy of life than anything else. A truly lovely, not to mention often hilarious, man, who will be missed.

    This, from 2010 makes a good read.

  3. barriejohn says:

    I think we all had a soft spot for Lionel Blue. About the only presenter on TFTD whom I ever enjoyed listening to, but then he was (a) Jewish and (b) not an ideologue. Between him and Terry Wogan – also sadly missed – my morning journeys were a pleasure rather than a chore in those far-off days!

  4. John the Drunkard says:

    Not a man I’d ever heard of before today.

    Yes, the religious tradition (red of tooth and claw) from which he grew can never correct itself from within. But there is a border-land where people pulling away from the sheer awfulness of the Tanakh, New Testament, Quran etc. are simultaneously opposed to the superstition, and still steeped in the culture.

  5. 1859 says:

    Lionel Blue 1994: ‘…I went on an oldies holiday to Portugal, I prayed in restored synagogues and meditated at shrines. But in a bar in Fatima, I had to admit in all honesty that the oomph had gone out of my prayers. My personal relationship with God had gone cold, but why?
    To be honest, perhaps I no longer needed a divine father to make up for the one I’d lost, nor a divine brother to replace the one I’d never had, or as a stand-in for the lover I longed for. I’d grown up and heaven no longer had to make up for any family deficiencies. Was anything religious left in me, I wondered? What would life be like as a humanist?….’

    Imagine you are driving along on a crowded motorway early in the morning listening to this. I will miss you Lionel Blue – your soul-searching open-mindedness was unique.

  6. Broga says:

    @1859: I had no idea that Lionel Blue thought like that. I guess that some of the most apparently devout priests think the same way. They have a job to hold down and, like an actor, play a part. But you would have to be deranged to believe what they claim to believe.

    I have heard that in the USA there is a network of non believing pastors who are stressed at preaching what they don’t believe and share their feelings with each other. If they jump ship they lose a salary, home, damage family relationships and become pariahs in their community. And the offended religious can be vicious to those who dare to leave the superstition.

  7. AgentCormac says:

    Yep, he was indeed one of the good guys. If only all religious leaders shared his sense of humour and compassion.So long, Lionel Blue.

  8. Stephen Mynett says:

    Broga, I think this is the group: http://clergyproject.org/

    You are correct, the nature of Christian “forgiveness” does make it impossible for most, if not all, ex or doubting clergy to stay in their communities. Rape a child and the whole congregation will pray for you, show the slightest doubt and they will lynch you.

  9. Why on earth do so many people define themselves by their ‘sexuality’, especially to the extent of having a nervous breakdown because of it? I myself do not give a flying f–k about my ‘sexuality’. I have no interest whatsoever in other people’s ‘sexuality’ either. Such things mean nothing to me. I suspect that this lack of interest on my part no doubt indicates a freedom of thought to be found only in the minds of true Free Thinkers. And no, having spent the age of 16-18 working as a prostitute in Soho, I am far from being a prude and can in no way be regarded as repressed. Quite the contrary, in fact! I wonder if I should post this comment?…..After all, I do not wish to give myself a bad reputation by possibly annoying other readers or inadvertently offending their delicate sensibilities….But d’you know what, yes, I think I shall post it.

  10. I suspect that an omniscient, omnipotent, Omni-present Deity is almost certainly going to have more pressing concerns than bothering to stick His heavenly proboscis into whatever erotic dalliances His fragile, feeble creations may be getting up to with their rampantly febrile doo-dahs. Or so at least I would like to think. This is badly written, but I can’t be bothered rewriting it. But then again, an omniscient Deity would have known from the Beginning of Time that this shite would in the far distant future be posted by Miss Floribunda Rose on the 21st of December 2016, and would no doubt have approved of it. Incidentally, the philosopher Boethius tried to solve the problem of the possibility of free will in a universe created by an all-seeing, all knowing Deity in his ‘Consolation of Philosophy’. He failed to do so, in my opinion. Shortly thereafter, he was tortured and subsequently executed by Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Poor Boethius.

  11. Broga says:

    @Stephen Mynett: That’s it. Thanks. I came across the problems of the non believing pastors in a book the name of whose author I can’t remember. He was a preacher who wrote religious songs which were a big hit. When he said he no longer believed he took a hammering from those who believe in gentle Jesus and turn the other cheek.

  12. Broga says:

    @Miss Floribunda Rose: You have a long way to go before you offend my sensibilities. Keep posting. You have experiences which the rest of us (I assume) lack.

  13. 1859 says:

    @ MFR: You may be sexually liberated but your writing style suggests you are still struggling to be intellectually liberated. But as Broga says, keep on posting – with every word you type you may be one step closer to the freedom for which, I suspect, you yearn. And please feel free to tell me to mind my own fucking business.

  14. Broga says:

    @1859: Astute comment.

  15. barriejohn says:

    I don’t believe a word of MFR’s comments!

  16. Stephen Mynett says:

    Broga, I was chatting with someone from The Clergy Project and originally had do do a double take when he wrote it as TCP, as anyone from the UK knows it is one of the most popular antiseptics over here. Then we realised that both TCPs do a similar job in fighting nasty infections.

  17. Stephen Mynett says:

    BJ, hope you don’t mind the shortening but am too lazy to type your full name, I gave up reading her posts a while back, they strike me as coming from some sort of long-haul troll who just wants an argument.

  18. barriejohn says:

    SM: No, I don’t mind (hahaha) – and “she” is obviously just trying to wind up the mainly “liberal” visitors to this blog. I wouldn’t be surprised if she turns out to be Nigel Farage eventually!

  19. barriejohn says:

    Britain has a movement called “Sea of Faith”, which attracts many “doubting” clergy:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_of_Faith

  20. barriejohn says:

    To Anne Atkins, Andrea Minichiello Williams et al (whoever he is) they are “heretics”, and to be rooted out of the Church:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/393479.stm

    The late David Jenkins was another religious believer for whom I had great respect, as was John Robinson from an earlier era. Honest to God really made me think when I was a student and keen Christian, and the evangelical replies to it were totally unconvincing (as were their responses to the Dead Sea Scrolls revelations).

    The last trial for heresy in the UK happened in 1847, although there were accusations that David Jenkins was heretical. The Reverend Anthony Freeman lost his job as priest of Staplefield in 1994 when the Bishop of Chichester withdrew his licence.

    Mr Freeman, a member of Sea of Faith, was the first Anglican clergyman to lose his job in this way this century.

  21. Paul says:

    I have to agree with John The Drunkard that it makes little sense to be openly gay and a rabbi at the same time and yes I do understand the other comments that these Christian priests have jobs pay bills etc and it’s all a bit of a con. But it’s a con perpetrated on society as a whole and frankly it’s not just insulting it’s unnecessary. If there is so much money washing about for the so called good causes these religious places do – why aren’t these resources channelled into really doing real good solely, instead of too perpetuating a crass imbecilic myth, taking words of Stone-bronze Age men as sacrosanct and somehow, in this age, of relevance. It just can’t be. It is facile.
    We show too much weakness and too much arrogance against those who are truly weak and sincerely need our help.

  22. AgentCormac says:

    ‘I don’t believe a word of MFR’s comments!’

    I’m with you on that one, barriejohn!

  23. barriejohn says:

    I love some of the comments as well:

    ‘To read Bell was like a “gateway drug” to doubt, skepticism, and then to the real hard stuff, like Richard Dawkins (after which there is presumably no return).’

    Are they afraid his arguments are so convincing that his conclusions are inescapable? To avoid hearing an argument because you are afraid its conclusion might be true is intellectually dishonest.

  24. Cali Ron says:

    I’ve decided that MFR stands for mother fucking ruse.