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.
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.
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