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A Backdoor to Heaven by Lionel Blue

December 19, 2016

abthLionel Blue (February 1930 –  December 2016) was a British Reform rabbi, journalist and broadcaster. He was born in the east end of London in 1930, evacuated to a number of places during the war and attended a grammar school in north London  He lost his faith at the age of five after petitionary prayer failed to remove Hitler and Oswald Mosley; he then turned to the Marxism of his uncle. Blue regained his faith while at the University of Oxford, when he found some resolution to severe personal conflicts regarding his sexuality at a Quaker meeting. He was the first British rabbi publicly to declare his homosexuality. He is best known for his longstanding work with the media, most notably his wry and gentle sense of humour on Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “Well good morning Sue and good morning John and good morning everybody” was his typical opening for a thought for the day

In 1998, Blue was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the Open University. He is also honorary doctor of Divinity and Fellow of Grey College, Durham. He is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

The suffering of the Jewish people made him interested in Christianity and Marxism.

Blue rediscovered his lost faith, when falling through an unlocked door into a Quaker meeting though he also says that he felt his vocation to be a rabbi at a gay sauna in Amsterdam.

He was ordained in 1960 and became a well-known liberal Rabbi.

Between 1960 and 1963, Blue was the minister of the Settlement Synagogue and Middlesex New Synagogue. He then became the European Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. In 1967, he began a long-term engagement as lecturer at Leo Baeck College in London.

He said that “all books can only speak of God’s redemption to other people at other

He said times.  We have to supplement them with our own experience, which tells us

how the same God redeemed us from our own Egypt in our own time.”  He says that while editing the Day of Atonement service for the Reform Synagogues, he came across these striking words:  “You open the book of memory and it speaks for itself, for every one has  signed it by their life.”

Although a bit of a mystic, he was very suspicious of piety. After all, what they pray for in those churches near the concentration camps?

Rabbi Lionel came out in the 1970s after a struggle with his sexuality. He was the first British rabbi publicly to affirm his homosexual orientation and published Godly and Gay in 1981. He was openly homosexual since the 1960s and had three male live-in lovers. He met his most recent partner, Jim, in 1981 through a personal advertisement in Gay Times. However, his memoirs reveal that he considered marrying Joanna Hughes, a student whom he met whilst they were both students at Oxford in 1950.

He was an occasional guest speaker of the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group. He is also a patron of Kairos in Soho, an organisation for homosexuals.

In 2011, he told The Independent it was his religion and psychoanalysis which helped him recover after a nervous breakdown at university.

He had a number of difficulties with his health in recent years including having a pacemaker fitted, cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

He lived with his partner of 30 years, Jim.

Chief Rabbi Mirvis didn’t think fit to mention him in his thought for the day after the death was announced. His is in line with the former chief rabbi not attending Rabbit Hugo Gryn’s funeral.

Lionel once said: “I don’t believe death is the end. This world is like a corridor, like a departure lounge in an airport. You make yourself comfortable and get to know people – then your number comes up and you’re called.”


 I learnt that reality was real and very solid. You could dream what you liked, but it would not change. I knew that no prayers would get people off the trains to concentration camps, and-wishing would never make it so, despite religion or popular songs; it was the same syrup whether it came in full canonicals or from• a juke box. When Mosley marched through the East End I prayed very hard. He didn’t get through, but I gave the credit to my father who landed in hospital, my grandfather who landed in the arms of the police, and my grandmother’s old cronies who carried buckets of water to throw from first-floor windows in Aldgate. My frightened piety had more to-do with pixies and garden gnomes, and even as a child I never took it seriously. This suspicion of piety has remained with me.

Because of my Marxism, I was not into myths or miracles, whether it was the virgin birth, the physical resurrection or casting out demons from an epileptic.

Another conundrum was my confirmation, my Bar Mitzvah. I was yanked back to Judaism and to London in order to become a man. I learnt to chant some paragraphs from Leviticus, and saw where the gore of my “foster-mothers” had come from. It was my debut in the synagogue and was reckoned a success. My aunts got some fish for the party (there was a war on), and I got some savings certificates and a fountain pen. God alone knows what He got out of it! There was an odd sequel: A few days afterwards I was sent to the synagogue to thank the Rabbi. He was busy and I wandered into the empty synagogue to wait for- him. Synagogues, like mosques, are often stark and the ark was closed. There was nothing there, it was empty and silent. But it was a friendly nothing, and a kind of loving was coiled in the silence. I surrendered to it and once again there was a meeting.

Though I later composed liturgy, it has always for me been a second best.. Services can be friendly and kind like the crowds at Margate or Blackpool, but the theatre is always in them. It is silence which is the centre.

There was a whitewashing job going on of course, but it was pathetic – too little and too late. Even Stalin had got a religious blessing, and so had Franco, and Petah’, and every paranoid, evil or weak person in that testing time.

This suspicion of religious institutions has remained with me ever since. I have lost the anger now because I know when I search my heart that I would not have been very different, probably no different at all And there is a Nazi inside me too: religion has taught me this.

Praying privately in churches, I began to discover that heaven was my true home and also that it was here and now, woven into this life.

In my briefmoments of honesty, I had to admit that for me the sacred text was my life and my experienc and that the Sacred Texts could only be a commentary on it. Th might have the ultimate truth, but it was not my truth. When accepted this, it was a relief. I no longer had to believe tall stori and defend the Truth from anybody. If it is the Truth, it can loo after itself. I did not have to worry either as to how biased it all w. Christian scholars were quite gleeful about dissecting th Pentateuch into E, J and P, with such elegant cutsas P1 and P The same scholar& became much more pious when th approached the New Testament I liked looking at the proc both ways, because with-Jews, of course, it was the reverse. were good critics of the New Testament and good believers in Old. But one thing was- dear to me as I came into touch with congregations. The sacred texts were receding over the fast and none of the scholars could do much about it.

There was one bar I use like, and I used to have a drink there before going hom was a pick-up bar — where ministers did not go (unless to up). Since for many it represented their last chance of companionship against the loneliness of the night, eve always went quicker there. There was not enough time t. so everything was more obvious. It was easy to see who give and who could take, and who could do it with grac generosity and who with bluff and brutality.

Some pick-ups showed real consideration and I hope would be able to have breakfast together on the ma the night before — without love probably but with aff Some were so corroded by fear and disillusion that one they would not degrade each other too much.

“Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” All of them however concentrate on the times they were oppressed, not on the times when they were oppressors. A spiritual advance kes place when a religious group can acknowledge itself as a persecutor and not see itself only among the persecuted.

Homosexuals and lesbians are a- good example of groups whose needs have scarcely been acknowledged or under­stood. Their number is constant, and their contribution to religion has been significant if unacknowledged, Since they cannot -rely on social connections to deepen their- rela­tionships or stabilize them, they have had to fmd more strength in themselves. Predsely because they cannot use social props, there is often an inner search which touches a deep inner reality and truth. Unfortunately they have been considered “outsiders”, so those who need -spirituality are precisely those who are put off by it.

They are one example of a great problem. Religion has a habit of idling you where you ought to be and not starting from where you are. It is also not very good at telling you how to get from one to the other, or how to value the experiences en route. If you are a man who is attracted to men or a woman who is attracted to women, it makes little sense to hear that Natural Law forbids it and that what you fancy you naturally feel is technically unnatural. Another example concerns young people. The age of the greatest sexual desire and the age of marriage or committed relationships are now separ­ated. Some people prefer not to experiment in the intervening period; an increasing number do. You cannot simulate the commitment of a marriage, but you can learn a lot about yourself in a- relationship. It depends a great deal on your needs, your scruples, your ability to direct sexual energy into other channels. Such experiments, such liaisons, are without benefit of clergy no matter how well-meaning or serious. But short does not always mean shallow.

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From → Biblical, Inter Faith

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