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Saturday, 31 December 2016

Rabbi Lionel Blue z”l 

What I remember most vividly was the cauliflower soup. It was the first time I’d been on a Retreat with my fellow rabbinic students from Leo Baeck College. So I’m going back 40 years or so. It was a cold, November day, in a rather austere, ramshackle Christian priory in Sussex that Rabbi Lionel Blue had taken us to. That first morning we practised sitting in silence – such a hard thing for Jews to do. Lionel suggested half an hour to start with – to be quiet, see where our minds went and whether, beyond the chatter in our heads, we could hear anything else.  

This was hard to do at first – it was such an alien concept, so ‘Christian’ to my provincial Jewish mind. But we trusted Lionel, or at least I did: he was one of my teachers, and a different kind of teacher from the more academically-oriented teachers I was used to at Leo Baeck College. He had something else to teach, something that came out of his own lived experience, his own struggles with faith, his own struggles with life. 

He spoke of his God as a friend, as a conversation partner, as a voice that did not always tell him what he wanted to hear but that was available if he, Lionel, allowed himself to listen. Lionel’s God seemed to accompany him on his journey through life, provoking him, re-assuring him, comforting him, nagging him, reminding him of the things that mattered in life, giving him a perspective on what really counted, helping him understand how something that seemed to be important in the heat of the moment could turn out to be trivial in the larger scheme of things. Lionel’s God helped him discriminate – as Lionel might say - between God’s point of view which was infinite and ours, which is always limited.   

Because we were trainee rabbis we were very keen to discuss the idea of God, to swap theological insights - but we weren’t very good at moving out of our heads towards our hearts. But for me Lionel’s retreats were a highlight of my time as a student rabbi because they allowed time to focus on experience and exploration and not just on thinking and knowing, or pseudo-knowing.  

It’s not that Lionel was not a thinker – on the contrary. Around that time I went to a conference where Lionel was one of the speakers and his theme was post-War European Jewish life; and I remember how he spoke for an hour without notes and gave a brilliant survey of how Jewish life was being lived in Germany and Holland and France and Italy and the UK. It was a stunning tour de force, a vivid, detailed portrait - and he concluded with one thing which has stuck in my mind ever since.  

That what the experience of the War had taught Jews - should have taught Jews - wherever they lived in Europe, was not to put their trust in political parties or economic theories: that ‘boom and bust’ was always going to be the pattern of history – and that if Jews trusted in material things, hoping they would last, hoping that they could gain security from what was in the end transient, they would always come unstuck, or  come to grief. That to be Jewish meant trusting in what you couldn’t see, couldn’t count, couldn’t measure, couldn’t hold in your hands – it meant trusting in the spirit. This was what it meant to live in a tradition with a God you couldn’t see. Judaism was an education in trusting the intangible.  

Lionel had a first-class mind – you might have forgotten that if you just heard his often whimsical, folksy contributions to  BBC radio’s ‘Thought for Today’. He just recognised that he couldn’t rely on the mind, the intellect, alone to get him through life. He was after the inner experience contained within all those clever theological words that we LBC students were bandying about that chilly autumn day.   

But back to the cauliflower soup.  Lionel had disappeared at some stage during the afternoon and by supper time - with an economy of effort and more than a soup├žon of unrehearsed love – he produced a giant tureen of the most heart-warming, rich, smooth, creamy, flavoursome cauliflower soup that you could imagine. His soup spoke more eloquently of the spirit than all our high-flown rabbinic waffling. This was food for - and from - the soul.  It tasted, so to speak, of heaven.  

For Lionel, the preparing and cooking and eating and sharing of food was a primary medium for spiritual self-expressiveness. He built a lot of his Jewish thinking around the kitchen. He taught how the cupboards and cabinets and drawers of the Jewish home contained the artefacts of Jewish spirituality: the candlesticks and bread covers and wine cups for Shabbat, lying neglected during the week, were capable of transforming secular time into holy living when the hour was right.  

In his first book – which was arguably his best (To Heaven With Scribes and Pharisees, 1975) – he’d written how: ‘in the cupboards [of the Jewish home] holy and secular meet and jostle, there is no strain, for all things can be transformed if they are turned to God. Cocktail cabinets and the kitchen drawer are the sacristy for the liturgy of the home’.    

Indeed for Lionel any gathering of convivial souls, where food was honoured, was a form of secular transubstantiation: God made present through the bonds of family, friends, guests, brought together to celebrate the joys of sharing food, hospitality, intimacy and laughter.   

Like many people who have pockets of pain tucked away, Lionel used laughter a lot in his teaching. Humour was an essential ingredient in his repertoire – but when he wanted to he could move from laughter and a lightness of being to seriousness and thoughtfulness in the twinkling of an eye.  

But he never pontificated. When I heard him talk over the years I almost never heard him addressing the large themes that rabbis often find themselves speaking about – politics, the environment, social justice, Israel, communal Jewish politics, world events. He usually focused on the human, the local, the small scale, the personal, on individual acts of kindness and generosity he’d witnessed, on people’s relationship to animals, to their actual neighbours, to the everyday joys and sadnesses of family life.  

He spoke about conversations with people he’d actually met: for many years when I lived in Finchley I’d see Lionel in the High Street, stopping or getting stopped every few yards, talking to someone  - they might be well-dressed or a vagrant, it never seemed to make a difference, he treated them the same - and sometimes people were talking to him and he was listening, and sometimes he was talking to them, but he had time for all of them, old and young, rich and poor, he never seemed hurried. It never seemed to me as I watched him – and I did watch him – as if he had his own life to live. It was as if he saw these  random meetings and conversations as his life – his own life was not separate from this – these were the encounters, the meetings, that mattered, that fed his own life, that were his life.  

The stuff that happened to him every day was the religious material of his life: this is what he learnt from; and this is what he taught about. That a random, overheard remark going down the Finchley High Road could change your life – it was like an angel speaking in your ear. No, not ‘like’ an angel, it was an angel. A message and messenger from the Divine. This was a piety both simple and profound.  

Although he ended up paradoxically as head of the Reform Beth Din, Lionel didn’t have much time for the Jewish religious establishment – ‘too much role playing’, he’d say - and he was a religious pragmatist: he thought that the only parts of religious tradition worth saving were the parts that you found worked for you - the rituals or prayers that spoke to you, or that you could use in such a way that God spoke to you through them.  

The rest of it, if it was all jumbo-jumbo to you – well, you should just ditch it and find something else that worked. That’s what I mean by a pragmatist. Find what works and use it – and if what works for you is a Quaker meeting or a Buddhist meditation technique, that’s fine: just use it. Be a magpie, take what you need. That’s part of what made him a great religious ecumenical figure. He could see the value in other religious traditions and didn’t feel the need to claim that his own was better, or more truthful.  

So, to come back to food for a moment, Lionel taught me how -- like the Mass or the Eucharist ceremony, the Hindu food offering to the gods, the Sikh kara prashad holy sweet, the Muslim shir kurma dessert at the end of Ramadan, and the Buddhists in Japan celebrating with red beans and rice -- Jewish food was also a route to holiness. And that anyone, sophisticated or unlearned, could make it part of their journey to holy living.  

So Lionel was a religious pragmatist. But he was also a sentimentalist, after a fashion. He wasn’t a nostalgist for some lost world of Jewish innocence or idealised shtetl life – growing up in the harshness and hard-headedness of the East End of London meant that he was immune to any  idealisation about the Jewish past. But he was a sentimentalist in that he believed – or wanted to believe, I could never quite work out  which – in simple truths about the innate goodness of the human heart. And about how God was his best friend. And a sentimentalist in his belief that a good story could take you a very long way in helping people overcome their fears and problems. And this was in spite of years and years he spent in therapy coming to terms with his own demons.  

And he did become a great storyteller, a great myth-maker, often about his own life. He once admitted to me that he was a mythographer: he wove personal anecdotes into religious material that he could then retail and re-tell. He’d found there was always a ready audience for this kind of storytelling. He told some stories about his formative experiences so many times that they were honed to perfection, but would still change from book to book, from interview to interview, tweaked to bring the best out of them for each occasion.  

This isn’t a criticism – I say it in admiration, and awe, and envy, for the gift he had of being the raconteur of his own life. He was a craftsman weaving a rich tapestry out of the fabric of his eventful and idiosyncratic life.                   

His pragmatism and sentimentalism were often there at the same time. On that first retreat I remember him saying apropos the soup: ‘Theologies alter and beliefs may die, but smells always remain in memory’. And there you have it – the essential religious understanding and the naked appeal to subjective feeling in one sentence. Maybe it was a quote from one of his books, or maybe it ended up in one of his books – but it doesn’t matter. He had a gift for turning experience into memorable language - you can almost always tell in our Reform liturgy the prayers that Lionel wrote. They have stood, and will stand, the test of time because they have a humanity to them, a truthfulness of feeling, that speaks to the heart and not to the head. Words mattered to him – almost as much as food.  

He knew that his legacy would not only be in the memories people would have of him but the words he’d leave behind. A few years ago I interviewed him for a celebratory volume for his co-liturgist Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, about their work together in Europe in the 1960s and 70s, when the trauma of the Shoah was still heavy on the ground, and it became necessary to build a new European Jewish consciousness out of the ashes of destruction. Lionel wanted to see the text of the interview before it was published, to read it and edit it, to shape it as he wanted the story to be remembered - which of course I let him do, even though by that time, because of his Parkinson’s, he could hardly hold in his hand a pen to do the editing.  Words mattered. How you told the story mattered. The truth was in how it was told not just in what was told.  

What would Lionel make, I wonder, of the mess we are in now in Europe, as one annus horribilis ends, and another year breaks onto the shoreline in front of us? He’d probably have a joke to cheer us up, or at least a good story. Maybe the story I first heard him tell during that Retreat, that speaks of where we are and how we need to go about facing our futures. He called it Heaven and Hell.  

It’s the story about a rabbi who wanted to see both heaven and hell. He fell asleep and dreamt that he was standing in front of a door, that opened into a room; and the room was prepared for a feast. A table was set and at its centre lay a great dish of delicious hot food. Guests sat around the table with long spoons in their hands, but they were crying out with hunger and wailing in pain: the spoons were so long that, however they distorted themselves, they could not get the food into their mouths. Unable to nourish themselves, they cursed  God the author of their plight.  And the rabbi awoke, knowing he had seen hell.  

But he fell asleep again and dreamt that he was standing in front of a door, that opened into a room; and the room was prepared for a feast. A table was set and at its centre lay a great dish of delicious hot food. Nothing had changed and he was about to cry out in horror. Then he saw that the guests had smiles on their faces, for with the same long spoons they were reaching out across the table to feed each other. And they were giving thanks to God the author of their joy. The rabbi awoke and he too blessed God who had shown him the nature of heaven and the nature of hell. And the chasm – just a hairsbreadth wide -- that always divides them.


[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, 31st December 2016]