Today is Shabbat Chanukkah, which falls this year on the seventh day of the festival. It is also the last day of 2016. How shall we review the past year? If we look at global events: a year etched by terror attacks that began with assaults in Paris against the ‘free speech’ Charlie Hebdo magazine on January 7, and against a kosher supermarket two days later;  a year in which the refugee crisis became a human catastrophe of devastating proportions, and the city of Aleppo, with its trapped population, a reminder of why people need to become refugees; a year in which Britain voted for Brexit and the United States voted for Trump – although around half of the electorate in both countries did not.
How paradoxical that 2016 should also be a year in which our congregation began to inhabit our beautiful new building and explore its possibilities, not only for our own community, but for forging connections with others – through the successful lunches and lectures, which commences again in January; and also through events like the Brighton and Hove Interfaith Service on November 20, the Winter Open House exhibition on November 27, and the Martlets Hospice ‘Light Up a Life’ service on December 11. At the same time, 2016 has also seen moments of deep sadness for our congregation, following the deaths of fourteen of our members, several of whom had belonged to the synagogue for many years, among them, those whose regular attendance and involvement, made them part of the fabric of congregational life. Let us recall them all now: Inge Sinden (05.01.16), Betty Sniders (04.01.16), Julia Marks (10.01.16), Bob Kaltz (06.04.16), Ela Kniaz (09.04.16), Suzette Collard (15.04.16), Rachel Zoob (14.05.16), Hans Levy (14.06.16), Joy Barnett (25.08.16), Dennis Hollis (09.11.16), Vicky Saxon (13.11.16), Rose Cannan (22.11.16), Audrey Hart (02.12.16) and Joanna Seldon (06.12.16). Fourteen dear and precious lives: Zichronam livrachah – May their memory be for blessing.
It seems that 2016 has also witnessed the passing of many famous personalities from across the spectrum of human endeavour, among them some Jews and those of Jewish descent, who left their mark, including: George Weidenfeld, Tony Warren, Anita Brookner, Peter Shaffer, Elie Wiesel, Gene Wilder, Shimon Peres, Jacob Neusner, Leonard Cohen, Yaffa Eliach, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Rabbi Lionel Blue and Carrie Fisher. Zichronam livrachah – May their memory also be for blessing.
Today, I would like to talk about Rabbi Lionel Blue, who became a household name, chiefly through his regular Monday morning contributions to Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ for over 25 years in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. I first met Rabbi Blue towards the end of 1983, when I was thinking about applying for the rabbinic programme at the Leo Baeck College. A meeting with another teacher at the college, concluded with the words: ‘I think it might be an idea for you to go and see my colleague, Lionel Blue; he’s quite good at detecting hidden talent.’ And so I did – and we hit it off immediately: having both been Marxists in our student days – he at Baliol College, Oxford, me at LSE – we discussed our journeys since that time, and as we spoke together, it became clear that he had been an outsider who had become an insider, and that was something I wanted, too.
I embarked on my rabbinic studies in October 1984, which involved being put on five-year probation together with Rabbi Sheila Shulman, Zichronah livrachah, because the progressive movements that sponsor the college were sceptical about the acceptability of lesbians as rabbis. Rabbi Lionel Blue became my tutor. But he wasn’t the kind of tutor, who arranged formal appointments with you in his office – which happened to be at the Reform Beit Din, which he served as Convenor. And so, towards the end of my first term, Lionel informed me that in January he was going to take me to a weekend retreat for Catholic novice nuns at Spode, a Dominican Priory, where he wanted me to lead Erev Shabbat at the dinner table.
It was a lot to get my head around. I knew, of course, that Rabbi Lionel Blue was deeply involved in interfaith dialogue, but I didn’t quite understand the connection between a retreat for young novice nuns and making Shabbat. The thought of it all gave me a headache: what could I, a lesbian feminist, aged 29, whose journey into the rabbinate was as much political as spiritual, have to say to 18-year-olds, so certain of their faith that they were prepared to make a lifelong commitment, involving vows of chastity, poverty and obedience? But that wasn’t my only problem. My experience of Erev Shabbat was limited to lighting the candles. I did not know any of the other blessings. Fortunately, Rabbi Barbara Borts, who had supported my application to Leo Baeck College, made me a tape, and I spent part of the winter break, learning to sing all the blessings. The retreat experience turned out to be just as unnerving as I had anticipated, with the young women gazing at me in bewilderment with their clear eyes. Their ardent fervour made me think – which is exactly what Lionel hoped it would do. But that wasn’t all that gave me pause for thought. Virtually teetotal, I was rather taken aback by the amount of alcohol consumed by the monks in the Priory bar each evening, as they joked and chatted together. And I’ll never forget how Rabbi Blue inducted me into my first experience of Christian prayer within a religious community. Before we went into our first service, he said to me: ‘Now, it’s completely up to you how much you join in with. I love a good hymn.’
Rabbi Blue continued to challenge me during those five years. I also challenged him. Having experienced being gay during the long, difficult years before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 ensured that homosexuality was no longer a crime, he couldn’t quite understand why I insisted on being so open about my sexuality. He felt that everything would be so much easier for me, if I didn’t make such an issue of it. Nevertheless, although Lionel didn’t quite know how to handle an outspoken radical feminist lesbian, he supported me steadfastly throughout my training, and when I asked him to ordain me, he beamed and said, yes.
In addition to being my tutor, Rabbi Blue also took the second year rabbinic students for a weekly session on ‘prayer’, which proved to be an eclectic introduction to the teachings of a number of key influences on his thinking, including, in particular, Simone Weil, a French philosopher and political activist, who died in 1943, aged 34. Born Jewish, Simone Weil later converted to Catholicism and became a mystic, practising a fierce asceticism. We read excerpts from a collection of her writings, Gateway to God. Two short quotations – one from a publication of her First and Last Notebooks, the other from her book, Gravity and Grace – sum-up what Rabbi Blue was trying to teach the rather worldly rabbinic students, who sat around him: ‘Attention is the rarest and purist form of generosity’; and: ‘Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.’ Rabbi Blue wrote some beautiful prayers, which adorn the prayer books of Reform Judaism, but more important, he was able to pray with all of who he was – emotionally and bodily as well as spiritually. Completely unpretentious, Lionel was honest and real. He was also full of humour, and would have chuckled at the thought that his obituaries in the print editions of The Times and The Guardian, would appear directly after those devoted to Zsa Zsa Gabor, who died the day before he did, with whom he shared a birthday – and who, like him, had had a formidable Jewish mother.
It was Rabbi Lionel Blue’s unpretentious wisdom that made his weekly ‘Thought for the Day’ such a gift to his listeners, helping millions face a new week with a smile. Fortunately, many of those ‘Thoughts’ have been published, and Rabbi Blue’s books – in particular, To Heaven with Scribes and Pharisees – also reflect his unique take on Judaism and Jewish life. As he frequently commented, ‘Judaism is my religious home, not my prison.’ Following his death, Lionel’s former students shared their memories of him via our rabbis’ email group. One particularly memory, offered by Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue, has the quality of the sort of tale associated with Chasidic rebbes of the 18th century. As I read his account in an email, I also recalled the incident. It seems a particularly appropriate story for Chanukkah, so I will share it with you now. Rabbi Romain relates:
“I have only witnessed one miracle in my life, but as that is one more than I expected, I count myself lucky. It took place during a rabbinic retreat for rabbis. Part of the programme was a meditation led by Lionel Blue. We were all sitting in a circle, and there was an unlit candle in the middle. Lionel spoke for a while about how hard it can sometimes be when we try to think about God and the meaning of our lives. Then he said he would light the candle – it would be a useful image to focus on as we entered a period of silence and contemplation. But for some reason, the candle would not light – it was a large fat candle, had already been used before and the wick had burnt down into a hollow within the candle. Someone else tried to light it, but also failed. ‘Never mind,’ said Lionel, ‘we’ll just have to imagine it burning’, and so we got on with being silent. After a while, perhaps half an hour, he said that if people wanted to share anything with the group they could do so.
“A few people did, and then one person, Desmond, said how upset he had been that the candle would not light. For him, it signified something that had gone wrong in his own life recently, and how he had lost confidence in himself as a result. During that half-hour silence he had been unable to think of anything but the candle and he had been trying mentally to relight it, and at the same time to rekindle the inner spirit within himself. While he was saying this, I was looking at the candle and gave a start, for it seemed to me that there was a tiny light. I leant forward in my chair – perhaps I was mistaken – perhaps it was just the reflection from a wall light. But there was a nervous flickering, and other people had begun to notice it too. Within a few moments it had become a bright flame, steady, confident and definitely ablaze. Desmond gasped, was astonished, and then smiled broadly.
“Had Desmond lit the candle by sheer will-power? Had God lit the candle as a sign that his period of turmoil was over and a new light was dawning? Or had the candle been smoldering invisibly all the time and then gradually become more obvious. Lionel and the person who had tried to help him were both adamant that they had not lit the candle. Actually, the answer did not matter very much, because the significance of all miracles is not how they happen, but what their effect is. In this case, it was the impact it had made on the despondent person who had felt hopeless and who now felt a new sense of enthusiasm. So often, it is a matter of inner blindness: being blind to the possibilities around us and then suddenly seeing the light. That is the real miracle, without any thunderbolts overhead or earthquakes below, but when something inside us moves and our eyes are more open than they were before.”
Rabbi Lionel Blue did not perform miracles. Rather, he simply bore witness in his being to the miracle of the presence of God in everyday life and experiences, the sacred and the mundane – not least, in disappointment and despair, suffering and sorrow. As we light all eight candles this evening on the last night of Chanukkah at the end of a complex year, may the blazing flames remind us that like Lionel Blue, Zichrono livrachah, may his memory be for blessing, each one of us is called to shine in our own particular way, and to bring our gifts to bless the world and those around us. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
31st December 2016 / 2nd Tevet 5777
- During three days of violence, three police officers were also murdered.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-30708237 ↑
- 3 February 1909 – 24 August 1943. See Haaretz, 24 August 2015: This Day in Jewish History, 1943 ‘God Isn’t Dead, He’s Silent’: Simone Weil Dies, Very Young. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/this-day-in-jewish-history/1.672507 See also: Susan Sontag’s review of Selected Essays by Simone Weil (translated by Richard Rees, Oxford University Press) in The New York Review of Books, 1 February 1963. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1963/02/01/simone-weil/ ↑
- Translated by Richard Rees (Oxford University Press, 1970). ↑
- A ‘Routledge Classic’. First published in 1952. ↑
- See, in particular, Forms of Prayer for Jewish Worship, Vol. 1, Shabbat and Daily Prayerbook (RSGB, London, 1977) and Vol. 3, Days of Awe (RSGB, London, 1985). ↑
- Zsa Zsa Gabor: 6 February 1917 – 18 December 2016; Lionel Blue: 6 February 1930 – 19 December 2016. ↑
- Full title: To Heaven with Scribes and Pharisees. The Jewish Path to God (1975). See also, in particular, his two works of autobiography, A Backdoor to Heaven (1985) and Hitchhiking to Heaven (2004), My affair with Christianity (1998) and Bright Blue (1985), a compilation of Lionel Blue’s BBC Radio Four ‘Thoughts for the Day.’ ↑