Reform Rabbi, journalist and broadcaster
First British Rabbi publicly to ‘affirm his homosexual orientation’
‘I am pleased now that I have lived in a gay as well as a religious ghetto, though it hasn’t been very comfortable. Taken together, their limitations cancel each other out and I have seen the world more kindly and more honestly’.
Lionel Blue was a British rabbi, journalist and broadcaster. His parents were Jews of Russian origin and his father worked as a tailor. He was a respected religious man. This was partly due to his gentle sense of humour on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the day’. He was on the programme for over twenty five years.
He was nine when World War 2 started. At thirteen he says he was already attracted to the school football captain. He was angry against God for making him gay and also for doing nothing to help the Jews in Germany. He had trouble with his sexuality throughout his teens. He tried to talk to others about his feelings but quickly learnt to hide them. He showed himself as a lonely, bookish child as a way to hide his strong sexual feelings.
At sixteen his parents sent him to a psychiatrist. Anxiety over his sexuality led to a nervous breakdown. At Oxford he tried to kill himself. By chance he went to a Quaker meeting and was impressed by the service. He says something in him changed at that moment. The open and supportive atmosphere at Oxford and later University College London helped. Years of psychoanalysis helped as well. He said religion gave him back his soul and psychoanalysis gave him back his body.
In the 1950s Blue visited Amsterdam. There he finally came out. The lady who managed the sauna he visited died. He felt unable publicly to go to her funeral. He heard that not many attended the funeral for the same reason. He realised he couldn’t use religion as a cover for living a false life.
Back in London Blue became one of the first two students at Leo Baeck College. That was the first college in the world to train and ordain LGBT+ rabbis. Blue became a rabbi in 1960. His sexuality was not a secret amongst his friends and many of his congregation. Although Jewish religious authorities accepted his sexuality he was initially given low ranking jobs. In 1963 he became director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and for many years he lectured at his old training college.
In 1980 he was the first rabbi, and one of the first clerics of any religion, to come out publicly as gay. In 1981 he published a speech “Godly and Gay”. The same year he met his partner, Jim Cummings. The two lived together until Cummings’ death in 2014.
He was known for his liberal teachings and he supported other gay members of his Jewish faith, He supported many LGBT+ charities. His courage in coming out led the way for many other Jews, Rabbis, and clergy of all faiths.
He developed prostate cancer in the early 2000s. His producer and friend from Radio 4 suggested he record his own obituary. It was broadcast on the day of his funeral. You can listen to it online.
Voices and Visibility 2019