Have you heard the one about the rabbi who got cancer? Not a proper subject for joking, you might feel. Rabbi Lionel Blue would beg to differ. In theory, at any rate. "Jokes are ways in which people cope with problems they can't solve," says the man who has been described as Britain's best-loved cleric. (He came fifth in a poll of spiritual figures a few years back, one place ahead of the Archbishop of Canterbury and three ahead of the Pope.)
And yet the man who is known to the nation, after 30 years of Thought for the Day broadcasts, for always starting and ending with a bit of gentle Jewish humour was not in a joking mood when we met at his knick-knack-cluttered north London home. Not long before he had been told he had developed a serious skin cancer - news he passed on to his breakfast-time Radio 4 audience, saying that he was having "a second brush with mortality".
Actually, he has had more than two: at the age of 74, he has so far weathered prostate cancer and a couple of heart attacks. It has all brought a valedictory tone to his Today programme broadcasts. "Every time I hear him," one listener said, "it is as if he is saying goodbye."
Lionel Blue smiles. "When a man gets into his seventies, the horizon becomes quite close. Something happens that is as big a change as when you move from being an adolescent to an adult. A lot of things in my past begin to make sense now.
"When I was breaking up with the second great love of my life, we were in Venice and I went into a chapel near the Rialto. In the silence an inner voice spoke to me. It said, 'Look, Lionel, the kind of love you've been looking for, you don't get in this reality. You'll have to wait.' I took it that that meant dying. Since then it has seemed to me there was something to look forward to in the whole situation. Death was purposive. It wasn't a waste.
"But I'm certainly not saying goodbye to anything. Because I like life. And, like my mother, I like to turn everything into a treat." At the age of 93, his mother was demanding a bottle of perfume (she liked Charlie) in hospital "so she could fascinate all the young medical students who came round with the specialist". But, he says, it is the case that "as you get older you're not interested in networking, you're mostly out of the rat race, you've proved yourself to yourself in so far as you ever will. After that, as my Ma used to say, the rest is gravy."
There is a lot of gravy about. Lionel Blue is finishing an autobiography: "I'm editing, the hardest part." He is thinking of going back to painting. An oil in heavy impasto hangs amid the primitivist modern art, sepia family photographs and many vases of flowers that fight for space in his living room. The painting is his depiction of a procession in his street in the East End of London in the 1930s. "I'm not a very good painter, but it brings back my memories."
And he is writing a novel. "It began in hospital. In the night, you can't put the light or the radio on, so my mind fell to thinking about all the 'might have been' situations in my life."
One sense of loss that has never left him concerns an encounter he had long ago with another man (Lionel Blue was the first rabbi in Britain to come out as gay). "It was at a Sweelinck organ concert in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. Our hands touched. We never made love, but there was something there that was important. But I didn't give him my address, because someone had recently told me that I was too trusting and shouldn't do things like that. So my novel starts with me giving him my address."
That is far from the only "might have been" in the rabbi's life. As a young man at university in Oxford, he almost became an Anglican monk. "I discovered monasteries by chance and immediately took to them. I was then still a Marxist, and I felt guilty about liking such things at all. But I had the feeling that they were pointing in the right direction."
His mother was horrified. "She said, 'Lionel, you're doing this to spite us. I'll kill myself and your father will kill himself too.' I realised that I wasn't quite up for murdering my mother and father, so I backed out."
Actually, she said the same thing again when he announced that he was going to train as a rabbi. And there was a bit more to his rejection of Christianity. The prospect of conversion made him feel a traitor to more than his immediate family, especially in the light of the centuries of Christian anti-Judaism that paved the way for modern anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. "And when I read the Gospels all the way through, I was gobsmacked. They're very hard to live by, with all this 'if your eye offends you, pluck it out' stuff." (Metaphor is not a rabbinical tradition, he insists.) "And they're very elitist - 'Many are called, but few are chosen' - I was more used to the Jewish approach of, 'We'll all go together when we go.' But I've learnt a lot from Christianity that has really made my Jewish life flower."
There is another "might have been", too. "There was a girl who was really in love with me. She was the loveliest person I've ever met in my life. She was even prepared to become Jewish because of me. We nearly got married."
The trouble was that Lionel had felt since he was 12, in the period when he was evacuated from London during the Blitz, that he was gay. "We talked about it. She had the courage to go forward into this great unknown, but I didn't. We went through this scenario two or three times." But he was heading for a mental breakdown, which came when he was in his late twenties. Only after homosexuality was legalised in the Sixties did he come out, first to family, friends and fellow rabbis, and then some time later openly in a newspaper. He has now been with his partner, Jim, a former undertaker from Liverpool, for 22 years.
"Looking back, sometimes I think I might have made a go of marrying her, and sometimes not. A heterosexual marriage might have ruined her life as well as mine. I can't answer. I don't even know today whether children are important to me or whether I'd have been unselfish enough to bring them up."
Instead, he went into therapy. But rather than dispelling the inner voice that had first come to him one foggy Thursday in Oxford in 1951, psychoanalysis helped to clarify it. "If the kingdom of Heaven is within you, then you can't know about God without knowing about yourself; if you try you'll end up in fanaticism or banality."
Throughout his career - as the European director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the convener of the Beth Din (religious court) of Britain's Reform synagogues and as a lecturer at the Leo Baeck College, where he wrote several books on Jewish liturgy - this inner voice has been at the heart of his faith.
"In a way, I've made my own religion," he says. Prayer in an empty synagogue or chapel is central to him, but so is sitting on the concourse of Euston station with some fast food watching people come and go. "God comes closest to me in the comedy and tragedy of human life."
To judge from his massive Thought for the Day postbag, he says, most people come to religion out of need. "There's some problem in their life. They're no fools. They know that a little prayer is not going wash the problem away. But they want to know if religion can help them to understand it, to cope with it, live with it, be creative about it. By and large, they don't care about the provenance of the solution so long as it works."
The same could be said of Lionel Blue himself. As you enter his home in Finchley, by the front door there is a mezuzot, a Jewish scroll symbolising that God is in the house. Inside there is an Orthodox Christian icon from Bulgaria. A Hindu saint, "who's possibly a god now", presides over the breakfast room. Elsewhere, the whole of the Koran is framed. But there are no "might have beens" among the items: "I have found at various times that these have all been helpful."
This is a syncretism that appeals to his fans, too. Buy one of his books via the internet and you will be told that customers who bought this also bought selections from the Talmud, the Koran, conversations between the Buddha and Jesus, and a work relating Christianity to the Chinese Tao.
There is a danger in this pick-and-mix approach, he says. It is that people avoid the discipline of religion. "You have to put into your relationship with Heaven the things that you would put into an ordinary friendship - time and attention. If you wanted to learn holiday Spanish, you would accept that you'd have to attend the lessons, but people feel they can learn to speak to God without any investment of themselves. You need to commit yourself to sit for 15 minutes at a time - not every day, but for a couple of months - to see what answers form in your mind. In the end, you are the only evidence of your experience."
For a number of years he fell under the influence of Vedanta, a mystical Hindu philosophy that makes distinctions on how people approach the divine. Some people do it through their search for truth, others through their search for love, others through their search for duty. "All have different needs. The people who search for love, like all people in love, want little keepsakes, rings, pictures, photographs, signed bits, angels and goodness knows what. This is the kind of language that love uses. But if you want truth you should keep away from all these things, because these are distractions from biblical criticism, philosophy and theology. But all that is academic unless it's anchored in real life need. I've followed the love road."
There have been great seekers after truth in Lionel Blue's life. Leo Baeck, who wasChief Rabbi of Germany during the Holocaust, was one such teacher. "Truth is something from the higher slopes," Blue says. "Religion is very good at truth, but it's not so good at honesty, which is the integration of truth into everyday life.
"There was a woman who ran a gay sauna; she taught me honesty." She asked him once to speak to the father of a young Jewish man who was having problems with his parents accepting his sexuality. "I was horrified. I wanted to keep my two worlds strictly apart. I said no." His failure to help haunts him still.
So does the funeral of the sauna owner. "She died of cancer. I assumed there would be lots of people at the funeral, but I didn't want to be recognised, so I stayed away." He was horrified again when he found that most of her other clients did too.
"My inner voice presented me with these situations, and I said no instead of going where my common sense and decency led me. But you get other chances. The Talmud asks, 'What is repentance?' and answers, 'Being in the same situation and not doing the same thing.'"
There are other compensations of age, he insists. He has finally learnt to listen. "I used to think I was listening, but I was often just thinking what I was going to say next. So much of what one says is not to convey truth, but to conceal it."
And humour was something that came late in his life. "It was in the latter part of middle age. First, I began to laugh at myself. Then I remembered that what had jollied me out of depression in the past was a good laugh. So I started to use humour in religion. It offers a way to say difficult things in a way that people would accept. It takes the hurt out of it but leaves the point. I began to see it as a way on Thought for the Day to get people up on a Monday morning and give them enough spiritual stiffening so they don't dive back under the duvet."
Yet, for all his wry turns of phrase, there are no actual jokes in our conversation. "I'm not a great teller of jokes. I just try to use them to help people when necessary. People send me sheaves of jokes through the post, but I don't read them. A joke on the printed page bears as much relation to laughter as a recipe does to a meal. It only comes to life when it goes through a human being.
"When I was a young rabbi, I thought that all problems were solveable. They're not. But you can tell a joke about them, which helps."
A typical Lionel Blue 'Thought for the Day'
The Nazi and the Bicycle Riders
The Nazi said to the Jew: "The Jews are responsible for all Germany's problems."
"Yes," said the Jew, "the Jews and the bicycle riders."
"Why the bicycle riders?" said the Nazi, puzzled.
"Why the Jews?" said the Jew.
It's easy to make a devil out of anyone who stands in our way or has a different opinion from our own. At Christmas and public holidays there is usually a lull in devil-making, but it soon starts up again - just wait until the goodwill evaporates. The lazy left will do it with classes, the lazy right will do it with races. Government and opposition politicians will make devils out of each other, though we know it's a game - but a foolhardy one.
And I shall do it, too. I shall make a devil out of the woman in front of me at the ticket office, who is buying a season ticket in the rush hour. I shall hate people on strike who spoil my holiday. I shall hate people whose success I fancy should be mine. Whenever I feel this way, I add to the present object of my hate the words "and the bicycle riders", and then I realise how absurd it is.
What is the devil, after all? Just my own weaknesses, my own lack of courage, the problem I can't face, the bit of my own self I can't love. We are our own devils. I used to fight my devils in prayer, but now I send them up in jokes.
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