Rabbi Lionel Blue OBE never held a formal post within Liberal Judaism but his death robs so many Liberal and Reform Jews, and indeed non-Jews too, of a personal spiritual anchor and guide.
However large his congregation – and on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, it was an impressive one – Lionel had the ability to persuade you, the listener, to think that he was talking to you alone in the privacy of his study or in your front room.
Lionel, by his own example, taught me three important lessons. Despite, being a teacher and mentor par excellence, he was humble enough to understand that the best of teachers learn most from their students and unplanned encounters.
Second, in spite of his dishevelled appearance and general disorganisation, Lionel was able to utilise a quick mind and a depth of spirituality to bring to every situation, whether joyous or tragic, the ideal balance of humour with sagacity.
Perhaps, most importantly, Lionel demonstrated to me that God’s presence is frequently found not in inspiring literature or charismatic leaders but rather in examples of genuine care where the actor expects no reward: the silent presence of a chaplain, the touch of a visitor, the wipe of the brow by a nurse.
As my rabbinic colleagues gathered for his funeral and shiva this week, each one had his or her own reason to appreciate their own encounter with Lionel. Each one had experienced something deep and genuinely meaningful. In his passing, it is unlikely that we will see another of his ilk again.
Although it is not a word Lionel would have used about himself many of us found him courageous, no more so than when he ‘outed’ himself as Britain’s first openly gay rabbi.
Liberal Judaism prides itself on championing equal rights for everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, and family structure, and has sought to enhance the mission of LGBTQI+ clergy, but Lionel’s words gave added confidence to put these ideals into action.
He paved the way for many of my colleagues to find their own truth and happiness, and that filtered out across our entire movement.
As the nation was already in love with him, this political act of personal bravery trickled, albeit slowly into other religions too.
Openly gay rabbis like Lionel mandated the need for safe, supportive, liturgically focussed groups like the Jewish Lesbian and Gay Group, it allowed the creation of Beit Klal Israel with its particular welcome, and he was personally kind to me when I was outspoken in support of equal marriage in religious spaces.
It is said of Lionel Blue that he would have made a wonderful Archbishop of Canterbury, although its current incumbent has managerial skills to which Lionel never aspired!
What can be said of Lionel was his genuine belief that persons of all faiths, and none, had a contribution to make to the spiritual and physical well-being of individuals and societies.
His cooking with a Christian canon and his ecumenical humour are a testament to his search for, and discovery of, truth in a wide range of settings.
Lionel Blue made his mark on so many, from so many different walks of life, and whilst Lionel and his memory belong to no single religious or other group, I am proud that he was both a Progressive Jew and a personal friend.