Rabbi Lionel Blue died on 19 December, generating a plethora of warm and loving remembrances. I interviewed him for The Oldie in March 1999 and in tribute to a remarkable man, I reprint the transcript of the entire interview with a brief biography of Lionel Blue’s accomplishments.
Lionel Blue was born in the East End of London in 1930. He read history at Balliol College, Oxford, and took a BA in Semitics at University College London. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1960 and has been a lecturer at Leo Baeck College since 1967. He was a writer and broadcaster and a regular contributor to Thought for the Day on Radio 4 for 25 years. He is the author of many books including A Backdoor to Heaven (1979), Bright Blue (1985), Tales of Body and Soul (1994), My Affair with Christianity (1998), Hitchhiking to Heaven (2004) and The Godseeker’s Guide (2010).
According to one interviewer you have turned Jewish neurosis into an art form, which puts you up there with Woody Allen and other gifted neurotics. Would you agree with that analysis, and if so, are you happy with the company you share?
Oh, yes. There’s a quality about Jewish neurosis which is optimistic. Somehow you manage to come to the surface, even after something like the Holocaust. I watch this bobbing-up quality in Jewish life and I have seen how, despite all the neuroses, people create little sane communities on the ruins of the old. I think Woody Allen is extraordinarily funny, and he’s got that survival quality. When he asks the girl out on Saturday night and she says, ‘Saturday night I’m going to commit suicide,’ he then says, ‘OK, what about Friday night then?’
During your childhood you were left with your grandmother while your father looked for work and your mother was either ill in hospital or working late. Do you think that a troubled childhood was prerequisite for the rather angst-ridden adult life you have led?
I suppose it was. But I did have an awful lot of love, and although some of it was very manipulative, there was a lot of it around, and it gave me a lot of strength. However, since I was the only grandchild in my family, I was also expected to be the Messiah. And there were some tough bits, especially after my grandmother died, like wandering the streets after I came out of school and watching all the other children go and have tea with their parents.
As you said, you had love in abundance, being the adored only son, doted on by your grandparents. Why then do you think, long before the trauma of wartime evacuation, you saw yourself as an outsider, the class oddity, the monster of ugliness, which clearly you were not?
For one thing I was destabilized by the amount of anti-Semitism there was even in the East End of London before the war. There were the Mosley marches going on, the refugees were coming in, and some streets were too dangerous to walk on. I honestly thought at that time that Hitler was unstoppable. The other thing was that I was sort of a displaced person because my mother desperately wanted to get me out of the ghetto and out of the poverty trap, so the one thing I was required to be was clever. She dressed me in little silk suits which made me a kind of oddity in the playground, but sometimes when I had had enough I used to kick them off and go roistering with the gang.
You have written at length about your mother, who lived with you until she was ninety. But what about your father, who is mentioned only rarely?
I think he was too good a man for me. You see, my mother and father weren’t happy for many years of their lives – it had been a sort of arranged marriage which didn’t really work out – and I knew in order to survive I had to go with one or the other. My mother was the stronger character so I went with her. My father died over thirty years ago, at a time when I was still reacting against both my parents, and so there was an awful lot unsaid between us. He was a very good man, but he wasn’t a successful man. I always remember one incident on Whitechapel Road. It was a Saturday evening when we were supposed to be a nice family going out in our best clothes to the West End. My father saw a coloured man being thrown out of a pub, and he went in all fists flying, and there was an absolute riot, and my father was knocked out. When he came to, the owner of the pub said, ‘Herschel’ – that was my father’s Yiddish name – ‘do you know why I threw that man out of the pub? I kicked him out for making anti-Semitic remarks.’ My mother was heartbroken, not least because the Saturday night was ruined. Again, both my parents had such different ideals for me. My mother wanted me to be a solicitor, a sleek businessman, while my father, who was a referee in the boxing ring as well as a tailor, wanted me to be an athlete. The two just didn’t combine, and in the end I did the dirty on both of them by becoming a rabbi.
At the age of sixteen you talked to your mother about your sexuality, and you know she told your father, yet he never mentioned it. Have you held this against him?
No. He was always courteous to anybody I brought back home or was in love with. He was a very traditional man, and yet he somehow seemed to absorb it all, because the only thing he was interested in was my happiness. And both my parents felt a lot of guilt about me. Like most parents, they thought it was all their fault, which it wasn’t. But my father never made things difficult or protested at all – he wasn’t like that.
How did your father’s death affect you?
At the time I never grasped it. I only absorb things after a very long time. It was a good day, and I just thought my father would have liked it because it was a fine day for gardening. It’s only in the last ten years that I have really mourned my father. It’s taken me a long time.
As an evacuee during the war you were moved sixteen times, which seems appalling by any standards. Why was it necessary to move you so often? And why did your parents allow it?
Well, my parents wanted to do the best for me, and they overdid it, as they always did, and I ended up getting the worst of all possible worlds. First of all my mother’s boss said as a favour to my mother that I should go to Canada and be with his children, and so I was sent from place to place waiting for a ship, but every ship that I was supposed to go on got sunk. And so I shifted around from place to place with no time to make friends or put down roots, just waiting for this blasted ship. After Dunkirk it looked very much as though we were going to be invaded, so my parents then said that I’d better come back to London. The happiest time of my life was when I was with both of them in London during the Blitz.
Were you always sent to Gentile families?
Yes, because not many Jewish people live in the country. I saw Christianity in all its brands. I was quite interested in all these variations, and I insisted on going to Christian assembly at school, and also religious instruction. I read The Pilgrim’s Progress, and that book has remained with me all my life. It taught me that life is a journey and that we are not just bodies travelling the world but also souls going towards eternal life. The one Jewish family I remember were the Rechabites, who were against the demon drink. We used to join processions singing, ‘My drink is water bright, water bright,’ and I remember singing this when I went back to see my grandfather. He was furious because he was a great believer in whisky himself.
You were fourteen when you became painfully aware of your homosexuality, and were horrified. How did you explain it to yourself?
I remember my father was reading a Sunday paper and he remarked to my mother about these awful perverts, men who liked other men, and I just went white and rigid because I realised that was what I was. At least it indicated that there were other people besides me like that in the world, but I didn’t know where to find them, because not having brothers or sisters or even the time to build up a relationship in which you could ask such things, the only evidence of these other people was the graffiti in public loos. Very depressing. So I was aware that I was a part of an underworld but I didn’t know how you got in touch with it or what you did there.
Did you see your homosexuality as innate, or did you feel that your life experience had somehow caused it?
I saw it as innate. Before I was evacuated I was interested in little girls – like most children we used to play doctors and nurses – and I think I have always been bisexual, but I am mainly homosexual.
Were you ever attracted to girls?
I wasn’t actually attracted to girls at all, but I did fall in love with some girls, although not physically. Later on there was a girl in my life I was able to talk to, and she loved me, and we were thinking of getting married, but there were so many problems that I eventually said I thought we had better not. It’s one of the greatest might-have-beens in my life.
Was the relationship purely platonic?
We had sexual intercourse about twice, which gave me awful feelings of tremendous panic. But there were bits of it I enjoyed. For example, the actual orgasm was much deeper than anything I have encountered in homosexuality, but it was overlaid by so many layers of complex feelings. Putting it simply, if I was sitting in a café and a beautiful girl passed by, and then a beautiful chap passed by, well the girl was beautiful intellectually, but I would be physically attracted to the chap straightaway. Girls went against the grain, but there was definitely something there, which is why I think of myself as bisexual. I don’t know what would have happened if we’d got married, but I think the poor girl would have had a hell of a time.
Sexuality apart, do you enjoy the company of women?
As a matter of fact, I prefer women’s company and I’ve always had women as my closest friends. Put it this way: homosexuality was natural for me, whereas heterosexuality was difficult and awkward though there were some things in it which I enjoyed and which – who knows – I might have enjoyed more and more if I’d stayed with it. But I don’t think it really was possible, because the first attraction was always to a man.
You say you considered marriage… yet you were fully aware that you were gay and presumably she knew…
Yes, of course, I told her.
She was also Anglican, which meant a difference in basic religious outlook… I hope you will forgive me if I say it sounds to have been quite a mad idea. How could it possibly have worked?
Because she loved me, and because I was beginning to love her, and that made all the difference. I think in the end she would have become Jewish and done anything for my sake. We didn’t get married because I didn’t think it was right to put all this on somebody, but I’m very muddled about it still.
Did you hope to have children?
She wanted children. I just didn’t know what I wanted. I also didn’t know what sort of a father I would make. An awful lot would have depended on her. It was something that was out of my reckoning. It was her I wanted, not children.
Do you regret that you are childless, that the family line ends with you?
Sometimes. That is why I was very happy when I looked after my mother and aunt when they were in their nineties, because they were my children, and I liked it. Yes, I’m sorry that the whole line ends with me, it seems a bit of a waste, but, in a way, in doing Thought for the Day you end up with a lot of children. It’s the same with teaching in the seminary. That’s the only way I can deal with it. How I would have behaved with a real child, I just do not know.
There are many homosexuals who want children and many of them have become wonderful parents, but I find with myself and my partner, that our relationship is more than enough for me to cope with. Your saving grace as a lonely, friendless schoolboy was that you were clever, but instead of boosting your self-esteem this only increased the pressure of family expectations. Why didn’t you feel you could meet those expectations?
I think because I felt they didn’t do justice to me, in the sense that my family’s idea of worldly success somehow seemed very cramped, and in the last resort I wasn’t that interested in money. Just when I thought I would be a real drop-out, two things happened: one, I caught religion, and two, I met an analyst at a party. The two together were my salvation, and I was born again, so to speak.
Why was the analyst your salvation?
He was the first person I was able to be honest with. I had tried before to be honest, first to a rabbi, then to a teacher, and they both were horrified and sort of threw me out. The analyst was the first person who seemed to like me as I was. I met him shortly after I caught religion and I asked him in a rather prissy way if my sexuality would destroy my religion and he replied that in so far as my religion was neurotic, it would, but in so far as it wasn’t neurotic it wouldn’t. He also became interested in spiritual matters and went on an ashram in India, so that was something else that connected us.
How were the two things – sex and religion – connected in your mind?
To begin with I thought I had to sublimate all the sex for religion, and in trying to sublimate sex I found myself back in my childhood again being neurotic, and I thought, no, no, no, it can’t be like that. Then through the Quakers I developed a kind of inner voice which told me to break out. At that point I felt I had had enough so I decided to say yes to everything, and I went to Amsterdam, which was the sort of Greenwich Village of Europe at the time. And there I found religion again, because I discovered that people are very vulnerable, especially with no clothes on. I found out a lot of other things as well. For example, I went to a kind of gay sauna in Amsterdam and after experiencing the two or three seconds of relief, I began to think it was the biggest con trick ever. I thought, is this the thing I’ve been mad about all these years? And the inner voice said to me, ‘Lionel you don’t get much from it because you don’t give much.’ I then realized that religion and sex had to be brought together. I had been a terribly repressed person, so I needed a bit of relief, but going beyond that bit of relief you ended up in the sphere of beginning to make love, and that was a different matter.
You don’t find a contradiction between sex and religion?
No, no. Religious people often say that if you have too much sex it will damn you. I don’t think it will damn you, but what I do think it can do is trivialise you. You end up as genitalia and not much else, and I went through that period myself. After I came back to England I wanted to find someone to settle down with, to have a home with, to recreate my grandparents’ house in a homosexual context. It took me a long time to find all that. Once again, because I didn’t know much about relationships, I would try to turn people into my fantasies, and it took me ages before I realized that people don’t change and you have to love what is there in front of you. It sounds a very simple truth but it took me a very long time to like people as they are, not as I would wish them to be. My third really long-term relationship has proved successful what I always wanted.
Adolescence was hell for you and when you made it to Oxford you found you could not cope and you came close to a total breakdown. The suicide attempt you describe – leaping from the top of a wardrobe – seems to have been a bit half-hearted… was it more a desperate cry for help?
Yes, it was a way of saying I couldn’t cope. And you have to remember at that time, in the late 1940s, early 1950s, counselling was not the norm. Oxford was a place where public-school chaps went for cold showers, and homosexuality was still a crime.
You have been in therapy for more than forty years. Would you say your need for therapy is based on the trauma of your evacuation years, or more on the burden of your homosexuality?
I just don’t know. It could even have been a pre-birth problem – who can say? During some of the sessions with the analyst, there seemed to be a kind of birth experience, and I couldn’t talk, I could only make baby sounds. My childhood was certainly a complete muddle, but on the other hand, many people have had worse childhoods than me and come out fighting fit and normal. All I can say is my cry for help was answered.
Christianity had attracted you during the wartime years because you hated being the odd man out, because you were in love with the dreaming spires of Oxford and the tolling bells, and not least the seductive figure of Jesus. But your flirtation with Christianity ended suddenly when you were overcome with rage at the appalling anti-Judaism of Christian teaching and traditions which had led straight to the murder of six million Jews. What puzzles me is how your flirtation could have begun in the first place since you must have known all about the Inquisition and the Holocaust…
I suppose it just didn’t connect up really. And of course Christianity wasn’t all anti-Semitism. The Christians I met were remarkably nice and I found them easier to task to than rabbis. They didn’t want my body but they seemed to like my soul, and that was something. There were three or four things I got from Christianity, which even the rage I felt afterwards did not take away completely. One was that I began to see all my problems in a new light. Christians showed me that my problems could also be my spiritual capital, that perhaps the only way I could come to understand compassion and mercy for other people was to suffer myself. Therefore I began to see my problems as blessings, and once you feel that there’s a purpose in problems and suffering, then they have a new aspect. The next thing I found out from Christians was that home could never really be in this world, because this world wasn’t perfection and it could only be a corridor. Later on I realized that you only get a glimpse of love in this world but the real thing is in a different dimension. It’s no accident that heaven is a word which comes into the titles of many of my books, for I began to realize that if you did something for heaven’s sake, then heaven happened. The third thing I found was that religion could be a love affair, and also a friendship. I was not interested in a God who was a parent figure because I had enough problems with parents, but I needed a friend badly, so Jesus became my friend, and we used to chat to each other. Sometimes I wondered if I was a ventriloquist’s dummy or if I was getting schizoid, but what Jesus said to me made remarkable sense.
Do you still talk to him?
Yes, whoever he is. He’s a combination of the guardian angel my Polish-Russian grandmother believed in, and the Jesus whom I met at the Quakers. Put it this way, I have a friend in high places. And that friendship is central to my life. I still go, for example, to a Carmelite priory near Oxford, not to be converted or because I desperately want the ritual, but because there’s a lot of space there to go into my inner conversations and nobody thinks I’m a fool – it’s accepted. Every so often I get a summons from my friend, and he says, ‘Hey, hey, what about me? I think we’d better have our little chat.’ Divine friendship is no different from human friendship; you have to invest time and attention a bit.
Going back to the fleshpots of Amsterdam, whatever happiness you found there was human and understandable, but was it not an odd place to discover that you wanted to become a rabbi?
No, because actually I found that after making love people often used to talk to me. Before that I used to want to get away as fast as I jolly well could after having a climax, but later I used to lie in bed just talking, listening to people. If you ask me where do I find God, I will tell you I find God in people. They bring out the Yiddisher momma in me and I have a great sense of compassion. I remember there was one particular chap, and after we made love I told him I was to become a rabbi, and he told me he had been in the SS, and we just lay silently for a while and a great feeling of compassion came over both of us. He wanted me to forgive him and I told him it wasn’t in my remit, as it were, that I didn’t have powers of forgiveness, that I wasn’t a Catholic priest. But I felt for him and I just held him in my arms until the morning. I couldn’t have sex with him again – I’m not a sexual prowess kind of person anyway – but hold him in my arms I could. Another time I met a girl in a pub in a German port, Bremen I think, and she was well dressed with a sort of Parisian charm, but she turned out to be a transsexual, and that was the only place that would accept her. I went out with her, we went to the opera together, and once again there was compassion. I had been brought up in a respectable suburban world, and suddenly I was discovering the underside of Europe. My friend from above was with me, and he seemed to take over. I began to feel at last that I could become a minister.
Do you think it was necessary to leave England to discover these things?
I hadn’t realized until I went to Holland how mannered a place England is, how one uses conversations not to communicate but really to hide. I liked the way the Dutch call a spade a spade. The thing I must make clear about Christianity and why I didn’t become a Christian is that I’d read the Gospels and the New Testament and there were too many things there not for me. But at the same time Christianity did give me a friend and that was extremely important. I remember when my second relationship folded up, a sort of black hole developed, because we’d been together for fifteen years, and I went into a little chapel nearby and asked, where the hell do I go from here? And this voice came and said, ‘Look, Lionel, in this world you only get reflections of things, reflections of love, but one day you’ll get the real thing.’ I took that to mean when I died, so it rather changed the centre of gravity of my life. My boyfriend and I shared a home in north London. We had an enormous row about who owned this and who owned that, but I remember when I got back I suddenly heard the voice again and I just said to my boyfriend that we should toss a coin about everything to decide who owned it. He said, ‘Lionel that’s the most intelligent thing you’ve said for years,’ so we went to a pub, tossed a coin, and although the relationship finished in the formal sense, at the same time the affection stayed on and we remained fond of one another.
You tell us that Tina – the woman who ran the sauna in Amsterdam – ‘made an honest rabbi’ of you… did you mean that you kept your homosexuality a secret for some years after becoming a rabbi?
Oh yes, because it was criminal.
But did this not make you a dishonest rabbi in a sense?
Well, actually I told the senior rabbi and he said, ‘Well, Lionel, I can only afford one of you, but one of you I’d better have.’ And I told all my closest friends in the rabbinate and even though I couldn’t say the whole truth I tried not to lie.
In the Church of England some priests are known to be homosexual, but living with a partner is not officially permitted. Has your congregation accepted your way of life without protest?
Yes, but if I had been an ordinary congregational rabbi it might have raised a lot of problems. I’ve been a religious bureaucrat; I teach art at the seminary, I do retreats for alcoholics, HIV people, that sort of thing, and everyone has accepted it because I don’t make my homosexuality a threat to them. If people feel threatened they get angry, but if you don’t sort of slap it in their faces, they are on the whole quite pleasant about it.
So you’ve never had any problem with that?
Until 1968 I had to be careful, and with all this care I probably destroyed my first relationship because we had to hide so much. It was too big a strain. I always remember, for example, that during a time my friend was badly ill I had to go to a religious conference. This meant finding a hotel for him nearby, and sort of sneaking out to see him. It didn’t make for an easy domestic life.
Deep inside, do you consider homosexuality natural, or is it an affliction?
It’s not an affliction. Put it this way, it’s a more difficult fit, physically, socially and emotionally, but you get to the same place in the end. You do find real love, real companionship. They are more difficult to get to, but they are there.
At the end of your book My Affair with Christianity, you say that you do not believe in the Messiah. The idea that ‘a Messiah would drop from the sky to sort out our problems’ is, you say, ‘the illusion of children’. I had thought that the Jewish Messiah, so long awaited was something more profound than the Mary Poppins figure you describe, dropping from the sky to sort out our problems…
Yes, that is true. I suppose it was a rather shallow statement. My view is that there is a redeemer in each of us, and that if you are prepared to play the role of redeemer, yes, the Messiahship is open to you if you want it. I suppose I’m too Jewish to think of it in terms of another Jew, or even of another human being, and I don’t really think that perfection is possible in this life.
But the way you portray the Messiah does rather trivialize a hope which has been clung to sincerely through two thousand years of persecution…
Yes, but there’s a lot in that hope which is not for me. I don’t hope to be ingathered to a promised land; I do not think there is a perfect world which is going to come. I went through that perfect-world business when I was a Marxist and saw the damage it can do. It seems to me the best thing to do is to concentrate on the little things of life and make sense of them.
Like so many modern Christian churchmen you say that you believe in looking for God within yourself. You describe it as ‘a power of redemption that works through all of us, which brings good out of evil, niceness out of nastiness, bliss out of tragedy’. Are you confident you can always find examples of bliss out of tragedy, and so on?
Yes, I am. That meeting with the SS man is a good example. I don’t think he’ll have been the same since, yet we didn’t exactly go through any ritual or anything like that. He’ll never be the same about Jews, just as I’ll never be the same about Germans.
In the same book you write: ‘When we die, time and space die with us, so there cannot be an afterlife but there is a beyond life, which is the source of our souls and of all goodness.’ Can you try to elaborate on that? What could all that possibly mean in ordinary language?
Time and space do die with us, and at the same time in this life we already touch heaven, that is to say a little bit of oneself is already invested in it. As I said, if you do things for heaven’s sake, heaven happens to you. Heaven happens to me, and I think heaven happens to most people. I met a woman who told me she’d never had a religious experience, but then she recounted how she had been in a supermarket and the woman in front of her had muddled up her credit cards, the girl at the checkout was having hysterics, the man behind her was getting so annoyed he was pushing her in the bottom with his trolley. This woman I met was about to join in the fray when instead she burst out laughing, helped the woman sort out her credit cards, pacified the checkout girl, even waved her bum about a bit so the man could have a better target for his trolley. Now, what she was describing for me was a state of grace for someone who’s touched heaven.
So when you die, what do you expect to happen?
I think I’m going to meet my voice, the one I’ve been talking to for years. I will have a sort of appointment. When I die, time and space will die with me, and that is what I call a beyond life, because then I will be in territory my mind cannot grapple with. In my restricted mind I can talk about it in terms of a meeting, and I’m looking forward to that meeting because he has been the best friend I’ve ever had, and even if we just sit holding hands that will be enough.
The resurrection of the dead, like the coming of the Messiah, is a key belief of Judaism. Doesn’t a rabbi who abandons key beliefs do so at his peril?
People think of the resurrection in very different ways. Some people think of it as just their souls going home. The only thing I’m sure of is that I’ll meet my voice. The rest is for me speculative.
In the context of your two heart attacks and your treatment for cancer you have said that you used to be frightened of death but not anymore. ’If the worst comes to the worst, I don’t feel this world is my only home.’ I’m wondering where exactly you will go if there is no afterlife…
I will go in pursuit of the voice. The voice is my home. Lots of people who have seen their houses being blown up know that their houses are not their final home. The things which look so solid aren’t, and the Jewish tradition was that you used to leave a little bit of your house unplastered to remind yourself that this is not your final home. My home isn’t here; it’s more like a departure lounge in an airport; you make yourself as comfortable as you can, and you get to know people, but at the same time it’s not your final destination.
In March 1996, speaking at a symposium on electronic information, you mentioned prayer as a means of communication and described it as ‘the divine spark incarnating itself inside myself and others’. Yet in 1998 you told an interviewer that in times of trouble you never turn to prayer and dismiss it as ‘pre-scientific ju-ju’. Were you correctly quoted?
Yes. I don’t know the context in which I said these things, but prayer in the sense of one saying, I want this, I want that, is nonsense. Think of all the prayers that must have been said in the wagons and the concentration camps; they weren’t answered in any way we know of, so prayer in that sense is certainly pre-scientific ju-ju. I gave that sort of thing up when I was five years old. Prayer for me is… let’s see, what would it be… prayer for me is the going into of another gear, it is just chatting to my friend; it’s not asking for this or that. Sometimes you do seem to get what you want, like when I was really at the bottom and I found religion and my analyst – you can say then that my prayers were answered. But there have been too many people who haven’t had answers for me to trust prayer. The best thing to do is not to think of it along those lines.
You have jettisoned a great deal of Orthodox Judaism. Do you still keep an Orthodox kitchen and follow the dietary laws?
I don’t, I’m vegetarian, well, more or less vegetarian, because I do not want to eat battery-farmed animals. I don’t want to have battery veal and I prefer not to have battery chicken, so that accounts for an awful lot of it. In any case, it makes life simpler not to be absolutely Orthodox. It means everyone can come to eat with me – Moslems, Christians, anyone – and I can also eat out. For example, I’m not going to worry if the person who washes up is menstruating, or whether the plates have had both milk and meat on them.
Do you eat pork?
Not knowingly. The only thing I would eat in that line is breast of chicken, and it has to be free range.
What remains of your Judaism, would you say?
Feeling that Abraham was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather and that Sarah was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, and that it’s my family. Now I might not agree with all the members of my family and I might not like all the members of my family, but it’s still my family, and I’m part of it. I’ve also got to make sure that I convey to the next generation something of the kind of world I was brought into; I have to be a link, part of the chain of tradition.
You have sometimes said that all programmes for human betterment are undermined by human frailty. Is this a way of saying that despite all the technology and electronic marvels we are still beset by the same problems as primitive man – how best to live together and use our tools for the good of the community?
One of the tragedies of modern times is the uneven development of things. The technical part of our mind has grown enormously but the emotions have not grown at the same pace. Take an aeroplane, for example. If you look at the engine, the miracle of technology hits you, the wisdom that’s gone into this thing, the exactitude, the respect for truth if you like. But then a man with unresolved potty habits comes along and can hijack the plane and crash it – all because his mother didn’t put him on the potty properly.
What do you think gives rise to anti-Semitism? Have you given that any thought?
Jews are a minority and they can’t hit back. And also, Jews tend to occupy a moral high ground which they believe can never be thrown off, and it is dangerous when you start thinking along those lines. What happened in the Holocaust was of a nastiness which was pretty unparalleled, because it didn’t just set out to destroy people’s bodies, but also their souls and spirits. But I have learned from looking deep into myself that there is probably a bit of Nazi in everyone, in me too. I remember seeing a fascist procession going through the East End of London and my mother pushing me into a doorway, but I actually wanted to change places with the marchers and have a drum. I was fed up of being on the Jewish losing side, with all the laughter through tears, and the suffering; the pain in Jewish history was sometimes too much to support. So you have to be careful as to what lessons you learn from the Holocaust. I mean, I sometimes sit back and wonder what an Arab child in the Lebanon must think of the Jews, and it frightens me.
You describe your grandmothers ‘medieval’ mix of superstition, self-sacrifice, piety, mysticism, prayer, faith and food… don’t most people have that kind of mix, even if not the same ingredients?
I don’t think most people have the piety my grandmother had. She was an unreconstructed medieval Jewess and she had a kind of piety which comes from another age. People now are so calculating, because of the society we live in. But my grandmother was not a calculating woman; she made great basins full of soup, and everyone came in, whether it was marching miners or the madwoman who lived on the corner. It was hospitality at its best. It’s something I don’t do and can’t do. I can’t welcome all the people in the street to my home; I simply haven’t got the piety or the courage to do it. I’ve learned to be frightened, and she wasn’t. That’s where Judaism comes in – this magic of turning a house into a home, relationships into a kind of marriage, poverty into charity. All of that I’ve seen with my grandmother.
Your recent book is called My Affair with Christianity, but it does seem as if you do have a predisposition for affairs – not just Christianity, but Marxism, Quakerism, Anglo-Catholicism, psychoanalysis. Are you sometimes afraid of giving the impression of being a crazy mixed-up kid?
I suppose people might think so, but in my grandparents’ generation what you were born into you stayed in; religion was standing on a fixed point and you were there for ever. People now are not pious battery hens; we’re free range, and we make our journeys through the world, like in Pilgrim’s Progress, taking in the bad and the good as we go. Judaism is my religious home. Yes, I make all sorts of excursions from it and I bring back things to it, but it’s my home, not my prison. I suppose the journey hasn’t stopped yet, but Judaism has lasted with me a very long time.
If you hadn’t been a rabbi what do you think you would have done in your life?
If I went back to a job now I think I would be a hospital chaplain. First of all, it’s no great penance for me, I’m not trying to be Jesus on the Cross, because I like hospitals too – we both liked the busy wards with all the people going up and down, just like our little street in the East End. The other thing is that when people are vulnerable you see a lot of God in them, and it always surprises me in hospitals, considering what people are going through, how nice they are to each other. It’s also a safe and secure environment, and I like that.