It was with great sadness that I read of Rabbi Lionel Blue's death in December at the age of 86. I have a number of his books and regularly refer to his insights about life and faith - especially the humorous ones. It's fair to say that he was one of the most respected religious leaders in the UK - described as the UK's most colourful Rabbi - mainly due to his regular three-minute 'Thought for the Day' talks that he gave on BBC Radio 4, usually concluding with a kindly Jewish joke. Some admirers have joked that he would have made an ideal Archbishop of Canterbury, had he not been Jewish!
In an interview about his radio work, he said he liked to give people a reason to get up and face the day by offering enough spiritual stiffening not to dive back under the duvet. He thus spoke about the ordinary things of life, and sought, through his 'mini-sermons' to 'bring God and the godly down to earth'.
It has been fascinating to discover that he had a courtship with Christianity through the Quakers, who invited him in to their Meeting House in Oxford so that he could shelter from the rain. He recalls, that, during this phase his mother threatened to kill herself and his father if he converted, believing that he was only doing it to spite them! This threat was then repeated when he declared that he was to train as a Rabbi, rather than the solicitor that she had hoped.
The reawakening of faith, life's experiences as well the long and arduous soul searching that led to the decision, was to have a lasting effect upon his life. He recalled in later life: 'As I went on in life I began to trust my faith more and more as it reshaped me, made me a much better person... the religion thing worked'.
Rabbi Blue insists that his writings try to identify with ordinary people in ordinary situations, whether that be at prayer, in a crowded coffee bar, or standing in a bus queue and allow 'truth' to speak through them. He thus maintained that truth can proceed from out of the down town street, as well as the concentration camp, or, for some, out of the radio. He described himself as a marriage broker 'joining the natural to the supernatural' where the Divine can be experienced in human relationships and deed.
There are times when he doesn't appear to beat about the bush. He says, for instance, that religion does not exist for itself but for others and must be in a constant state of change - giving, receiving, discarding and renewing - in order to embrace fresh truths, adding that too many religions have become self-centred and exclusive. His intention was to speak to people of all faiths and none, and speak in the midst of doubts and dilemmas something of the Divine.
He follows a rich tradition in Jewish writers, who have managed to bring a smile to the reader's face. For instance there is a text in the Bible which reads, 'Jehoram was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years. He passed away, to no one's regret', (2 Chronicles 21: 20). There is the account of a person sulking over a plant which is dying from a worm infestation (Jonah 4: 7), and. depending on your outlook on life, the Book of Proverbs can contain side splitting verses: 'Like a gold ring in a pig's snout is a beautiful woman without good sense' (11: 22), Jesus' telling of the story that involves a camel struggling through an eye of a needle (Matthew 19: 24) can only be viewed as tongue in cheek, yet equally containing an important teaching.
It is important that we recognise that humour is a God-given gift that can raise our spirits, and we can take delight in those that make us smile - especially at ourselves. Of course, we must remember that God's humour is never cruel in the way that we too easily use humour to put someone down. Rather, the humour that God likes is one that affirms that 'A happy heart makes the face cheerful' (Proverbs 15:13). So enjoy the things and the people that make you smile - for they are surely a precious gift from God.