Meeting Rabbi Lionel Blue in 1963 changed my life.
At the time, I was a section manager on a graduate trainee scheme run by the John Lewis Partnership, working in the Toys and Garden Furniture Department in the basement of John Barnes (now Waitrose) on the Finchley Road. Though enjoying retailing (after all, there is a ‘selling’ element in being a rabbi,) I couldn’t see myself doing it all my life. Though I’d not have put it like that at the time, it simply provided no sense of purpose or goal.
Lionel was then rabbi at Middlesex New Synagogue but soon to be appointed as Director of the European Region of the World Union, with a responsibility to develop connexions with fragmented communities on the continent of Europe and help, if possible, in their recovery from the traumas of occupation, deportation, decimation and the open wounds of the Nazi era.
Working alongside and supporting him were Jonathan Magonet (training to be a doctor) and Awraham Soetendorp (son of the Amsterdam’s Liberal rabbi, Jakob.) They helped arrange meetings and conferences, which I eagerly attended. There was so much to learn, so many fresh insights and teachings. It was astonishing to discover at a Panel at a Reform Youth Conference that rabbis did not all agree with one another, that there could even be public disagreements, that they were not all the same. What might be important to one – prayer, or Israel, community or social action – might be of very little significance to another.
I found myself bowled over by some of the teachings of the prophets. The vision, for example, of the ‘end of days’ as painted by Isaiah and Micah:
1 This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
2 In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
In the top of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
Teaching will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
As a child growing up, I had seen the motto of the BBC flashed every night on to our TV screens: “Nation shall speak Peace unto nation.” The vision of peace, of swords and ploughshares, captured my imagination. This seemed something worth working for, something to which one could devote one’s life.
The values and promise of these prophets of Judaism fed and strengthened my youthful idealism. Some of the teachers and Leo Baeck students I met confirmed that I was not alone. Within about a year, to my astonishment and that of my family, I decided to study Judaism at the Leo Baeck College.
Initially, I was certainly not doing so in order to become a rabbi but because I wanted to learn. First, I had no idea what being a rabbi entailed, what it meant, whether I could possibly become one. But, secondly, and a far greater drawback – I did not believe in God.
The question of God was prominent and of long-standing importance for me. I had had very little Jewish upbringing. Though my mother would probably have enjoyed a more Jewish life, my father was a strong, left-leaning rationalist with little time for Jewish tradition. However, when I was about 12 my mother’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and my parents agreed that for her sake it would be good if I were able to be bar mitzvah.
John Rayner was at the time rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in Streatham and agreed that I could be ‘confirmed’ after two years concentrated study. As I recall, I had little idea what was going on but the question of ‘God’ loomed large. Who was this mysterious figure, so central in everything I had to read and learn? I lacked the courage to tell Rabbi Rayner that I did not believe or even to ask for a discussion. Actually, I simply lacked the words for a discussion: God was just to me a large, empty, space.
I admired and respected John Rayner and his gentle, generous wife Jane. How could such an intelligent man, I wondered, believe in God? So it was, a few years later, that I ended up studying philosophy at university in the misguided hope and expectation that there I would, if not find answers, at least be able to ask the questions.
My hope was thwarted. Oxford at the time of A.J.Ayer dismissed all such talk as meaningless. A degree in Philosophy and Psychology appeared of little practical value and so I found my way to that job at John Barnes, very ready for all the opportunities for in-depth discussion (often late into the night) offered by my new found friends and teachers.
But to attend the Leo Baeck College? That was a decision of a quite different order. And, without believing in God? No-one, oddly enough, seemed particularly concerned: perhaps the College still needed students – it might be very different today! So I began studies – initially a group of two – and, once again, my world changed with the opportunity to study Bible with Dr Ellen Littman.
I owe so much to Nelly – as she was fondly known by the students: her patience, her passion, her integrity. She prepared meticulously and was always surprised that we were rather less dedicated. More important than anything was her approach. Nelly’s absolute conviction was that each person need to find their own way of reading and understanding the text before them – there was no single, ‘right’ way. E-ducation, she insisted, was a ‘drawing out’ from the person, not a ‘pushing in.’
So I discovered that the word ‘God’ had a multiplicity of meanings, in Bible and liturgy, in the mouths of prophets, poets and historians and in each of us. Stories and texts provided moments of revelation. I loved, for example, the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov who asked:
Why do we say, in the Amidah, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob and not God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?
And he went on to answer his own question: each person must find God in his or her own way.
I remember a train journey from Arnhem to Amsterdam during an early youth conference when I was speaking to a young participant and trying to explain something about God and belief. For her, the word God was empty, without meaning, just as it had been for me. When I told her the Chassidic story, something happened. It was as if there was a moment – a long moment – of deep recognition when suddenly, perhaps only for an instant, the world opened up for her in a new way. I knew that it was not me, not my cleverness, but a movement within her – a breakthrough in her relationship to existence itself. Buber’s ‘I and Thou‘ had always been an important book for me. Now I understood it more profoundly. I knew that in the meeting between I and ‘thou’, in the moment of encounter at a deep level, God also becomes present.
I also came across one less well-known biblical passage by Jeremiah that I especially treasured. The prophet is speaking of Shallum (or Jehoahaz,) son of the revered king Josiah.
13 “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness,
his upper rooms by injustice,
making his own people work for nothing,
not paying them for their labor.
14 He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace
with spacious upper rooms.’
So he makes large windows in it,
panels it with cedar
and decorates it in red.
15 “Does it make you a king
to have more and more cedar?
Did not your father have food and drink?
He did what was right and just,
so all went well with him.
16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the Lord.
The final two verses succinctly highlight Judaism’s ethic. It is only through our actions that our knowledge of God is made evident.
I suppose, on reflection, that the God I rejected was the old, patriarchal magician, living above the clouds, pulling the strings. Reading Christian theology in Lionel’s class at College – Bonhoeffer and John Robinson’s Honest to God, for example – opened my eyes to the breadth and depth of exploration then taking place and helped me gradually find my own approach.
Six turbulent years at the College, including time in Israel after the Six Day War, and in 1970, already working as a rabbinical student at Cheshire Reform Synagogue, I was ordained. I was a rabbi. What did that mean? A few days after ordination – semicha – I was walking along the corridor past the open door of Rabbi Michael Goulston’s study. He called me in. ‘What does it feel like to be a rabbi, Jeff?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘You, Lionel, Hugo are rabbis but I don’t think I am one.’ Michael chuckled. ‘Yes, I know,’ he replied. ‘When my first child was born, I could not believe or understand that I was a “father”. My father was a father; how could I possibly be one?’
It took many, many years for me to feel comfortable that I really was a rabbi.
 Michael Goulston z”l was another good friend and mentor who sadly died at an absurdly early age in 1972.