Rabbi Lionel Blue dies aged 86

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Media captionRabbi Lionel Blue appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1989

Rabbi Lionel Blue, the first openly gay British rabbi and a regular on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day, has died aged 86.

Rabbi Blue, from London, was known for his liberal teachings and supporting other gay members of his faith.

Representatives from the liberal synagogue Beit Klal Yisrael described him as "an inspirational man".

The President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, said he was "a pioneer in many senses".

Rabbi Blue will have a final sign off from Radio 4 on Tuesday at 21:30 GMT when he presents his own obituary programme.

Rabbi Blue had struggled with his sexuality through his teens, leading to a nervous breakdown that saw him leave the Army. But after attending university, he rediscovered his faith and was ordained in 1960.

Soon after, he came out publicly and throughout his life lent his support to organisations including Liberal Judaism UK and the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews.

Announcing his death on the synagogue's Facebook page, Beit Klal Yisrael representatives wrote: "Lionel was a wonderful and inspirational man, who spoke with such wisdom and humour and whose words reached out far beyond the Jewish community."

Mr Arkush, said: "Rabbi Lionel Blue was a significant and well-loved personality in our community, a pioneer in many senses.

"Lionel brought his Jewish view of the world to a mass audience with signature warmth and wry self-deprecating humour."

The rabbi who wrote his own obituary

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It might seem like a morbid task, but Rabbi Lionel Blue was determined to go out in his own words.

After he became ill with prostate cancer in the early 2000s, his close friend and producer at the Today programme, Phil Pegum, called him with the idea of making his own tribute in case the worst happened.

"It is not every day you call someone with cancer and ask them if they want to do their own obituary," said Phil. "But he was such a unique broadcaster, if anyone should do it, it should be him."

Rabbi Blue's response was first laughter followed by enthusiasm, and the pair set off to travel around his old haunts and talk to people from his past.

Phil said: "We spoke to his first psychotherapist, who also had recordings of their sessions and made him sing songs from his childhood. Then we spoke to his first long term partner, his first friend from Oxford and people from Holland, which was so important to him in discovering his sexuality.

"We just gathered memories. It was such great fun to do and it was so wonderful."

The friends kept in touch over the years and when it was coming to the end, Phil went to see him in his care home.

"I saw him at the end of November and he was very frail, but he said he absolutely wanted it to go out. I think it is really good he made it and people can hear all about his life."

Lionel Blue: My Obituary will air at 21:00 GMT on Tuesday on BBC Radio 4.

Many have paid tribute with fond memories of his contributions to Thought for the Day - something Rabbi Blue took part in for more than 25 years.

Today programme presenter John Humphrys said he was "technically a terrible broadcaster," but "a great man".

He added: "He was such a human man, there was real humanity in everything he said, and people loved him."

Gwyneth Williams, controller of BBC Radio 4 said: "We have lost the huge warmth and humanity of Lionel's instantly recognisable voice with its charm and irreverence.

"He seemed to understand and welcome all human foibles and during his 'Thoughts' he smiled on us, making the days that followed just a little easier, just a little richer."

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Media captionRabbi Laura Janner-Klausner said her friend Rabbi Lionel Blue "just said it how it was"

BBC religious affairs correspondent Martin Bashir said: "He once said that he had no time for the solemnity and stiffness of religion. He said he preferred the people who stumbled honestly into their faith.

"He was almost like an agony uncle on behalf of the Almighty on the serious issues, but then, of course, he was hilariously funny too."

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: "He was not only a respected rabbi, teacher and mentor for the Jewish community, Rabbi Lionel Blue was also a wise and good-natured voice of reason for us all.

"His legacy will be that his common sense and great humour will remain in our thoughts each and every day".

'Universally loved'

Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead synagogue said Rabbi Blue was "God's best PR man in Britain".

"He never pretended that life was easy, or that religion solved everything; instead, he shared his own failings and foibles, and showed how to get through the rest of the day."

A former pupil of of Rabbi Blue's, Rabbi Charley Baginsky, said: "Lionel was the archetypal rabbi's rabbi - always there for us as individuals, helping us understand our own personal and spiritual journeys.

"And he leaves a legacy like few others. As the first British rabbi publicly to come out as gay, in the 1970s, Lionel paved the way for many others, including clergy of all faiths."

Sociologist and writer Dr Keith Kahn-Harris paid tribute on Twitter: "Rabbi Lionel Blue died. One of those rare people who are both brave pioneers (being an out gay rabbi) and universally loved."

Rabbi Blue was made an OBE for his services to broadcasting in 1994.

His funeral will take place on Tuesday.

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