Morgenstern, Julian

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MORGENSTERN, JULIAN (1881–1977), U.S. Reform rabbi, Bible scholar, and president of the *Hebrew Union College. Born in St. Francisville, Illinois, Morgenstern graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1901 and was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in 1902. He received his doctorate at Heidelberg in 1904; his dissertation was published as Doctrine of Sin in the Babylonian Religion (1905). After three years as rabbi in Lafayette, Indiana, he turned to academic life, teaching biblical and Semitic languages, concentrating on biblical studies, at Hebrew Union College.

In 1921 Morgenstern became acting president of the college and in 1922 was elected president; he was the first alumnus to hold this office. During his presidency the number of students and faculty and the scope of college activity grew markedly. Departments of education, social studies, and Jewish music were established; new buildings were erected; an endowment fund was created; the college, previously a department of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was independently chartered, and the Hebrew Union School of Religious Education was established in New York City. Hebrew Union College Annual, founded in 1924, at once became one of the world's outstanding publications in Jewish scholarship. During the Hitler period, a dozen European scholars found a haven at the college, chiefly as the result of Morgenstern's efforts. At first anti-Zionist, Morgenstern later modified his position on the creation of a Jewish state. After retiring as college president in 1947, Morgenstern continued to teach Bible. He served as president of the American Oriental Society and the Society of Biblical Literature; he was for many years recording secretary, and then honorary president, of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and one of the founders of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Biblical Studies

As a young professor Morgenstern immersed himself in biblical studies and published relatively little. As his views matured, the number and extent of his publications increased. Three works originally published in the Annual were later issued in book form: Amos Studies (1941); Ark, the Aphod, and the "Tent of Meeting" (1945); and Message of Deutero-Isaiah (1961). Among many other important essays in the Annual are "Oldest Document of the Hexateuch" (1927), which provided the first solid support for the so-called Kenite hypothesis (see *Kenites; *Pentateuch), and a series of studies on the calendars of ancient Israel (1924, 1926, 1935, 1947–48). Starting as a follower of the *Wellhausen school, Morgenstern became increasingly independent in his approach to Bible problems. In his analysis of documentary sources he relied chiefly on differences in economic, social, and political background rather than on differences of vocabulary and style. In his reconstruction of biblical history, he gave much weight to economic and social factors without minimizing the role of inspired thinkers and teachers. In his studies of the calendar, he showed that changes in the nomenclature of the months and the dating of the festivals reflected significant changes in the life of the people of Israel. He also found evidence that in the early post-Exilic period there was a strong universalist trend expressed in proselytizing activity, which came to a catastrophic end when a coalition of neighboring states destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Second Temple. (The Temple of Ezra-Nehemiah, later rebuilt by Herod, was thus actually the Third Temple; see "Jerusalem – 485 b.c.," in huca, 1956, 1957, 1960; see *Temple.) Morgenstern's continuing vigor in scholarly activity is evident in his Fire on the Altar (1963), Some Significant Antecedents of Christianity (1966), and Rites of Birth, Marriage, Death, and Kindred Occasions among the Semites (1966). More popular in character are Jewish Interpretation of Genesis (1919), Book of Genesis: A Jewish Interpretation (19652), and a collection of lectures and papers, As a Mighty Stream (1949).

Views on Reform

His historical research convinced him that what had been called "universalism" and "particularism" are not mutually antagonistic, but that both are necessary and each complements the other. Despite his official role within the Reform movement, Morgenstern was dissatisfied with the term "Reform Judaism," which he regarded as reflective of conditions in 19th-century Germany rather than in 20th-century America, and as carrying with it certain overtones of sectarian separatism. He preferred to speak (so far as the United States is concerned) of an emerging American Judaism, more pragmatic and less dogmatic than early Reform; and he envisioned an ultimate synthesis of the Reform and Conservative movements, in a pattern not yet evident.


M. Lieberman, in: huca, 32 (1961), 1–9; B.J. Bamberger, in: ccar Journal (April 1957); 1–4; L. Finkelstein (ed.), Thirteen Americans: Their Spiritual Autobiographies (1953), 253–372.

[Bernard J. Bamberger]