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Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin 33o
A Man For The Ages

Melville H.Nahin, 33


In the December 1984 issue of the Scottish Rite Journal, the following appeared: "In a letter of condolence to the widow of Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, President and Mrs. Reagan expressed the feeling of all who knew this great man, rabbi, Mason and American. For nearly 69 years, Rabbi Magnin served his 2,500 family congregation at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles. In addition, he ministered to a city, earning a reputation as `the father figure of Los Angeles,' to his Craft, and to his beloved country.
 
 

"A member of West Gate Lodge No. 335, F.&A.M., Brother Magnin belonged to the Scottish Rite Bodies of Los Angeles where he was Coroneted an Inspector General Honorary of the Thirty-third Degree in 1971. A former Grand Chaplain of the Grand Lodge of California and a 50-Year Mason, Rabbi Magnin received the `Outstanding Mason of the Year Award' from the Grand Lodge of California in 1978. Intended `to honor a Mason whose outstanding character and extraordinary achievements best reflect the influence of Masonic ideals,' this award appropriately recognized Rabbi Magnin's many decades of dedicated work for interfaith cooperation, philanthropic benefit and social advance. Clearly, Freemasonry was Rabbi Magnin's lifelong inspiration. It extended the humane influence of his personal faith in Reform Judaism to a universal belief in worldwide brotherhood."

Who was this man? Why was he so honored? Why was he so extolled? Why was he held in such great esteem by those of his religion and others?

Rabbi and Brother Edgar F. Magnin, 33, was a human being, but he was no mere mortal. By virtue of his intrepid faith and his unswerving faithfulness to the basic ideals of ethical monotheism, he achieved immortal fame.

For this author, who knew Rabbi Magnin fairly well, to evaluate Ill. Bro. Edgar F. Magnin is by no means easy. He was a man of many facets, involved in the total spectrum of human life, and an active participant in a multiplicity of religious, educational, and cultural endeavors.

His life spans an era of development of the West, from Stockton to San Francisco to Los Angeles, and as a man and as a mentor, he embodied the frontier spirit which has influenced the tenor of life in California. He molded the minds of myriads, touched the core of their being, and made them aware of a religious philosophy which affected the very foundations of their everyday lives.When I knew him, I was told by others that people are not, nor can they be, neutral towards Edgar F. Magnin. A friend, one Dr. Samson H. Levey who was a professor at the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies and professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Religious Thought at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, once remarked, "They totally agree with him, casually or wholeheartedly, or disagree with him moderately or violently, but they can never ignore him or be indifferent to him. He is a spiritual force of exceptional magnitude that must be reckoned with in this turbulent age." And whether as Dr. Levey suggested, one agreed or disagreed with Magnin's point of view, the tremendous stature of the man cannot be denied.Born in San Francisco in 1890, he was a product of Jewish life and the Reform Movement in Judaism. While being reared in a traditional Jewish environment and educated at the Hebrew Union College of Cincinnati where he was ordained, he quickly turned to the Reform Movement.

In 1916 he married Evelyn Rosenthal, a lovely and valorous lady who shared his life and helped build his beautiful family. The call of his native California was irresistible, and he returned to the West Coast as a rabbi, first to Stockton and San Francisco and then to Los Angeles.

His strong influence extended not only from his own Temple in Los Angeles, but also through metropolitan Los Angeles and the southland Jewish community, with its manifold agencies and organizations, to the larger domain of America and the far reaches of the earth.

As the representative par excellence of the Jewish point of view to the non-Jewish world, he was a giant in the domain of religious understanding and Jewish-Christian dialogue. He was a guide and inspiration to millions who listened to his popular radio and television broadcasts and read his frequent newspaper columns.

During the prime of his life, I do not believe there was any rabbi in the Western Hemisphere whose name was as widely known or his views more widely disseminated. His was the voice or, rather, an authoritative echo of the Biblical Revelation. His pronouncements were a proclamation of an authentic progressive Judaism, and his fierce independence was not only integral to his frontier spirit, but also a reflection of the genuine rabbinic traditional. His simplicity of style, language, and expression was a manifestation of reason and common sense.

What he felt was the pulse of creation and the impulse of the Creator. What he articulated was a fusion of both as he perceived them. From his distinctive Jewish point of view, he announced a universal message of unity for all mankind transcending all the differences and distinctions, thus issuing a clarion call of redemptive brotherhood for all humanity.

Magnin with EinsteinRabbi Edgar F. Magnin with Albert Einstein in 1931.

With consummate skill and ease, he articulated in a few moments what others may take hours to expound. His message was Jewish, and it was simple, uncluttered by technical verbiage, unencumbered by dialectical confusion. He was a theologian of spiritual pragmatism, his arena the human predicament, and his wrestling was with those adversaries who emerged from the darkness to drive a wedge of distrust and hatred among people and threatened the peace and harmony of our American way of life.
 
 

The Bro. Magnin I knew never pretended to be infallible. Quite the contrary, if there was anything he loathed, it was pretense in any form. And this is but one of the measures of this man-unequivocal honesty and absolute integrity. Above all, he was a rugged individualist himself, and his concern was with the individual who, in the final analysis, provides the greatest guarantee of a sound society.

All of his accomplishments bore the imprint of a religious genius, and yet he talked with men, not with angels. He expounded a philosophy which was perhaps ahead of his time, and his own youthful vigor, despite advanced age, defied time. Edgar Magnin was refreshing, vibrant, and startling. Eloquent poet of the pulpit, he was a brilliant master of both the written and spoken word, a revered and beloved sage, whose wisdom and passionate faith brought together diverse people thereby exemplifying truly the universal nobility of the human spirit.

We've often said in our Masonic belief that a man was "a Mason's Mason." Brother Magnin was truly such and a man at the front of the advancement of his time.

As I once heard him say, "The Boss up there has had his finger on my shoulder right along. He's been very good to me." And Ill. Bro. Edgar Magnin, in life and in memory, has been very good to us.