Professor Lowell G. McCoy's Cincinnati Founder's Day Address: A Never Ending Journey - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

Professor Lowell G. McCoy's Cincinnati Founder's Day Address: A Never Ending Journey

Main Content
Thursday, March 1, 2001

Lowell G. McCoy
Professor Emeritus of Speech, HUC-JIR/Cincinnati
Founder's Day, Cincinnati
February 25, 2001

Soon after I joined the Faculty, one of our students preached a sermon on proselytizing (as far as I can remember it was the only sermon on this subject in my tenure here, although a number have alluded to outreach). His thesis was that "if we believe that Reform is so great we should attempt to win converts." As we made our way to the Dormitory dining room for an Oneg Shabbat following the service, a group of students, in a jocular vein, suggested that I should be the first candidate. Whereupon, President Nelson Glueck placed his arm protectively around my shoulder and said: "We just want Professor McCoy to remain a good Christian."

At an ordination service one of our ordinees introduced me to his obviously proud grandmother. As she shook my hand she looked a bit puzzled. "McCoy....McCoy," she said, "it doesn't sound like a Jewish name." And then her face brightened. "Of course," she said, "your mother was Jewish." With the comforting arm of Nelson Glueck and the assurance of that grandmother, I felt quite secure. And, like the man who came to dinner - I stayed.

For almost 50 years I have had the unique privilege of sharing in the study and training, the fears and anxieties, the hopes and the dreams of the students who came to the Cincinnati Campus of the College-Institute and who were destined to become the spiritual leaders of Reform Judaism. Can you possibly imagine how satisfying and exhilarating it has been to be associated with students such as these we honor today?

During my years at the College, I have learned far more than I have taught; I have taken far more than I have given. My education has been enhanced and enlarged by daily association with some of the world's greatest scholars. I have learned from my students. After all, I have worked with them on more than 2000 sermons and listened to them lead more than 6000 chapel services.

I have had the opportunity to experience in depth a rich religious tradition and culture with which I formerly had only a superficial acquaintance. Needless to say, I have developed an admiration, respect and affection for Reform Judaism that is certainly equal to that of my inherited tradition. I have had the opportunity to interpret Judaism to the Christian community and Christianity to the Jewish community. But, above all, I have been challenged to join in the search for that which I believe is central to religion and the religious life - the never ending quest for the ideal in human thought and action.

I speak this morning as one who is a part of this community because of my association with it, my love for it, and my common understanding of it. I hope that what I have to say will not appear "chutspadick" for it is said only from a deep sense of caring and concern.

The glory of human history is often reflected by its pioneers. Webster defines a pioneer as "one who goes before, as into the wilderness, preparing the way for others to follow." The pioneer may be driven by any one of several motives: inner restlessness, ambition, a thirst for the new and undiscovered, or a burning desire to meet the everchanging needs of the human spirit. Whatever the motive, the religious pioneer is often a creative force in the destiny of humankind. Some may label the pioneer as foolish or misguided. But the great pioneers among us forge ahead in their never ending journey to find a concept that has not been expressed or to meet a need that has not been met or to discover a truth that has not been found. They are the ones who are willing to test the spiritual edges of the world.

The Hebrew Bible is, to a large degree, the story of Judaism's pioneers. It begins with Abram's response to God's call: "Lech lecha - go forth from your native land and from your father's home to a land that I will show you." Abram's journey was not a routine trip of several hundred miles from the Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan. It was long and lonely trip. It meant leaving family and home to become a wanderer and a stranger in a desolate and hostile land. It was a difficult and tortuous trip. It meant leaving the comforts of the most advanced culture in the known world.

Abram rejected common and long-cherished beliefs. He challenged the credence that a hostile coalition of gods dominated every aspect of life. In his journey he developed the concept of a single supreme being as the unifying principle of all existence.

Abram's journey was the beginning of the biblical process. And, although the story begins with one individual, it extends gradually to a family, then to a people and later to the nations of the earth. It is to become the story of a society in quest of an ideal.

But Abram's journey was only the beginning. Again and again across the reaches of time and space God's call rings out, and the daring have answered. When God called Moses from the midst of the burning bush, Moses responded, "Here am I." Under Moses' towering leadership a nation emerged with Mt. Sinai as its spiritual beacon. He put together a legal and moral code. And he led his fractious followers to the borders of the Promised Land.

If we ascribe the original program to Abraham, we must credit Moses with its execution - with the development of its ethical implications. But its interpretation and ultimate meaning resided in the leadership of possibly the most daring and perceptive of them all - the Prophets of Israel. Most certainly they heard and responded to the Divine call - "Go forth!"

One of the effects of the Babylonian conquest and the Exile was the alteration of the conception of man's relationship to God. Before the Exile, the dominant biblical motif was that of God bound up with the land. During the exile the relationship became more distinctly Deity and people. Jeremiah's letter to all of the exiles reflects this new emphasis. 
...Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. This new view was one of the turning points in the history of Israel's religion. It transformed a sometimes parochial and particularistic religious concept into a one-world universalism. The prophets widened religion's base. They dared to leave home.

There are those who believe that the biblical process - the quest for the ideal - the search for truth and right - begins and ends with the pages of the canon. It is, in my mind, a never ending journey. There is a marvelous prayer in The Union Prayerbook that emphasizes this view: "O Lord, open our eyes that we may see and welcome all truth, whether shining from the annals of ancient revelations or reaching us through the seers of our own time; for Thou hidest not Thy light from any generation of Thy children that yearn for and seek Thy guidance." The spiritual quest is never ending.

Isaac Mayer Wise wrote in his ReminiscencesThe world belongs to him who dares. He believed himself to be the humble servant of an optimistic idealism. Can we doubt that Wise heard the echo of God's call "Go Forth." Where others were held back by fear and misgivings, Wise marched right on. His courage, his insight, yes, even his audacity, enabled him to become the pioneering creator of Liberal Judaism's national religious institutions. And a host of the daring have followed in his wake

The leaders of Reform Judaism, concerned with the wide world which had opened to them, responded whole-heartedly to the Prophet's challenge to give ethics religious pre-eminence. They took seriously the message of Jeremiah: Trust ye not in lying words, saying 'the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, are these.' No, but if you truly mend your ways and your actions, and if you will truly execute justice between a man and his neighbor, and if you will not oppress the stranger, the orphan and the widow . . . then I will dwell with you in this place.

They listened to the words of Isaiah of the Exile: . . .This is the fast that I desire: . . .to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked to clothe him and not to hide from your own kin . . .

Micah's utterance demanding human concern over ritual performance became central in Reform's liturgy: He has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly before thy God. To Reform the Jews were messenger of humanity, charged with disseminating justice among the peoples of the earth, looking to that time when people would dwell together as brothers.

One of the hallmarks of liberal religion is that it speaks to the needs of the total personality - its intellectual needs, emotional needs and aesthetic needs. How impoverished we would be without religion's aesthetics - the beauty of music and dance, of art and architecture, of literature and language. Liberalism requires a poetic imagination.

How barren is life without emotions that bind us in love with family and friends, that compel us to reach out and touch the stranger, that energize our passion for brotherhood and social justice. Liberalism requires a prophetic vision.

But the vitality and integrity of the intellectual life that has characterized Liberal Judaism lie precisely in its ceaseless probing and questioning. Reform enthusiastically adopted the principle that all life is dynamic, not static; that truth - which is inseparable from religious truth - is more of a process than a given, more of an activity than a once-and-for-all-time event.

What will keep Reform Judaism or any world view alive is the capacity to grow and adapt - to welcome all truth. This will require a positive attitude toward new ideas and new knowledge. It will demand that the test of reason be applied to all of life's experiences. We cannot expect to know permanent truth. When we act upon the conviction that we possess absolute knowledge of what is right and good and true, we lose the moral sensitivity of humanity, deluded by the impression that we have escaped finiteness of the human condition. Truth is something dynamic - a process of finding in part - and then continuing the search. The power and the glory as well as the discomfort of liberal religion is recognition of the tentative, hypothetical character of its conclusions. This view is beautifully reflected in the Gates of Prayer. The question is asked "What is Torah?" And the answer:It is what God hath revealed to us, and what we have come to understand about God. It is the ideas and ideals, the laws and commandments, that make up our religious heritage. It is the experience of Abraham, the legislation of Moses, the visions of the prophets, the commentary of the rabbis, the insight of the mystics . . .
The Torah has never ceased to grow. In every age it has been purified and enlarged. It has a permanent core and an expanding periphery. It expands as the horizon of our vision grows.
 What a marvelous legacy!

The challenge that confronts us is very direct. Do we have the strength and the will to continue the quest or will we succumb to the temptation to put our ultimate trust in dogma or creed? Do we have the courage to join the company of the daring or will we retreat to a safe haven protected by pious practice and comforting absolutes? Are we still able to hear God's call "Lech Lecha! Go forth!" or will we retreat to the walled fortresses of Orthodoxy and mindless faith in an apocalyptic view of history?

It is not an easy journey. Adapting to changing needs, incorporating new knowledge, instituting new practices is always an arduous struggle. The world as we know it is changing at a breath-taking speed. The new discoveries in science and technology boggle the mind. In the past decade the mapping of human genes has been completed. Gene therapy and pharmaceutical developments may add years to life expectancy. We have landed research vehicles on distant planets and discovered new planets. We communicate with space craft millions of miles away. In Cincinnati, we are building a broadband fiber-optic network. A single pair of fibers will be capable of transmitting the equivalent of the entireEncyclopaedia Brittanica from New York to San Francicso in 1/320th of a second. Scientists can stop light in its tracks. We must - and we are - adapting to these scientific and technological discoveries.

But do we have the resources and courage to continue the spiritual quest? In the past fifty years I have heard the voices of Reform debate the issues of Zionism, liturgy, rabbinic authority, gender equality, sexuality, social action and outreach. And out of these debates and conflicts new directions have emerged to meet new challenges.

Liberal religion incorporates a mind set - an attitude - which provides a meeting place for theology, philosophy, science and technology. The debates must continue. We must continue to strive for justice and peace among all peoples; to bring hope to the despairing; to show mercy and compassion for the weak and the wayward; to resist evil in any form; to embrace all classes and abilities, races and cultures - without imposing upon them the necessity of becoming like us. Can we continue to make God real in our lives, just as we have science and technology? It is a never ending journey.

Will we ever reach the Promised Land? Will the messianic era ever arrive? Many years ago I was working with a student in the reading of Liturgy. He was reading that great prayer from the Adoration: May the time not be distant, O God, when thy name shall be worshipped in all the earth; when unbelief shall disappear and error be no more . . .when corruption and evil shall give way to purity and goodness . . .O may all created in thine image, recognize that they are brothers, so that, one in spirit and one in fellowship, they may be forever united before Thee. Then shall Thy kingdom be established on earth and the word of Thy seer fulfilled: The Lord will reign forever and ever. The student was a very effective reader, but he read this prayer in a monotone - with no meaning or feeling. In astonishment I asked him "why?" "Because I don't believe it," he said. "Its impractical, impossible, unrealistic."

It may seem so! But it is the hope! It is the direction! It is the goal! It's the commitment to truth, to religion, to God. It is the belief that progress can be made. To lose sight of the Promised Land is to abandon the quest.

Just ten days ago, 18-year old Yasmin Karissa was laid to rest. She was killed with six other soldiers when a Palestinian bus driver plowed into a bus stop - the deadliest attack in three years. For many mourners at Corporal Karissa's funeral, hope for peace had died with her. A friend of the family, Shimon Golan, said "I don't see an end to it, we're doomed to live by the sword." Yoel Sela, who went to high school with Corporal Karissa, said "My hopes are not dashed. Yasmin believed in peace and was always optimistic that in the end there would be peace despite everything." And in the midst of his tears, Yoel said, "We have to continue that way."

The biblical process never ends. Values emerge out of the ordeals that men and societies go through. Compassion, kindliness, ethical and social responsibility become reality as we live our faith.

Are we willing to respond to the insistent call "Go Forth!" Do we have the courage to join the company of the daring? It is a never ending journey!

O God, may we never grow weary of the eternal quest for the Divine in nature and in the human spirit. May we never let the pain of our experience diminish our capacity for caring. May we never permit disappointment to destroy our hopes and dreams for tomorrow. Amen.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.