Something special is happening at Bergen Ethical. In fact, it happens once a month. I can tell because the seats in our meetinghouse tend to fill up like no other Sunday. It’s the first Sunday of the month, and Dr. Joseph Chuman is addressing the congregation. As president and presider, I’ve watched Joe’s intellectual creativity from close range over the past three years.
But Joe has been creating insightful platforms for the past four decades. How does he do it? Does he repeat prior talks? Steal from others? Repackage the obvious? No. Astonishingly, he presents a fresh take on a challenging question every single month, and he delivers complex thought with eloquence and force. Joe’s words rise up to the surface, drawn from the deep trove of his reading and reflection. His voice modulates with the emotion behind his thoughts, soft and tender, loud and urgent, angry, reassuring, incendiary, insistent. Sound speaks to us in ways that the written word can never do. Joe’s voice hints at how we might feel about the logical threads he sews into our imaginations.
A messenger of complex meanings
Joe illustrates his points with stories, metaphors, analogies and examples. He makes it stick. Joe Chuman is a tireless public intellectual, a messenger of the complex meanings embedded in the consciousness of our time. His talks connect the pieces and, at their best, elicit epiphanies.
There are those who say Joe’s message or his style is not suited to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, our attendance is typically highest on the first Sunday. There are many long-time members who have joined our Society and stayed because of the unique intellectual stimulation this leader provides month after month, year after year, decade after decade.
It’s not just platforms. Joe is often called upon to speak at events. His ability to articulate is assumed, as if he’s a robot releasing a silver-tongued narrative at the push of a button. I’ve watched Joe at memorials elucidate the life of a deceased member with not a dry eye in the house.
A captivator of crowds
He officiated at my daughter’s wedding with an easy comfort that belied the preparation he had put into it. I’ve heard him captivate the crowd at rallies. But he does not need to rely on a prepared script. I saw Joe stand up and speak spontaneously at a dinner the Society hosted to celebrate the Muslim families that we’ve befriended. His remarks were off-the-cuff and gripping.
Joe Chuman has given the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County and the New York Society a rare and sustained view of a first-rate mind at work. By collecting many of his platform addresses into a book, “Speaking of Ethics,” his reflections will endure. How fortunate we are to have both that book and the ongoing experience of hearing Dr. Joseph Chuman in person every month. Today, I highlight someone whose exceptionalism we may, at times, take for granted. I am Speaking of Joe Chuman.