A bishop and a rabbi walk into a restaurant.
This may sound like the opening of a joke you have heard, but it is the reality of friendship for two local men.
One plays the marimba, drums, and the piano; the other is a former symphony orchestra executive and producer/host of an NPR syndicated classical music show. In the end, however, it was their intellectual curiosity and search for knowledge that 10 years ago formed the friendship between Anglican Bishop Joel Marcus Johnson, 72, and Rabbi Peter E. Hyman, 66, of Temple B’nai Israel. The two have remained the best of friends ever since.
“The timing was perfect,” Johnson said of meeting Hyman. “I had lost my famous theologian in residence, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I discovered a true compatriot in study with Peter. He is one of the best-read and most comprehensive readers I have ever encountered. He goes deep into text.”
After realizing they had a great deal in common, the two theologians began leading local seminars in ancient Near East history and literature, teaching through the lens of times when the texts were written. They have between 45 and 50 followers of their seminars, which have covered such topics as Genesis, Exodus, and the Psalms, and even one called “Current Topics, Ancient Voices.” These have been offered at Scossa Restaurant, Chesapeake College, Inn at 202 Dover, Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and Temple B’nai Israel.
“Not everyone is comfortable with our point of view. We have many educated and well-read participants who energize our presentations. They are not threatened by ideas that are not cookie-cutter ideas,” Hyman said.
“Bishop Joel is an intellectual, and I find his depth of knowledge about so many things to be remarkable – music, religion, literature, and he is also a great teacher,” Hyman said.
Johnson is a first generation American; his mom was a Swede and his dad a Russian Jew. He was quarantined as a child because of childhood diseases. New books, new reading, and new ideas enveloped him and gave him a world perspective. He continues to read voraciously today. He completed undergraduate work in Chicago and seminary in England.
He arrived in Easton in 1991, and with the laity formed St. Andrew-the-Seafarer Chapel. The church soon found itself ministering to mission chapels of Hispanic residents in Talbot County and other communities on the Eastern Shore. This expansive work prompted the College of Bishops to create the Diocese of The Chesapeake, covering the Delmarva Peninsula. He was consecrated bishop in January 1997 in Christ Church, St. Michaels. It is telling that his consecration was attended by over 30 interfaith clergy, including Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Johnson is co-founder and president emeritus of the Eastern Shore Area Health Education Center, former chairman of Talbot Association of Clergy and Laity, and former board member of the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra.
Both men have had a role in reshaping our community through the Talbot Association of Clergy and Laity (TACL). Johnson, who was the first chairman of the Talbot County Conversation on Race, reflected on how Hyman brings diverse viewpoints together in Talbot County.
“Peter, by sheer force of perseverance, has helped to reshape TACL into becoming a socially proactive organization,” Hyman said. “This has tugged at the conscience and heartstrings of its members.”
Hyman has been at Temple B’nai Israel since 2008. He completed his master’s and doctorate degrees in divinity at Hebrew Union College of the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He is an active member of the community, serving on the boards of the Easton YMCA, a presenter/instructor for the Institute of Adult Learning at Chesapeake College and Downtown Lunch and Learn, and a member of the Frederick Douglass Celebration Committee.
An Eagle Scout, he has been involved nationally as National Chairman of the Messengers of Peace Program and the National Jewish Chaplain, both for the Boy Scouts of America, as well as the National Chairman of the Jewish Committee on Scouting. He was honored for his work with the Boy Scouts of America when he was awarded the Silver Buffalo Award for distinguished service to youth. Locally, he was the recipient of 2011 TACL Award of Appreciation for Outstanding and Inspiring Interfaith Work in Talbot County and recipient of William Donald Schaefer Helping People Award in 2013.
Both men teach from what they call the “Johnson and Hyman” rules for engaging biblical text, one of which is, “Ancient ain’t stupid . . . old does not mean unsophisticated. “The rules are meant to illuminate the creativity, ingenuity, nuance, efficacy and majestic power of the biblical text and not intended to erode or destroy faith.
“We are fighting the wave in religion today. It can be in collision with what people are taught and what they believe,” Hyman said. “People tell us they have never heard this approach until they have studied with us. It opens up dialogue and discussion.”
“We both have a sense of humor in a world of the utterly ridiculous,” said Johnson. “Each of us comes from different academic constraints. Peter is text driven and I come from a viewpoint of anthropology, psychology, and history. People often come in with the question: What is the purpose of my life? Humankind has been dealing with this issue since the beginning of time, but ancient thinkers delivered answers to difficult questions like that.”
Although their faiths form a basis for their friendship, the two friends enjoy sharing a love of food, books and music. They go to concerts together, cook, and share recipes.
“My wife Suzie says we are like an old married couple,” Johnson said. “We share intellectual togetherness and we are both alert to the issues in the world around us. Peter is the kind of friend I never imagined encountering in this stage of my life. There is an intimacy in our friendship. We call each other in the middle of the night, talking books and ideas.”
“My gift from Joel is his friendship,” Hyman said. “I learn so much from him.”
The two have a few projects in their future. They are working together on a think tank in Easton. Since retiring as Bishop of The Chesapeake, Johnson has re-purposed his vocation, founding The Oaks of Mamre Library and Graduate Center in Easton. He serves as Chief Visionary Officer, and Hyman is on the Board of Advisors. The Oaks is a component project of the Mid-Shore Community Foundation with plans to soon go under the tent of a major university.
Another project the two are working on aligns with Hyman’s fascination with the Greek gods since he was a child.
“Our project is looking at theology and religion as a phenomenon of human reality – the connected nature of all this,” Hyman said. “We are planning trips to Israel and Greece. It comes from the searching and questioning of being a Rabbi.”
As the two wrapped up their time together with me, Johnson pulled out a book and music CD to add to Hyman’s growing library in his new office in Temple B’nai Israel. The two bantered with one another.
“He knows more famous people than I do!” Hyman said.
Johnson retorted, “Peter is way cool.”