Jewish People, Coffee, And The Rule Of Law
I drink a lot. I don’t drink alcohol of any kind, but I try to drink more water than ever. And every day, I drink coffee. I have long days and coffee really helps. Recently, I’ve even learned to distinguish good coffee from not so good coffee.
I started to think about coffee in a historical way because of one of my favorite books, The Coffee Trader, by David Liss, the story of a Jewish man in Amsterdam in the 17th century. The novel tells the story about coffee coming to Amsterdam, and it’s like the whole city wakes up. People talk more; have more energy. Sometimes when I drink coffee as I’m getting draggy in the afternoon, I think about Amsterdam waking up.
And so I read a serious book by a historian, Robert Liberles. It’s called Jews Welcome Coffee: Tradition and Innovation in Early Modern Germany. Liberles starts by talking about drinking liquids in early modern Europe. You couldn’t drink water because it was contaminated and spread disease; water was the greatest killer in the 1700’s. People were trying to figure out what they could drink and stay healthy. The effects of tea, coffee and even chocolate were still medically mysterious in the mid-1700s.
As society tried to figure out coffee, Judaism needed to figure out where coffee fit in its system of life. Judaism always adapts and adopts; it adapts to and adopts the best new developments. So the rabbis thought long and hard about coffee. They knew immediately that coffee did not violate Jewish law because it was not a forbidden food. While Jewish law prohibits anything that is bad for you and goes against the best interests of society, coffee was not prohibited for any reason. Coffee was accepted as kosher from the beginning.
The question became: Where does coffee fit in our religion?
We Jewish people love life and appreciate the gifts we are given by this wonderful world that G-d created. And we express our happiness and gratitude by saying blessings, berachot.
Different food types require different blessings. So the new, charming question was: What blessing should we say over coffee? Since coffee grows from the ground, some authorities said that the beracha should be Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu Melech Haolam borey pree ha-adamah/ “Blessed art thou O Lord our G-d Who creates the fruits of the earth.” This beracha is for fruits and vegetables that grow from the ground, like potatoes, watermelon, bananas and strawberries.
So we should say borey pree ha-adamah, Blessed art thou who creates the fruit of the ground for coffee.
But other authorities said, “You’re right, coffee beans come from the ground, but people are thinking about coffee like they are thinking about tea and beer, that also are substances that are mixed with water for drinking. And since tea and beer are drunk with the blessing Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech Haolam Shehakol nihyeh bedvaro
Blessed art thou O Lord our G-d by whose word all things exist,” thanking G-d for creating all things, analogy makes it simpler to say shehakol nihyeh bedvaro over coffee, too.
So Jewish people took coffee and made it their own.
As Jewish as a Maxwell House Haggadah.
So Rabbi, why are you talking about Jewish people adopting coffee hundreds of years ago?
Because I’m thinking about how coffee wakes us up.
And I’m thinking about the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and the poem that says Awake, you sleepers!
I’m thinking about how we can drag ourselves through life
Only thinking about ourselves
Totally oblivious to the people around us,
What they’re going through,
How they’re discriminated against
How they face prejudice
We respond quickly and effectively when confronted by anti-Semitism
But are we awake to all the forms of overt and hidden prejudice in our community and our society?
Are the events of this year, including the senseless murders that have shocked us so badly, going to serve as a persistent cup of strong coffee?
Are we going to wake up and stay awake?
Will we learn to make this awakening part of our lives, integrating the lessons of this painful year into our lives?
Turning the pain into a blessing?
Just as we thank G-d for every fruit and bean, will we thank G-d for this opportunity to change our minds and to act differently?
Here is a cup of coffee. A black baby boy born today in Washington DC, Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi or a number of other states has a shorter life expectancy than a boy born in Bengladesh or India.
Here is another cup of coffee: Blacks died from the coronavirus at more than twice the rate of whites. A result of the recent mass layoffs was that fewer than half of African-American adults had a job.
In 1968, shortly before he was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy said:
There is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions: indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that affects the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat.
Kennedy’s reference to hunger reminds me that one out of six Americans experiences hunger today in 2020. At the same time, we throw away a pound of food per person per day in this country, or well over 100 billion pounds of food per year.
Yes the corona virus is a horrible health crisis.
But so is racism.
So is prejudice
So is hunger
The truth is that we all have prejudice and bias. Research shows that there is a lot of hidden prejudice, prejudice that we even hide from ourselves.
Let me give you some quick examples of hidden prejudice.
When you hear the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” don’t you hear yourself saying, “Yes, but all lives matter”?
What you’re ignoring is the pain that would make someone feel that they need to say Black Lives Matter, the pain of living in a society that does seem to have a huge double standard on all sorts of issues.
And yes, I want to say, “Hey world, what about Jewish lives?” I say this with agony, and I know that I am going to catch it for this remark, but I want to distinguish between saying, in pain, Black Lives Matter, and individuals and groups associated with the Black Lives Matter Movement who do not care about the lives of Israelis and falsely accuse Israel of genocide and apartheid.
But despite my misgivings, this cannot stop me from saying that Black Lives Matter because if I truly value human life, I value all life, black and white and Jewish and Muslim.
I must value all lives even if others do not value mine.
One of the great things about being the rabbi of this intelligent congregation is that people hear me talking about a subject and give me things to read or watch or listen to. My friend Paul Fortgang turned me on to The Civil War Podcast, a brilliant, careful reconstruction of how and why the Civil War happened. And as I was drinking the coffee of this year, and listening to these shows about slavery as the issue that caused the Civil War, I woke up one day with a very basic thought: Where was the white slavery? Slavery was considered ok because it was about buying and selling blacks. Black lives were not considered equal to white lives so many thought it was ok to enslave them in the interest of economic wealth for their white owners.
And here was another cup of coffee, this one given to me by my friend Phil Kuchuk. He reminded me of an old Star Trek Episode called “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” from the third season of the original Star Trek (first broadcast January 10, 1969).
The Federation starship Enterprise picks up Lokai, whose most striking feature is that his skin is ink-black on one side of his body and chalk-white on the other side. And chasing him is a character named Bele, played, by the way, by Frank Gorshin (yes, the Riddler).
Bele is also colored black and white, similar to Lokai, except the black and white sides are reversed. Bele explains that he has been chasing Lokai for 50,000 Earth years. Bele and Lokai begin to argue about the history of their peoples. The source of this conflict is that Bele’s people, are black on their right sides, while Lokai’s people are all white on their right sides.
The distinction is lost on the ship’s officers; they just don’t get what the issue is. They decide to take the two back to their planet. But when the ship arrives, Spock can find no sign of intelligent life. Lokai and Bele realize they are each the only ones left of their peoples, who have completely annihilated themselves in civil war. Enraged, they attack each other. Lokai breaks away, Bele pursues him; they beam down to the planet. The bridge crew remark sadly on their unwillingness to give up their hate.
How ridiculous hatred about skin color is.
Let’s be open: There will always be prejudice.
Some of it is deep and destructive and divisive for our country.
And some of it is just stupid.
Let me tell you a quick, trivial personal story about stupid prejudice.
I have a lot of bosses in my life, but maybe #1 is my granddaughter Leah. She controls me. I am putty in her hands. And one day I needed to get her to go to dance class, and she didn’t want to go, so she made me bribe her. She wanted a doll. So like the most ridiculous, spoiling, pandering grandparent, I dropped her at the class and ran to the store and bought a doll. And people were staring at me. I went to the register and the cashier looked at me and said, “Did you find what you wanted?” I said yes. I ran back to the class and I was ready with the doll when Leah got out and she loved the doll and said it was beautiful and started mothering it. A couple of days later my daughter Rachel told me how much Leah loved the new doll. And I said, “I will never buy a doll again. People think I’m some kind of creep.” I told her about people staring at me. She said, “They don’t think you’re a creep. They’re just bigots.” And I looked at the doll and I finally got it: It had dark skin.
I didn’t see it. Leah didn’t see it. But Rachel was right: The white customers saw it. The white cashier saw it.
This is just plain old stupidity.
I know it’s a trivial example, but it reminded me what we’re up against: Ridiculous prejudice.
It’s like the Civil War podcast had to remind me: A lot of people believed that blacks were inferior and should be slaves.
It’s like the Star Trek episode: any difference in skin color can lead to hatred.
We have to drink the coffee and wake up to all forms of prejudice.
This year, a lot of us woke up to another form of prejudice. The MeToo movement, sometimes called the Time’s Up movement, has taught us, painfully, how females are harassed and discriminated against. Did we know this? Sure, but a lot of us heard it with our eyes closed.
We needed a strong cup of coffee,
we needed to be hit over the head to see how prevalent the system of harassment and muzzling the victims into silence has always been.
No human being should have power over another human being. We are not talking about slavery any more, but people can find themselves in a position where to speak up can mean to lose their livelihood, where to make waves can drown you.
Ok, so survivors have shared their stories, some powerful men have lost their jobs, but at a broader social level, is anything really different?
My conclusion is that there is some real progress.
States are banning nondisclosure agreements that cover harassment.
States also are introducing protections for more workers.
The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund has helped thousands of people seek justice.
Some survivors are getting financial restitution.
The non-tipping minimum wage for food servers has been raised so that waitresses do not have to endure harassment just to make a living off their tips.
But most of all, many Americans have changed how they think about power. One of the biggest effects of the #MeToo movement has been to show Americans how widespread harassment and assault really are. As more and more survivors spoke out, they learned they were not alone. And people who had never had cause to think about harassment before/ suddenly saw how much it had affected their coworkers, children, parents, and friends.
Americans are thinking more than ever about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and how those with more power are trying to control those with less. #MeToo has been a driving force behind the change.
When I just listed some of the laws that are changing, some of you were bored. We don’t want to hear it.
But we need very specific and detailed laws.
It would be nice if we all loved our neighbors as ourselves.
But many of us have neighbors that we don’t love or even like.
Judaism says: We don’t care if you love your neighbor. You have to follow the law and do the right thing by your neighbor. You must respect her property. You must help them in time of need.
Love schmove, Judaism says, do the right thing.
And it is only through the law that we can assure the rights of everyone.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who just passed away, understood this better than anyone. She didn’t fight for women’s rights because she was a woman. She fought for the rights of all people. She knew that it is through the law that real change will come. She was Jewish not only by birth but also by philosophy: the Law is our ultimate protection and our ultimate equalizer.
I get upset when I hear that all police are being branded as prejudiced or as murderers.
You and I know police persons who serve this community with dignity and respect for everyone’s rights.
When I hear “Defund the Police,” I get a shiver. I think this is a simplistic solution to complex problems.
But I recognize that the police are the enforcers of the law and they must be held to a high standard so that the law is respected.
And this is why I get enraged when anyone thinks that they are above the law. The Supreme Court said: “No citizen, even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding.”
No President, no policeman, no boss, no prejudiced homeowner, is above anyone else.
And that’s why we need laws.
I believe in law.
If a statue represents hatred, go through the legal steps so that it will be taken down through a legal process.
Mob rule scares me, even when I agree with the mob.
Stay non-violent. Even just strategically, non-violence wins and gains sympathy from all good people. Violence only begets more violence.
Laws must protect us from hatred, but they must be changed through the right, peaceful process.
We may not stop people from their ignorant hatred.
But we can protect those who have been victims of hatred through the law.
I believe in America.
I know this has been a tough year and I know we have seen the dark underside of people but I believe in America.
The best part of drinking coffee is waking up. We say the beracha:
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech Haolam Shehakol nihyeh bedvaro
Blessed art Thou O Lord Our G-d who creates everything, and everybody, all equal in G-d’s eyes. The worst part of waking up is realizing how much we have to do today
But the best part of waking up is that we now know what we have to do today
We can do better.
And we will.