This past week at the Oscars, Will Smith stormed the stage and slapped Chris Rock in the face after the latter made an inappropriate joke about Smith’s wife. Following the ceremony, the Academy Awards tweeted a short statement about the on-state incident that read: “The Academy does not condone violence of any form.” Will Smith was criticized on social media for using violence instead of his words to defend his wife, and Chris Rock was praised on social media for carrying on at the Oscars following the altercation and not allowing the incident to turn into a brawl. It goes without saying that I agree that we should not respond to a verbal attack with violence. At the same time, this unfortunate story indicated how Torah values in some respects are so inconsistent with prevailing American values.
Prevailing American values are essentially do no physical harm. I have the right to say what I want, even if my speech is offensive and hurtful to others, as long as my speech doesn’t fall into one of the limited exceptions such as libel, slander or fighting words. I can spread gossip about someone and I can mock someone’s weakness and this behavior is viewed today in American society as a legitimate expression of my free speech. Using physical force against someone is wrong, but verbally tearing someone down is a legitimate expression in America. Had Will Smith not hit Chris Rock, the latter’s offensive remark would not have been newsworthy, because that’s just what American society does.
The Torah forbids “ona’at devarim.” What is ona’at devarim? Ona’at devarim involves cheating a person through one’s words, such as intentionally giving someone bad advice about a business deal (Rashi, Vayikra 25:17). The Midrash that Rashi cites provides other examples of ona’at devarim, like a reminding a rehabilitated sinner of his past or reminding a convert of the wayward ways of his ancestors. The common denominator of all of these examples of ona’at devarim is that we are taking advantage of someone’s weakness, either in the context of business dealings or simply in a non-business context. For the Torah Jew, verbal attacks are not legitimate even though they are only speech. The whole notion of lashon hara, or gossip, being forbidden is so counter cultural to today’s society. After all, I am merely reporting the facts. The subject of my speech is the one who committed a bad action. He or she was foolish or negligent and acted inappropriately. I merely am repeating that information to you. Yet, Jewish law generally forbids such behavior. Even when there is a constructive purpose as to why I am relaying this information, I may only relay the information according to Jewish law if seven conditions are met: (1) I clarify that the facts are true, (2) I clarify that the behavior clearly violated halacha, (3) I first approach the sinner if possible and try to convince him to repent, (4) I do not exaggerate, (5) I have pure intentions to protect people from this person, (6) I have no way to achieve my objective other than to publicize his sin, and (7) the sinner should not incur more damage from my speech than would be appropriate as determined by a Beit Din reviewing this case.
So, yes, we can discuss whether or not Will Smith should have been disciplined for his behavior and how violence cannot be justified to respond to a verbal insult. To me, however, there’s a broader issue, not just with Hollywood, but with broader American society, that is at odds with Torah values. And that is our speech and how we use it. In Tehillim (34:13-14), King David asked, “Who is the man who is eager for life, who desired years of good fortune?” His first response to this question was “Guard your tongue from evil.” A good life for the Torah Jew is one when we strive to live a life of holiness more than simply by how we act. A good life for the Torah Jew is one when we strive to live a life of holiness by how we speak, as well.