The best funny take I heard on the not-at-all-funny incident at the Academy Awards last Sunday came from Rabbi Moshe Schwartz, who posted on Facebook: “I would have told him you don’t hit the rock, you talk to it!”
Rabbi Schwartz was referring of course both to comedian Chris Rock and to the rock in Numbers 20 which Moshe struck in indignation, in what turned out to be a career-ending move.
In itself, Will Smith’s televised smacking of Chris Rock in response to a joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith is not the most important moral event of the week. Yet sometimes a single moment helps us focus on what’s going on with us, helps us interpret some of the thoughts and emotions and even decisions of a particular moment in time.
As for the assault itself, I can’t see why judging it is a close call. I’ll stipulate that Chris Rock’s “joke” was insulting, a “joke” only in quotation marks. Nothing about it justifies a violent response. Jada Pinkett Smith was not being physically threatened, nor was her livelihood or reputation in danger. I don’t doubt that she could have experienced emotional harm. I know enough in a way I didn’t a few years ago to understand why a public remark like Chris Rock’s could be dangerous to Jada Pinkett Smith and to others. Yet the slap, even by someone standing up for her, did not address that in any way. Her own look in response to Chris Rock was well-registered on camera in the moment. The moment was over, surely to be commented on the next day in the media. Will Smith’s slap on top of it addressed nothing.
Then there was the room where it happened. A whole room of people who throughout the evening were making a big show of leveraging their fame to stand up for the people of Ukraine, who are actually being physically hurt and threatened in the moment – all of these famous people in that room stood by and in many cases cheered the man who attacked another man physically in front of them.
Too many who spoke or wrote in the early part of the week focused on who was more justified, whose side should we take. Will or Will-and-Jada, or Chris. As though this is the only way to approach a moral judgment. But imagine if Will Smith had decided to “speak to the [Chris] Rock” instead of striking.
What if instead of slapping Chris Rock and hollering his f-bombs, Will Smith had stood up — which would have gotten everyone’s attention in the room and the camera’s as well — and said audibly and firmly from his place in the front section: “Chris, that’s over the boundary. Apologize to my wife right now.” That would have broken script in a far more powerful way. It would have been at least as show-stopping, and it would have named exactly the same issues. In the post-game analysis, there would have been all the same important comments with none of the immoral cartwheels justifying violence.
Sadly that might have been more risky and courageous than what Will Smith actually did. People might have said, “Oh, they can’t take a joke” and he’d have to say, “Well I get that, but this is my wife and I’m standing up for her.” But if that was Will Smith’s real position on the joke and his duty to his wife, he should have taken responsibility for it by speaking up, not striking.
It says something about all of us and our culture in this moment that Will Smith didn’t see this as an option. He did after all give this a moment’s thought, after smiling first in response to Chris Rock’s “joke” and then registering his wife’s disapproval. He didn’t speak, except as a continuation of his slap. There is just so much we are not talking about. We are writing (like I am now) and reading, and we are lashing out. But we are not talking enough about the things on our minds that are making us angry.
That’s what the Divine was trying to teach Moshe at the end of his long career in the spotlight, in chapter 20 of Numbers. In the wilderness at the site called Merivah (Hebrew for “argument”), the people were complaining and Moshe had reason to be upset with them, not just in the moment but for things pent up over a long period of time. The Divine told him to channel this into public words spoken to a rock, through which the Divine would granting the water everyone needed. The act of speaking and the surprise that words could do this would have a healing effect.
Instead Moshe yelled at the people and mocked them, and struck the rock. Not just once, but twice – so with at least a bit of intentionality, in response to his own emotions. And the Divine told him immediately that this kind of thing would not work, and it was time for his tenure as leader to end shortly. I hope it’s not the same for Will Smith.
The Merivah episode is a bookend for Moshe’s career as Israel’s leader, which launched when he struck the Egyptian beating an Israelite slave. There he was saving a life and had no choice, or so many of the commentators posit. Later at Merivah, there was an alternative.
I think that not-talking, and violence in place of speech, are connected to another problem we are having – a deficit in the ability to make distinctions between bad and worse. We talk plenty about good and bad, but we have trouble with bad and worse. An insulting or insensitive joke is bad; slugging someone in response to that is BAD in a different degree. Indeed, Moshe goes out again and sees the same Israelite who was prior day’s victim now beating another Israelite unjustly. Moshe labels him guilty — even as he asks out loud what is going on, even as he holds out the possibility that they still might be “fellow” or “neighbor” (Exodus 2:13).
Instead, we see any-bad-is-just-bad thinking everywhere. In public “debates” (such as they are) politicians say: You did a particular bad thing, you once tweeted a bad thing, you laughed at the wrong thing, bad people say they like you, a bad person nominated you — any one of those things equal “you’re bad”. This is a very dangerous evasion of ethical responsibility. Life is always trading off relative bads, living with them and trying to make up for that. People who only know good-bad as a binary I do not trust to make ethical decisions for the collective, or to educate our young people.
That’s what happened at the end of the Moshe story. He was angry for a good reason, but he popped off at his people in a way that was much worse. The Divine called him on it, and told him essentially that you’ve now reduced the entire people to either good-or-bad. The only thing you know how to say out loud is that label, and that’s not going to work anymore.
When we’re unwilling or afraid to speak about different bads, it only feeds our frustration and anger. We used to have more latitude to work out our judgments in humor on a small scale, and in comedy more widely. Humor will take some risks, ruffle some feathers, get it wrong. It’s supposed to be helpful as a trial balloon, and at the same time not powerful in and of itself. Sometimes humor is all wrong, but when it is the stakes are lower than when serious opinion or politics gets things wrong. I speak as a Jew for whom humor is part of the arsenal of resilience as well as group survival.
On Sunday night at the Oscars, anger won out over humor. It seems we can’t joke unless we’ve agreed ahead of time on what we will find funny, and there’s no humor in that at all. The crowd chose to support anger over humor. Chris Rock’s was both an offensive “joke” and a not-funny one, but we learned once again that we’re short on a human tool we need more of now. Attacking someone who tells an offensive joke is helping us talk about what’s making us angry.
I was at once repelled and moved in the moment by Will Smith’s acceptance speech for best actor. I hope he comes back and amplifies is, because he was trying to say something about the responsibilities he feels as a person of fame and success, to stand up in the right way for people who need him. He was trying to say something important about love, from the heart and deep reflection — and something honest about the “devil” near him at the moment. I thought this week about the risks Moshe did take within himself as well as in his society in the way he chose to stand up for the Israelite slave beaten by an Egyptian — the paradox of fierce love and fierce action.
I haven’t written here at all about Jada Pinkett Smith. She didn’t deserve to be put in this particular spotlight the way two men around her did, and it’s not her responsibility to try to fix it. I certainly wonder if any of this would have happened differently had it not been two men, and how much of the overall predicament I’m trying to articulate is driven by us men.
Will Smith got it wrong in the moment, but then right (enough) in his public apology. As I said above it’s not binary; if there are consequences with the Academy that does not diminish his apology. I am rooting for him for continue to talk, to bring together his Sunday acceptance and his Monday apology.
But more than anything I am rooting for us. What are we not talking about, not joking about? What are we writing and reading about, but not saying to another person? Last Sunday we saw a moment with brief words, attempts at humor, exchanged glances, smiles and giggles, shouts and huddles, impromptu reflections, and violence. Everything but the last in an ingredient we can build from, as we live in a world with ongoing war, pandemic, and so much other strife. Don’t strike the rock, but speak to the rock and to the people.