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Striking the rock

I want to share an incident that happened a few weeks ago. On a Friday night, someone in our extended family had an emergency that required seeking immediate medical advice and treatment. Fortunately, the practitioner lived nearby, and it was Shabbat, so we knew she would be home. Getting there safely required crossing a major road at a crosswalk, because there is no traffic light on that stretch. Unfortunately, cars routinely blow through this crosswalk without paying any mind to the pedestrians who are legally entitled to cross the road, despite the fact that the crosswalk is, of course, there for everyone’s safety.

When traffic ebbed, our little motley crew consisting of 3 adults, 2 small children and a very large dog started to make its way across this street. As we neared the other side of the road, a car came barreling toward us. One of us held up a hand motioning for the car to stop. The car came to a sudden halt and, once we cleared the crosswalk, the driver leaned on the horn, clearly frustrated that we had slowed him down. My spouse spewed a profanity loud enough for the driver to hear. The driver slammed on the brakes, and his female passenger rolled down her window to yell at us, “Shame on you for using that kind of language on Shabbos,” to which my spouse snarkily countered, “Shame on you for driving on Shabbos!”

I often think about how we can model healthy, constructive responses that help our children, especially our daughters, learn to navigate such situations they will inevitably encounter.

With no further retort, she nodded toward our dog and nastily commented that “at least there was one good looking b*tch in the family.” My spouse’s response redirected a variant of the sentiment back at her, and the driver got out of the car and threatened to strike my spouse. Separate from being worried about our physical safety (as well as the medical issue at hand), I was also mindful of what the children were witnessing and experiencing. After more heated words were exchanged – including the woman yelling that I should control my spouse – no one was struck, and although seething, we went our separate ways. 

I often think about how we can model healthy, constructive responses that help our children, especially our daughters, learn to navigate such situations they will inevitably encounter. And our confrontation, when we nearly came to blows, quickly came to mind as I processed the now infamous moment when Will Smith marched onstage during the Oscars, to slap Chris Rock for humiliating Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

“It is better for a person to jump into a fiery furnace, rather than embarrass a friend in public (BT Ketubot 67b).

Jewish tradition has much to say about causing someone deep embarrassment. Pirkei Avot 3:11 quotes Rabbi Elazar of Modiin who said, “one who profanes sacred things, and one who despises the festivals, and one who causes a fellow’s face to blush in public…has not a share in the world to come.” Another rabbinic text reads, “It is better for a person to jump into a fiery furnace, rather than embarrass a friend in public (BT Ketubot 67b).” Each of these sentiments are responses to incidents that brought shame on another. To be sure, there are times when Jewish law requires us to take defensive action to protect ourselves. And yet, despite the severity of the transgression of publicly embarrassing someone, there is neither permission nor a recommendation to escalate to physical violence.

Without getting into the substance of Chris Rock’s style of humor, or the specifics of that particular one-liner, the “Red Carpet” parade and all of the media attention has become as much a part of awards shows as the shows themselves. Hollywood culture, working hand-in-hand with the fashion and “beauty” industries, capitalizes on appearances and hones in on insecurities. This decades long tradition was never my cup of tea. I think people should wear what they want and what makes them feel good. But people have free will and can choose to play the game.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I hear stories of personal ridicule and the objectification of girls and women on a daily basis.

As for the rest of us, many women find it triggering when people, especially men, make unsolicited remarks about our appearances. As an Orthodox woman, and Executive Director of Jofa, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, I’m all too familiar with the unhealthy emphasis on girls’ and women’s appearances, and applying extra-halakhic norms that oversexualize us and that are used as forms of gas-lighting and litmus testing. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I hear stories of personal ridicule and the objectification of girls and women on a daily basis.

It’s also troubling when comments shame girls and women for daring to look different and bucking “conventional” beauty “norms.” Women endure constant criticisms about how we dress, aging, weight, height, skin – and yes, about our hair. It cuts all the deeper when a man makes fun of a woman because of a change in her appearance – especially when that change resulted from an autoimmune disease.

For a (long) moment as it unfolded, the audience seemed unsure whether it had all been staged, so they laughed along. Among the ironies of this story is that much of the film industry’s success is predicated on audiences being drawn into and even glorifying violence, whether in the form of battlefield scenes, sexual assault scenes, domestic abuse, or terrorist acts, to name just a few. Some scenes are framed as slapstick comedy, and other times too true to life. Sometimes the line between good and evil is clear. Other times, because of actors’ real-life cult followings and sharp script-writers who create otherwise likable fictional characters, viewers can have a hard time discerning between hero and villain.

Nevertheless, just 40 minutes after the incident, Smith returned to the stage to accept one of the Academy’s highest honors, “Best Actor in a Leading Role.” Indeed, when it comes to various portrayals of violent individuals and their drawn out scenes, we as viewers find ourselves juggling and processing a multitude of mixed messages. In this case, the unscripted truth was stranger than any planned fiction. I’m sad to say that the confluence of circumstances on a night that highlights Hollywood’s achievements felt very on-brand.

In our own Jewish texts, we also sometimes read conflicting messages. Exodus 17:1-8 describes an incident when the Israelites quarrel with Moses, demanding drinking water and wondering if they were redeemed from Egypt only to die in the desert. God instructs Moses to strike the rock so it will yield water. Later, in Numbers 20:1-13, in a similar scenario, God instructs Moses (and Aaron) to order the rock to yield water. Instead, Moses strikes the rock twice. God is angered by this breach of conduct that demonstrates a lack of faith. God decrees a harsh punishment, precluding Moses and Aaron from entering the Promised Land.

Do you want to stand up for women? Stand up for women – but not with your fists.

Rabbinic commentaries grapple with how to reconcile the two similar narratives with their very different outcomes, and conclude that they are separate incidents that took place nearly 40 years apart. Regardless of previous experiences, and Moses’ intent to provide water for the nation, the text impresses upon us that it was wrong to strike the rock, and that there will be lasting repercussions for having done so.

However noble Will Smith’s intentions to protect his wife, and whatever previous experiences he’d had with Rock, striking Rock was wrong. Do you want to stand up for women? Stand up for women – but not with your fists.

This I know. No one should be mocked. Centering your career around mocking others’ differences is just not funny. Whether you’re an actor or an athlete or a mere Muggle, physical violence is never the answer, and should never be accepted or accommodated. People of every color and background may experience ailments and personal challenges. Wealth and fame – even with all their privileges – can only carry you so far.

Our children are taking their cues from us as they navigate an incredibly confusing and complicated time. Knowing that our children are looking to us, we can and must do better. 

As for this particular moment in history, between surviving a global pandemic and living on the cusp of what feels like the next world war, each of us has our own set of viewers – adults and children alike, who look to us for advice, guidance, and support. There is so much at stake. Simply managing and balancing our emotions and expectations can be overwhelming. We spend our lives muddling through life in the face of conflicting messages, strong emotions and overwhelming messiness. In those moments when we face our toughest challenges, we won’t always get things right, but we can commit to managing conflict while protecting our loved ones with faith, maturity and grace. Our children are taking their cues from us as they navigate an incredibly confusing and complicated time. Knowing that our children are looking to us, we can and must do better. 

About the Author
Daphne Lazar Price is the Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and an adjunct professor of Jewish Law at Georgetown University Law Center. She is active in the Orthodox community in her hometown of Silver Spring, MD, where she lives with her husband and two children.
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