Posts Tagged 'Honor'

Antiquated Honor: The Mishna and a Slap

I do not watch TV and I certainly do not watch the Oscars. But even me, living under my rock, has heard about what happened this year. While presenting at the Academy Awards, comedian Chris Rock made a joke at the expense of actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. Evidently she has Alopecia. A few seconds later her husband, actor Will Smith enters the screen walking straight toward Rock who is laughing nervously. As Smith reaches Rock, he slaps him fully across the face and walks away.

There is so much going on here with so many people adding in their commentary. Why does his wife need Will Smith’s defending? What is going on with toxic and fragile masculinity? Is there any bounds for humor? What is the role of the audience, producers, and larger society? I do not think that I have much to add here that has not been said. The only thing I wanted to offer is a Mishna.

In the Mishnah in Bava Kama, collected by the 2nd Century quoting scholars from the 1st Century, we learn:

If he slapped him he must pay 200 zuz. If with the back of his hand, he must pay him 400 zuz. If he tore at his ear, plucked out his hair, spat at him and his spit touched him, or pulled his cloak from off him, or loosed a woman’s hair in the street, he must pay 400 zuz. This is the general rule: all is in accordance with the person’s honor…

It once happened that a man unloosed a woman’s hair in the street and she came before Rabbi Akiva and he condemned him to pay her 400 zuz. He said, “Rabbi, give me time”. And he gave him time. He caught her standing at the entrance to her courtyard, and he broke a jug of one issar’s worth of oil in front of her. She unloosed her hair and scooped up the oil in her hand and laid her hand on her head. He had set up witnesses up against her and he came before Rabbi Akiva and said to him, “Rabbi, should I give one such as this 400 zuz?” He answered, “You have said nothing.” If a man injures himself, even though he has no right to do so, is not liable. But others who injure him are liable.

Bava Kama 8:6

At first I am drawn into the Mishna’s distinction between a regular slap and a back of the hand slap. It is amazing to realize that this idea of how you slap someone itself would carry a certain meaning. Is the aim to hurt or to dishonor? Injury is evaluated at 200 zuz, but embarrassment and denigration is evaluated at 400 zuz. Wow, who knew the bitch slap existed in antiquity?

But the Mishna goes on and in a surprising way. The Mishna as a genre is not known for its narratives. There we tell a story about a man who embarrasses a woman in public by uncovering her head. As the story goes on the perpetrator defends his activity by demonstrating that she did the same to herself. Rabbi Akiva disputes his claim. Just because someone can do something bad to themselves does not give anyone license to embarrass them in public. Jewish law takes publicly embarrassing another person very seriously and penalizes such a person with a stiff financial penalty. Indeed according to Jewish tradition one who publicly embarrasses another is akin to a murderer.

There are many pertinent lessons from this Mishna. Violence is violence and it is not excused. The court has a unique role in punishing the perpetrator. There is an assumption that there are universal baseline of respect and honor due to everyone, regardless of what they do. Just because some does not press charges, it does not excuse the behavior.

This is interesting in that is surfaces our strange relationship to celebrity. We assume that people who choose to put themselves in the public eye allow us to treat them differently. The game of fame seems to come with some shame. We can only hope that this event gives us a chance to reflect and that that this moment might be a cultural inflexion point. Yes as some point we all need to be more open to humor AND we can never forget every “person’s honor”. This Mishna presents a certain idea of civil society and tort law in antiquity, but the idea of honor is far from antiquated.


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