The End of Civility

By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel (Lebanon)

Every society has cultural norms upon which common behavior is built. Times and standards may have changed, but along the way we enforce legal codes. In public we wear clothes, in cars we buckle our seatbelts, and with respect to halakha, Jewish law, in synagogue we put our cell phones away.

These rules aren’t meant to coerce us into unhealthy arrangements with our peers or authority figures - they are natural extensions of the idealist hope that public spaces can be shared and celebrated by all. We prioritize health, safety, respect, and dignity as values to be cherished.

These rules are not rote, they are flexible to unique circumstances, and can even be extended into non-legal arenas that are de facto guidelines - we are encouraged to turn our cell phones off in the movie theaters, we don’t skateboard in indoor malls, we wear a nice outfit to an expensive restaurant. If we want to exist in a civil society, we practice decorum.

In halakha, we find extensive laws regarding personal responsibility in the public domain. In Bava Kama we are encouraged to take responsibility for what we leave out in public, and to repay damages for our negligence. Whether it is an ox on the loose or broken pottery shards from an unattended vessel, we have obligations to others whom we may injure that reify God in interpersonal dynamics. Further, we are required to seek forgiveness from others before asking God for our atonement on Yom Kippur. Justice is not found through avenging a perceived wrong, as Leviticus 19:18 exhorts us, “You shall not take vengeance.”

The idea of violence as a sanctioned response for someone’s offense is so foreign to our religion that we quip in Pirkei Avot 5:14 “One who is quick to anger and slow to forgive is wicked.” Rashi then elucidates that this individual is regarded as wicked “because through the anger he will come to sin, as it is stated, ‘Do not become angry and you will not sin’ (Talmud Brachos 29b).”

Conversely, in the same Mishnah, “One who is slow to become angry and quick to forgive is pious.” Thus, if someone can forestall anger, and can forgive, violence may never be practiced as retribution! Could you imagine such a pious person, and such a peaceful world?

Having mentioned the mussar above, I was shocked watching the Oscars last month, witnessing the “slap heard ’round the world.” It seems like the tragic self-fulfilling prophecy of “words leading to violence” was on full display.

Will Smith, upset at a joke directed at his wife, walked onstage and slapped comedian Chris Rock. Afterwards, there was no removal of Will Smith. The Academy issued no strong-handed condemnation of the assault millions of Americans witnessed on TV (though Smith has since been banned from attending the Oscars for ten years). There is no amount of explaining that could possibly defend the social reality of what some Americans might now deem as normal.

This is where the long road of “cancel culture” apologetics and hollow “virtue signaling” has led us. We’ve arrived at a new age of civility, an age of incivility, whereby words are immediately judged by the mob and violence, mistaken as instant justice, can be used without reprisal if populism dictates it so.

There are many Jewish teachings as to why comedy is a difficult and often apostate performance art. Embarrassing someone, making their face red, is related to spilling someone’s blood - an act that is obviously discouraged! Rambam, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, writes in the Mishneh Torah 6:20, “One should worship with joy, it is impossible to serve God through jesting, frivolity, or drunkenness.”

In Mesillat Yesharim 5:16, the great ethical treatise by RamChaL, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto writes “laughter destroys a man's heart until reason and knowledge no longer rule in him. He becomes like a drunkard or a madman whereby it is impossible to give counsel or guide them for they are incapable of accepting any direction.” But even through these teachings, words are not violence themselves. Words are words, and violence is violence - there is a clear demarcation.

When I think about comedians who make their living poking fun at culture at large, it’s my highest hope that they are allowing us to see our own society through a mirror. At best, comedians prevent our civilization from being deluded into its own fundamentalism by showing logical inconsistencies within our hubris. At worst, comedians normalize verbal bullying and create scores of embarrassed and ashamed victims - victims who, like Will Smith, may lash out. Again it should be noted, words are words, and violence is violence. They are not the same.

While unintentional embarrassment is an occupational hazard of being a comedian, we expect our public figures and celebrities to be held to a higher standard. We expect them to carry the burden of the public eye with grace, poise, and respectability, even under fire. We look to them to model behavior and preserve the integrity of our shared spaces.

Maybe this is a naive misapprehension that I have, but with the same disgust many of us had when President Trump encouraged violence while campaigning, we should be equally upset at what happens when our society’s role models react with or condone violence in response to words they don’t like. The saying, “politics swims downstream of culture,” is exceptionally frightening considering The Oscars represents the apex of Hollywood’s cultural achievement. I wonder how politicians will interpret these mixed messages, conflating humorous words with violent justice.

I believe we are bearing witness to new societal norms. Over the past two years, our public spaces have been gutted, and places that once were community centers have been replaced by online video links and chat rooms. If we did happen to be in the public domain, we’ve been six feet apart and masked. We’ve experienced a poignant sacrifice of personal sociability for a collective health standard, and we are now assessing how that’s impacted behavioral norms. Whether that health policy was right or wrong is irrelevant as we observe the outcome of years of loosened social mores. We’re watching what happens when celebrities and politicians let their animalistic selves get the better of them and condone violence. 

Some may say that this degeneration was inevitable, that it is the ineluctable result of a culture built on shock value, cheap technology, and lack of consequence for the well connected, but I believe we got here by accepting weak moral fiber as a substitute to courage.

Rather than deep thinking, patient empathy, and difficult decisions made with integrity that our tradition insists is our religion’s saving grace, we’ve transformed into a reactive culture that sanctions righteous vigilantism as a legitimate response to perceived injustice. We accept less by defending degeneracy with the false pretense of inclusion. We see this on nationally televised awards ceremonies, in how college campuses treat Jewish speakers, and in how BDS is pardoned by anti-Semitic celebrities.

The hypothetical implications that this event will have, in comedy clubs, on college campuses, and in young relationships is a metaphorical lifting of a veil, where we are witnessing what type of society we’ve become after years of difficulty. But at the end of the day, when the veil is lifted, words still remain as words, violence still remains as violence, and anyone who is quick to anger and quick to sin will be called wicked by the Sages. Whether we exist in a civil society or not, we can continue to call things what they are - an assault is an assault.