When Pranks Are Deadly

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I can't think of anything less practical than a "practical joke." But are they inevitably evil?

The stunt last week by a couple of Australian shock jocks started out as merely meh tasteless. They'd call the hospital where preggers Kate Middleton was recovering from a hyper form of morning sickness, pretend to be the Queen of England and Prince Charles, and see what they could learn. From the transcript, it seems pretty clear they expected to get hung up on -- and sooner rather than later.

On the audio, the "queen" sounds as much like Jon Stewart doing his queen "impression" as it does HM. But the nurse who took the call simply transferred it to a nurse actually caring for Kate. Almost nothing was revealed. That a vomiting patient arrived dehydrated isn't exactly a medical exposé. The jocks did learn what time Kate's husband left the hospital -- perhaps a small security breach. You can read the transcript of the whole call here.

So no real harm, no major foul and, while the British were singularly unamused, there were yuks all around in those parts of Oz where shock-jockdom is popular.

Until it was reported that the nurse who transferred the call had apparently killed herself. Then some pretty stout condemnations rained down on the jocks who, it was said, had "blood on their hands." Some compared it with the case of the Rutgers freshman who tried to broadcast a tryst between his male roommate and another man. That, too, was followed by a suicide.

Is that a fair charge and a fair comparison? I think not.

In the Rutgers case, based on everything I've read, Dharun Ravi specifically chose to video his roommate, Tyler Clementi. And chose to let friends know about it. And chose to try to do it again.

That Clementi killed himself can't be laid directly at Ravi's feet. Who knows how many prior straws lay on that camel's back? But an act of cruelty aimed specifically at Clementi surely preceded the sad outcome.

In the more recent case, the most likely outcome for the DJs was a joke on themselves and their terrible British accents -- a few seconds of lowbrow radio humor. But they were carried along by their unexpected success. (On the other hand, since the stunt was reportedly recorded and vetted by lawyers, the radio station managers could have chosen not to air it.)

Silly? Yup. Even stupid. But as evil as the cyberbullying of the Rutgers case?

In American civil law, plaintiffs in a malpractice case must prove that, "but for" the event in question, the bad outcome would not have happened. And they need to prove the bad outcome was reasonably foreseeable.

Again, we can only imagine the straws on this camel's back that would crush nurse Jacintha Saldanha into taking her own life. And did anybody who heard about this prank on the first day say they foresaw a suicide?

I wondered what faith traditions have to say about pranks. I started with a search for "practical joke" and "Talmud" and fell into hours worth of material. Turns out that traditional Judaism has chronicled thousands of years of discussions about pranks and jokes.

Start with Leviticus 25:17, which can be translated as "Do not cheat (or maybe "do not take advantage of") each other..." In context, it's about fair business dealings. But the sages expanded that to all manner of "theft." Time, reputation, peace of mind -- the sorts of things at stake in a prank are all of value. Emotional anguish is simply prohibited.

The Babylonian Talmud goes this far: "One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood" (Baba Metzia 58b). And "It is better for a man that he should cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than that he should put his fellow to shame in public" (Berakoth 43a).

A detailed list of examples of prank-like transgressions can be assembled from Jewish writings: Scaring another person, such as hiding behind a door in a dark room and startling him when he enters; jokingly scaring someone by telling him false information; withholding another's belongings, even as a joke; giving someone a hot coal when it should be cool.

Talmudic Judaism being Talmudic Judaism, there are disagreements and discussions about exactly how any of this is to be applied. But it is clear that there is a strong bias against pranks with very few exceptions.

One exception is the holiday of Purim. Costumes, drink and revelry are part of custom and ritual. It's also a time when some authorities say that a modest level of prankery is permitted.

This is even true in some Orthodox Jewish schools, the yeshivas themselves, where there is a tradition of a "Purim rabbi." One of the smarter students is assigned to give a satirical lecture, imitating the regular instructors. One can only imagine what a knee-slapper that would be to the uninitiated.

But even that custom has an "on the other hand." I found this reference:

"I have seen in writing that the Gaon, Rabbi Shimon Sofer died from the anguish he suffered in the wake of the insults hurled at him by the 'Purim Rabbi.'"

Bottom line for Judaism seems to be a moral risk/benefit analysis. What's the best that can come from most pranks? A few moments of amusement. What's the worst, unlikely though it might be? Death. And the most likely outcome is public humiliation of the victim.

I'm still not going to join the chorus of high-dudgeon condemnation for those two Australian shock jocks. They are surely as stunned as anyone at the tragedy that followed their prank. But particularly in this world of 24-hour "news" and the instant-transmission Internet, I'm inclined to agree with the Jewish sages:

The upside wasn't worth the downside.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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