Recent news stories have accused Mitt Romney of engaging in hurtful pranks while he was in High School--such as cutting the hair of a fellow student against his will. Many of us would not want our old High School behavior to be dissected in public and I know I certainly wouldn't. But I want to focus on Romney's response to these attacks, not because I think his response should have any impact on whether or not one chooses to vote for him, but because we all as a society can improve in this area.
Romney has responded to these attacks by saying "I participated in a lot of high jinks and pranks during high school, and some may have gone too far. And for that I apologize."
Ann Romney has in the past spoken warmly and positively about her husband's fun loving pranks. In a video tribute to him she warmly says: "There were a lot of pranks, a lot of pranks."
If a husband and wife want to engage in pranks on each other as a form of romantic love then that is between the two of them. But for the rest of us the whole issue of pranking someone else which is now becoming more and more popular in our society raises a larger religious question: whether or not in general it is permitted to momentarily hurt someone for the sake of a good laugh.
Are practical jokes or pranks on an unsuspecting person permitted according to Jewish law? What about teasing someone or calling them by a nickname? While they might be funny and get a few momentary laughs, the clear answer is that they are not permitted.
The prohibition originates from a verse in Leviticus (25:17) which states: "One shall not aggrieve his friend." The Babylonian Talmud (tractate Bava Metzia 58b) interprets this to mean that one cannot cause pain to someone as a result of their actions, even if we would think that that pain is minimal. The great medieval commentator on the Torah, Rashi, comments that this verse means that one cannot tease their friend.
The Talmud expands on this prohibition and includes in it any behavior whereby your words or actions cause even momentary hurt and minimal pain. Thus, the examples of prohibited behavior in the Talmud even include presenting oneself to a shopkeeper as though you are interested in purchasing an item when you really have no interest. Another example of prohibited behavior is reminding someone of their previous sins even years after they have repented.
The Talmud lists three people who are considered especially egregious sinners. One of those people is someone who calls another person by a derogatory nickname even if the other person is used to that name and apparently does not mind. Such is the enormous sensitivity we must have for the feelings of others.
But the codes of Jewish law take this law one step further.
According to the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 420: 32) even causing someone temporary fright by playing a joke upon them and jumping out at them from the dark is a violation of this law. Hurting someone and causing emotional pain even for a good joke is prohibited.
American law now recognizes that certain practical jokes are a violation of the law as well.
Congress has passed a law which outlaws spoof calls. It is illegal to make a phone call and intentionally place a different caller id so that the receiver of the call is not deceived. This law which is known as "The Truth in Caller ID Law" makes it illegal "to cause any caller identification service to knowingly transmit misleading or inaccurate caller identification information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value...."
Now this law was probably intended to protect people who were trying to hide from their creditors, but nevertheless protecting people from pranks is a step in the right direction.
It is ok to laugh and the Torah also encourages laughter, just not at someone else's expense. Of course, it is not just Mitt Romney who has pranked people (we all have done it in our lives), but now that Mitt Romney is in such an important position of leadership he can and should take the initiative to turn this into a teachable moment. He should announce that from this day forward his campaign and if he wins, his White House, will be prank free zones.