As one of the 5.2 million Americans who spurned “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” to make HBO’s “Game of Thrones” the most-watched show on cable in early June, I admit that I was transfixed by the bloodbath that took out many of the show’s most prominent figures. But as a Jew — and a soon-to-be rabbi — I had to ask myself: What does it say about me that I enjoy this sort of thing?
As someone who has been following the swordplay, the intrigue and the moral vagaries of Westeros (the fictional continent and battlefield in “Game of Thrones”) for three years now, I still found the penultimate episode of the season to be shocking, grisly and deeply disturbing, even by HBO standards. In a horrific scene that ABC News called “the most violent five minutes ever shown on television,” a pregnant woman was stabbed in the stomach, dozens of throats were slit and a beloved dog was slaughtered. The finale was somewhat more sedate in comparison, yet still managed to show the head of that dog stitched to the headless body of his former master.
There is something disquieting about the show’s enormous popularity — particularly if we consider it in the context of HBO’s other offerings. From “The Sopranos” to “The Wire” to “Game of Thrones,” HBO has made a name for itself largely by depicting the violent, morally ambiguous and, often enough, patently misogynistic aspects of human culture.
I am a big fan of all the shows I’ve listed. But as a religious person, as a feminist and as a Jew, I do not think my fandom should be left uninterrogated. What, if anything, does our tradition have to say about these kinds of indulgences? Do our Jewish convictions commit us to place limits on aesthetic expression and appreciation? And if the answer is yes, how and where do we draw the line?
Looking back over our tradition, we won’t find any explicit answers. Apart from contemporary resources — such as Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s responsum on the halachic status of violent video games like “Grand Theft Auto” — the question of violent art, per se, simply isn’t on the radar. Dorff’s responsum (which the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the law-making body for the Conservative movement, unanimously approved in 2010) rules that playing ultra-violent video games is, from the perspective of Jewish law, illegal. Upending a common misconception that Christian religion focuses on legislating thought whereas Jewish religion focuses more on legislating external behavior, Dorff argues that our tradition is and has always been concerned with both right thought and right deed. The argument goes that we simply shouldn’t intentionally fantasize about doing the kinds of things that avatars in violent video games typically do.
But what does this have to do with watching television shows like “Game of Thrones”? Although Dorff doesn’t want Jews to derive thrills from killing police officers during games of “Grand Theft Auto,” surely he wants Jews to be able to explore and appreciate the full breadth of human art, some of which is of course quite violent. So while grotesque acts of criminality might be halachically out of bounds on the computer screen, they are, I would argue, decidedly in-bounds in the context of an actor playing Macbeth (or even Joffrey Baratheon, the homicidal boy-king of “Game of Thrones”). But is there any formal distinction between acting out slaughter on a keyboard and acting out that same slaughter on a stage?