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In considering these questions, it is worth keeping two facts in mind: The first is that rabbinic Judaism grew up out of a cultural reality that was startlingly brutal. The world of the early rabbis — Ancient Rome — shares a great deal more with the world of the Starks and the Lannisters than it does with our own. The reality of violent acts, as well as the allure of violent entertainment, is something of which the early rabbinic sages were acutely aware. The second is that our most cherished Jewish texts are themselves full of violent and disturbing stories. The sacred literature we have inherited does not, for the most part, picture a world redeemed, but rather confronts us with the world we live in and asks us to make intentional, moral choices while we are here.
Admittedly, the Torah itself does not address directly the issue of Jews watching grisly spectacles. But the rabbis, in their discussions of gladiatorial combat, do. And while it is true that classical rabbinic literature is critical of Jews who attend Roman games, the texture of this criticism is highly variegated. The rabbis offer a wide array of opinions, and not all of them reject the games’ violence.
In a particularly rich source from an early rabbinic compilation called the Tosefta, we read the following:
It is forbidden to go to the theaters of Gentiles because of idolatry. This is the opinion of Rabbi Meir. But the Sages say, when they are actively offering a sacrifice it is forbidden because of idolatry but when they are not actively offering a sacrifice it is forbidden because of fraternizing with vulgarians. One who goes to the stadium [to watch gladiators] has committed an act of bloodshed. Rabbi Natan permits [watching] because he might call out and save someone.
For both Rabbi Meir and the Sages, the problem with going to the theater is not so much what is onstage, but rather the cultural and or religious mingling that takes place there. Watching gladiators might be wrong, but it is wrong because it is Roman, not necessarily because it is violent or immoral. The second approach, which resonates more, perhaps, with contemporary sensibilities, does register the moral concern: By enjoying the spectacle of the slaughter, one thereby becomes liable for that slaughter.
And finally we come to Rabbi Natan. While still critical of the gladiatorial spectacle itself, he nonetheless suggests that there is a potential benefit to watching. Confronted with Roman brutality, the Jew — who in the rabbinic imagination is possessed of a finer moral sensitivity than his Roman counterpart — might be moved to cry out in protest. USA Today recently quoted contemporary Episcopal theologian Daniel Muth mobilizing this exact argument in response to our question. While Muth emphasizes that there is clearly no Christian mandate to watch “Game of Thrones,” he suggests that “seeing the hopelessness and savagery of what this age threatens to become may serve to shake us from our torpor.”
There is, of course, an important distinction between watching gladiators kill one another in the coliseum and watching the Lannisters kill the Starks on television: People actually died in the coliseum. Gladiatorial combat was real. With respect to the question of violence in art, rabbinic attitudes toward the Roman games might be suggestive, but they would be far from determinative.
Thus, if we hope to uncover the traditional rabbinic perspective on violent fantasy, we will need to look elsewhere. And I would argue that we find it in a place where we might not think to look.