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In her recent book on early rabbinic discourse surrounding capital punishment, Beth Berkowitz makes an arresting observation. Given that the nascent rabbinic movement was but a tiny, culturally marginal Jewish sect, Berkowitz argues that we should read the extraordinarily violent descriptions of halachic executions as a kind of rabbinic myth. Despite their grandiose self-perception, in reality, mishnaic and talmudic sages had very little power or judicial authority. They almost certainly lacked the power to execute anyone. And yet when they fantasize about a mythological future, they imagine themselves with such power.
Referring to Michel Foucault’s “Discipline & Punish,” Berkowitz explains this mythological violence in terms of the rabbis’ desire to develop their own sense of authority — one that they hoped to project outward onto the Jewish world as a whole. As Foucault wrote, developing authority always involves asserting control over the body, and very often this control is asserted in violent ways. And with respect to consolidating power in the Jewish world, the rabbis ultimately succeeded beyond their wildest dreams! For the past millennium, all Jews, with a few isolated expectations, have been rabbinic Jews. As myth, the Mishnah was thus an enormous success. If Foucault is right, part of that success — not unlike the success of “Game of Thrones” — is bound up in the allure of its more violent fantasies. So are the rabbis and HBO playing the same game?
Given the fact that “Game of Thrones” is still very much in medias res, the answer is not yet clear. The question boils down to whether or not “Game of Thrones” meaningfully interrogates its own brutality. Was the recent ultra-violent massacre presented merely as a vulgar thrill, or does it simultaneously deconstruct its own representations of paternal power and violence? While the early rabbis made prominent use of violent imagery and its attendant allure, they also left us with statements that problematize violence. We cannot understand violent rabbinic fantasies about death by stoning without also considering an equally prominent fantasy: As Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva famously said, “If we had been in the Sanhedrin, no one would have ever been executed.”
Does “Game of Thrones” similarly complicate its own nightmarish daydreams? We will have to stay tuned to find out.
Benjamin Resnick is a fifth-year rabbinical school student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He lives in Brooklyn.