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?
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.
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.