Games of self-delusion?…asks Rabbi Chaim Ingram

July 26, 2018 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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Are you a fan of Game of Thrones? Or not? Either way, read on ….

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

At the beginning of this week’s Sidra (Deut. 4:2-3) we find the following juxtaposition of verses:-

Do not add to the word which I command you, nor may you subtract from it; just keep the mitsvot of G-D your G-d which I am commanding you. Your eyes saw what G-D did to Baal-Pe’or;

for all who followed Baal-Pe’or, G-D your G-d destroyed from your midst.

The question is: why is adding or subtracting to the Torah specifically linked to the Baal-Pe’orepisode, originally recounted in Sefer Bemidbar (Num 25:1-9),.which brought down some of the nation’s very important personages.

In a unique and prodigious insight, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) pinpoints the connection.

Declares the Gaon: it defies belief that members of the Israelite elite would have suddenly been tempted to worship such a sordid idol as Pe’or. Rather their thinking was (paraphrase mine):“Weknowthisidolisc**pandwe’regoingtoshowit! Let’sdefecateinfrontoftheidol to show our absolute contempt and revulsion for it. Indeed it’s a mitsva to do so!”

Sadly these princely members of Bnei Yisrael failed to understand the full extent of the moral degeneration that had grasped the native Pe’or worshippers. It was precisely through the act of defecation that service of the idol was achieved! Gloated the priests of Pe’or: “No- one has ever worshipped our idol with the zeal and enthusiasm that you just did!”

The Torah does not prescribe mocking idols by defecating in their presence. But the Bnai Yisrael sought to justify their ‘addition’ to the Torah by deluding themselves that it was just this: a mockery, a game, a satire, and that they weren’t serving the idol but reviling it. The result was that they subtracted from the Torah in the most heinous possible way – and the Torah does not exonerate them.

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It is still not easy to see how refined members of Bnei Yisrael could have resorted to such a  repellent ritual even in parody or charade.

But then again, in today’s “enlightened” society, let us examine what is done by the intelligentsia in the name of satirical art. In 1987, an American artist named Andres Serrano created a photograph of a small plastic crucifix submerged in a small glass tank containing the artist’s urine. Whether it was done as an attempt to mock Christianity or to push theboundaries of acceptability is uncertain. However it won an award the South-Eastern Centre for Contemporary Arts, sponsored in part by a United States government agency. Leading art critic Lucy R. Rippard called it “mysterious and beautiful”.

When it comes to the arts and also to the world of entertainment, somehow the moral boundaries of decent people become blurred and distorted. Values that they might otherwise have held are suspended. Art, theatre, cinematic and TV entertainment becomes a fantasy world of ‘acting out’ where new ‘realities’ kick in. In the name of art it becomes “OK”.

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A personal tidbit. It is about fifteen years since my wife and I last owned a television set. We figure that anything worth watching can be podcasted or downloaded as an app. Therefore I

am delightfully out of touch with the world of popular TV entertainment.

However I don’t inhabit a monastery. And I know that the most popular show on TV is a series called Game of Thrones which apparently has attracted record viewership worldwide. Professor Google advises me that the most recent episode had sixteen million viewers.

But the Internet also advises me that it is “brimming with pornographic sex scenes, awash inmisogynistic dialogue and bloated with depictions of sexual violence and torture so savage as to be unrivalled in television history.” Apparently several scenes have included “graphic depictions of incestuous sex, rape, prostitution, child sexual abuse and sexual torture”, much of it apparently related to ancient paganist idolatry.

I have no figures as to how many Jews watch Game of Thrones. However I do recall some time back that a prominent Melbourne Jewish educator made passing reference to it in a newspaper column in such a way as to suggest he was a ‘fan’. And I was saddened but not surprised to learn that the series was created by two proud, identifying members of our tribe– David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. It has apparently received 38 Primetime Emmy Awards including Outstanding Drama Series in 2015 and 2016, three Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation (2012-2014), a 2011 Peabody Award and five Golden Globe Award nominations. Given the high Jewish representation in the world of film, TV and entertainment it would be sheer ostrich-like behaviour for me to posit that Jews are not well-represented in the viewership figures. However I have not read or seen any condemnations of the series by any prominent intellectual Jews – the same Jews who are in the vanguard of organisations protesting real-life violence against women and child sexual abuse.

We are the most ethically-sensitive nation on the face of the globe. Jews protest sexual abuse and violence against women and children way out of proportion to their numbers. Yet no-one appears to protest the abusive sex and violence on our TV screens weekly and Game of Thrones continues to draw in vast numbers of viewers.. Is it cognitive dissonance? Is it self- delusion? It is hard to comprehend.

But maybe the events of Ba’al Pe’or of which we spoke at the outset do offer us a clue as to the state of the human condition from which none of us are immune.

Just like the Bnei Yisrael of the wilderness generation succumbed to Ba’al Pe’or because they saw its sordid worship as a form of satire, a game, a play-act, so perhaps is Game of Thronesviewed by the masses, including the Jewish masses, as fantasy, as fabulous entertainment unrelated to the world of reality. Are they in denial that there are bound be some semi- unhinged viewers (or voyeurs) who yearn to act out what they see on their TV screens in real life –and a few who will actually do so?

I wonder: Would it not perhaps be a good idea for those Jews in particular who identify with the artsy-intellectual left-of-centre, those who consider themselves as moral and ethical elitists striving for tikun olam, fighting subjugation and abuse of women and, campaigning to bring child abusers and their accomplices to justice – and rightly so – to take a minute to askthemselves why these evils suddenly become ‘kosher’ when they are depicted on our TV screens as a bizarre type of graphic, visual art/entertainment. And if it’s not kosher – wellwhy don’t we hear their protestation loud and clear?

No doubt many will wish to tell me that I am not qualified to pass judgement on a TV program that I have never personally watched. But nor have I ever injected heroin or ice, yet I wouldn’t hesitate to advise anybody against doing so. And even the most devoted viewer of GoT won’tdeny that the perversities I have outlined have featured and do feature.

They may defend the show by saying: “it’s evident that it isn’t real … it’s all acting, it’s a mock-up, it’s not glorification, it’s pure fantasy”.

But then again, the elite members of Am Yisrael who sat at the feet of the idol Pe’or to satirise and be entertained said more or less the same thing!

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