How Jewish are the Religions in Game of Thrones?

by Aaron Potek / August 23, 2017

Warning: this article includes spoilers, plot points and lines of dialogue from Game of Thrones episodes, through the most recent one on August 20th. But, like, you should be caught up by now.

While there are a few articles that highlight the Jewish trivia related to Game of Thrones (example: its two creators are both Jewish), I haven’t seen any article analyzing the actual religious content of the show as it relates to Judaism. With around 20 unique religions in the GoT world, this task is too much to take on in one rabbi rant. But in honor of the season seven finale coming up this Sunday, I thought I’d rank the show’s six religions that seem the most “Jewish.”

#6 – The Old Gods of the Forest

At first glance, this religion isn’t very Jewish. First of all, it involves many gods. Also, praying is centered on trees with a face carved into the bark. This type of tree-based idol worship is explicitly prohibited in… (gotta love the timing here!…) this week’s Torah portion: “Do not plant an asheira (an idolatrous tree) of any kind of tree beside the altar of the Lord your God.” (Deut. 16:21). As Maimonides explains: “This was an idolatrous practice; they planted trees near their altars so that people should gather around it.” (6:9).

Still, there are some resemblances to Judaism. Both place a strong value on welcoming guests – “the guest right,” as it’s known in this religion, or as it’s known in Judaism, hachnasat orchim. This is part of why the Red Wedding was such a terrible crime: “Walder Frey committed sacrilege that day. He shared bread and salt with theStarks. He offered them guest right. The gods will have their vengeance…” (04×03). Also, the idea of going out into the woods to meditate more or less resembles the chassidic practice of hitbodedut. And apparently the old gods are felt in the gentle breeze (01×08), which is reminiscent of Elijah’s encounter with God: “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but God was not in the wind. After the wind–an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake–fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire–a still, small voice.” (I Kings 19:11-12)


#5 – The Hound’s “Religion”

It’s not clear what, if anything, Sandor Clegane believes in. But one touching moment in the first episode of season seven reveals that he has not only a heart but perhaps a religion too.

When the Hound comes across the dead bodies of the farmer and daughter who had hosted him three seasons earlier, he feels compelled to bury them. Something about that whole scene felt extremely Jewish to me. First, the very impulse to not wait until morning to bury them is straight out of the Talmud: “Anyone who leaves his deceased overnight without burying him transgresses a prohibition.” (BT Tractate Sanhedrin 46a). Second, despite being a man of few words, he feels the need to eulogize them. This reflects the Jewish obligation to eulogize the dead, as it says: It is a great commandment to eulogize the dead person appropriately. And the commandment is to raise one’s voice to say over the departed things that break the heart, so that there will be much crying” (SA Yoreh De’eah 344:1). I know anyone who watched that scene is with me on this one – mission accomplished, Sandor, mission accomplished.

More generally, the Hound surprisingly seems to model true teshuva – repentance. In season 6, episode 8, Beric Dondarrion tells him, “You can still help a lot more than you’ve harmed, Clegane. It’s not too late for you.” This echoes Maimonides’ description of teshuva: “Even a person who was wicked his whole life and repented in his final moments will not be reminded of any aspect of his wickedness” (1:3). Or, if you’re looking for a similar sentiment through more Games-of-Thronesian language: “Even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he should not prevent himself from praying for mercy.” (BT Tractate Berachot 10a). This idea, that it’s never too late, is a powerful message as we enter the month of Elul (which begins today) and start our own teshuva process. And it’s one that the Hound has internalized, transforming from a nihilist to someone who lives for a purpose.


#4 – The Faith of the Seven

Judaism loves the number seven, representing wholeness and holiness (examples: shabbat, number of blessings at a wedding, number of days of shiva, etc.)… but not when it comes to number of Gods.

On the surface, the biggest similarity seems to be the focus of both religions on guilt. But shame is different than guilt, a distinction that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains nicely:

In shame cultures, what matters is the judgment of others. Acting morally means conforming to public roles, rules and expectations. You do what other people expect you to do. You follow society’s conventions. If you fail to do so, society punishes you by subjecting you to shame, ridicule, disapproval, humiliation and ostracism. In guilt cultures what matters is not what other people think but what the voice of conscience tells you. Living morally means acting in accordance with internalised moral imperatives: “You shall” and “You shall not.” What matters is what you know to be right and wrong.

The Faith of the Seven is clearly a shame culture, while Judaism is a guilt culture. Nevertheless, there are still many parallels between these two religions. Both feel “institutional” – with similar frameworks of clergy, laws, and trials. They also both have similar rituals around lifecycle events, such as weddings and funerals. For example, each partner at a “Seven” wedding recites the line: “I am his/hers and she/he is mine,” which is almost an exact translation from the classic Song of Songs line recited at many Jewish weddings: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (6:3). They both emphasize faith over material possessions, as it says: “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”  Finally, they both have the concept of communal prayer – with a similar focus on atonement and mercy. So while the Faith of the Seven resembles a more old-school, formal Judaism that we may not connect to, it certainly looks familiar.


#3 – The Many-Faced God of Death

Now we’re getting closer. Unlike most religions in GoT, this is a monotheistic religion like Judaism. But even if it’s one God, it’s a God with “many faces.” Surely that is an idolatrous idea antithetical to Judaism… or so you might think! That is, until you come across this incredible text about the moment of Divine Revelation to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai: “Rabbi Levi said: The Holy One appeared to them as though God were a statue with faces on every side” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana 12:25). Turns out this idea of a “many-faced” God is rooted in our traditional sources.

There are also two key aspects of this religion that resemble Judaism. The first is the idea that we only say one thing to death: “Not today” (01×06). This is more or less the idea articulated at the end of the Torah: “I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.” (Deut. 30:19). Second is the ideal of being “no one.” While self-negation, known as bitul, is not a Jewish practice most people are familiar with, it was indeed championed by many musar and chassidic masters. For example: “A person must nullify himself completely before God… Everything must be nullified as if he is nothing and zero before God” (Netivot Shalom, Parshat Tezaveh). The spiritual motivation behind this practice is that, by reducing our own self, we can become more intimately connected to God. If you’re interested, maybe the House of Black and White should be the next on your spiritual journey. Though I hear it’s hard to get in.


#2 – Daenerys Stormborn’s “Religion”

It seems Dany doesn’t have a religion. “Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any gods. Not in myths and legends. In myself” (07×03). But still, there is something deeply Jewish about holding onto faith in returning during many years of painful exile. As it says in Israel’s national anthem “Hatikva,” about the Jewish people’s return from exile: “Our hope is not yet lost, it is two thousand years old.” As Jon tells Dany (07×04), she is able to make “something impossible happen.” This is the story of the Jewish people’s improbable survival against all odds.

Also, one of her many titles is “breaker of chains.” Similar language is used by the Prophet Isaiah in a subversive passage that we read on Yom Kippur: “This is the fast that I desire: to loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6). As someone vehemently against slavery and any form of oppression and unjust law, she is a perfect expression of the type of religiosity that Isaiah demands of us. So while she doesn’t avow a particular faith, her value system may be the best expression of Judaism’s core principles and values.


#1 – The Lord of Light

OK, so the whole child sacrifice thing isn’t Jewish – in fact, it is the worst sin condemned several times throughout the Bible, as in: “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind” (Jeremiah 19:5). RIP, Shireen.

Still, Judaism and this religion share a mutual belief in “the one true god” and a mutual love of burning down false idols, as in: “You must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, and cut down their sacred posts; for you must not worship any other god” (Exodus 34:13). Also, the belief in the coming of “the Prince that Was Promised” sounds a lot like the Jewish belief in the Messiah. As in Jewish history (see: Shabbtai Zvi), this can lead to “false Messiahs” like Stannis.

There are many other similarities between the two religions – the idea of a commanding God, the prominence of prophecies, the acknowledgment that the night is dark and full of terrors (see Psalms 91:5: “You will not fear the terror of night”). But the clearest articulation of its belief system, and where its similarity to Judaism is most pronounced, came from Beric Dondarrion in the most recent episode (07×06):

“[I’m fighting for] life. Death is the enemy. The first enemy and the last… We can defend those who can’t defend themselves”

This is a perfect distillation of Judaism. It goes a step further than the “not today” attitude of the followers of the Many-Faced God; this isn’t just about personally choosing life. This is about a religion that is centered around the promotion of life. Amazingly, we see almost identical language from Rabbi Irving Greenberg in his description of Judaism (The Jewish Way, p. 182 – 183):

“Judaism is a religion of life against death… In a world growing toward life, death is a “contradiction” to God, who is pure life. In the end, therefore, death must be overcome. “God will destroy death forever. My Lord God will wipe the tears away from every face.” (Isaiah 25:8). Judaism’s ultimate dream then, is to vanquish death totally… Death is treated as the enemy.”

At its core, Judaism is about promoting life and human dignity, not just for ourselves, but especially for “those who can’t defend themselves.”

Could Game of Thrones be more Jewish? Of course. (Just think: dragons lighting a big menorah, Hot Pie baking delicious challah, Samwell Tarly getting into an argument with the Maesters over a Talmudic text…)

But with so many different religions featured prominently in the show, it’s hard for this rabbi not to see the Jewish parallels. Were they intended by George R.R. Martin? Probably not. But I’m still holding out hope that Dany is Jewish. And if things don’t work out with her and Jon… I’m around.

Do you disagree with my analysis? With my ranking? Did I miss other Jewish connections? Other ideas for how Game of Thrones could be more Jewish? Feel free to share in the comments below. Just no trolling, or you’ll pay the iron price.

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