Seats of Power

David Quintas, Columbia University

Before each Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), I resolve to pay more attention during services. Yet each year, I find myself counting the pages left in the machzor (holiday prayer book) during prayers, the number of sheets I have to get through before going home to eat my mother’s corned beef. To try and make the time go faster, I count all the pages, even though half are English translations of the Hebrew prayers. That way, it’ll seem like services are going twice as fast. This rarely works.

One of the reasons I have such a hard time focusing on the High Holidays has to do with the prevalence of a certain theme in the prayers. Kingship is a major motif weaved throughout the High Holiday liturgy and it is especially prominent on Rosh Hashanah. In many ways, the services of the holiday are structured to represent a coronation: the praying congregation acts out the Jewish people’s acceptance of God as ruler. The shofar – a ram’s horn – is blown, a ritual also used to celebrate the appointment of Biblical kings. Starting on Rosh Hashanah, we end the third blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei, a prayer recited at the center of each service, by naming God as “the Holy King” rather than “the Holy God.” In fact, the Shemoneh Esrei for some parts of Rosh Hashanah includes an entire section on Malchuyot or kingship. In another prayer recited multiple times on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the ten days in between, we recite Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) forty-four times. And the list goes on.

Rambam (Maimonides) famously wrote that the Torah depicts God in a language that men can understand. Presumably, royalty is a common reference point when attempting to describe God in classic Judaic texts, because it was an relatable metaphor for the congregations gathered for the reception of the Torah and the assembly of the High Holidays. Monarchs were the most powerful figures on Earth, ones that would inspire reverence in all people.

But what happens when the language intended to make God understandable loses its relatability? Most of the monarchs I grew up knowing about were figureheads lacking in real political power. I’ve been raised in a world of checks and balances, where the most powerful man in America can have his decisions overturned by other officials. Hobbes’s unimpeachable Leviathan has been swallowed in the Western imagination by Locke’s right to revolt. In a world without absolute power, even the theoretical notion of one figure with a monopoly on power is hard to imagine. This leaves many of the king-centric prayers somewhat toothless, and I am left to count the pages until dinnertime.

This year, however, as I’ve been saying the Selichot (penitential prayers) in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, I’ve found myself more connected to the words and even the kingly metaphors within them.

I think this may have something to do with the show Game of Thrones.

When I tell this to people, their initial response is a chuckle. Let me explain.

For the pop-culture averse: Game of Thrones is an HBO epic television series adapted from George R. R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire. “Epic” here refers to a genre of stories that are grand in scope and typically deal with heroes on journeys. I’m not using “epic” in the colloquial sense of something being very cool, though both meanings certainly apply.

The series – in both its written and televisual forms – depicts a plethora of interlocking storylines, most of which center around various characters and families attempting to outmaneuver each other and take control of the fictional continent of Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms within its borders. Westeros and its neighboring lands are steeped in the technology, political hierarchies, and societal attitudes of the Middle Ages, with some fantastical elements (dragons, black magic, giants, and the like) thrown in for good measure.

The series has secured its place in the pop culture pantheon not only for reviving highly literary fantasy – with dense plotting, mythologies, and genealogies –in a way not seen since the heyday of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but also for its extreme violence and copious amounts nudity. The latter reputation was most clearly exhibited during a South Park parody of the show, when characters sang the word “weiner” over and over again to the tune of the Game of Thrones title music. Hence the chuckling when I report that the show has improved my High Holidays experience. It’s not the sort of program that strikes one as synagogue-appropriate.

However, just like in the Rosh Hashanah prayers, reflecting on kingship and authority is a dominant theme in Game of Thrones. One of the most pivotal moments in the show occurs at the end of the first season. Robert Baratheon, the king of the Seven Kingdoms, dies, and his young son Joffrey ascends to the throne. Ned Stark, Robert’s most trusted advisor and warden of the North, accuses Joffrey of not being his father’s son and thus – not being the true king. This allegation turns out to be accurate, but is received as treason by King Joffrey and his advisors. Lord Stark recants his charge for the sake of protecting his children. Accordingly all of Joffrey’s advisors, including his mother – perhaps the most influential figure in his life – urge him to show mercy and spare the man’s life, as executing him would incite the North to rebel. Joffrey, despite indicating he would do otherwise, does not heed their counsel. And off goes Lord Stark’s head.

In addition to deviating from some pretty dependable TV storytelling conventions, this plot twist was shocking in its emphasis on the political supremacy of the monarch. Joffrey – an impudent, spoiled teenager – was able to callously reject the advice of everyone around him, regardless of their superior experience and expertise. This is a privilege afforded purely by the accident of his (alleged) royal lineage. Seeing this in action impressed upon me the power inherent in kingship. When judgment rests in one figure’s hands, and his alone, it very much matters whose hands those are.

This message is brought home time and again on Game of Thrones. As the seasons have progressed, a wide range of leaders have risen to positions of power, from the brooding but thoughtful Jon Snow to the progressively minded but harsh Danaerys Targarean. Currently, Cersei Lannister (Robert’s widow and Joffrey’s mother) sits on the throne, a result of her having more or less killed off everyone in the capitol who stood in her way in one fell swoop. After witnessing six seasons of her ruthless machinations behind the scenes, one shudders to consider what she might perpetrate now that she possesses the unqualified control of the crown. Again, when one person can act as judge, jury, and executioner, their values and temperament take on tremendous significance.

Accordingly, these days, I think a lot more critically about what it means to depict God as sovereign. Having spent many hours watching cruel and malicious monarchs via HBO GO, I don’t take it for granted that this “King of Kings” is one whose values include being slow to anger and forgiving of iniquity. I focus on what I’m saying more carefully and invest my recitation with increased gratitude. As I count down the days until the next season of Game of Thrones, I stop counting down the pages left in my machzor.