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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Avodah Zarah 17a: A farting prostitute and recovery from an addiction

      There are many who recognize that their destructive tendencies and addictions were wrong and hurtful to themselves and their families. If there is a realization that emotional, psychological and behavioral changes are needed, it is also quickly realized how difficult and challenging it is to make personal transitions. Many questions come up and I can think of a few right now - how does one cope with uncontrolled addictions, what could have stimulated a shift in consciousness to take action for change, and who are the people that could be reliable for support during times of change.

     Here, in Avodah zarah 17a, is a strange story about Rabbi Elazar ben Dordia, who in his addiction to sex with prostitutes has been challenged and provoked by the prostitute herself; he experienced a moment of ‘enlightenment’ during a sexual act and decided to change his behavior. He did not go on the 12 step program. He did not seem to have a support group that would help him recover from his uncontrolled behavior, nor did he hesitate to talk to God. It was a prostitute that was the catalyst for his redemption. It was the most unexpected way for someone to realize his wrong doing. What was it like for Rabbi Elazar to be confronted with his own so-called evil inclination?

They say concerning Rabbi Elazar ben Dordia that he did not neglect a single prostitute in the world with whom he did not have sexual relations. One time he heard that there was a certain prostitute in one of the overseas towns, and her fee was a whole bag of dinars. He took a bag of dinars and went for her sake and crossed seven rivers. At the time that he was with her, she farted and saying, “Just as this fart will never return to its original place, so too, Elazar ben Dordia will never be able to repent.”
     Right from the beginning of the story we face challenges, especially as the rabbis here illuminate a ‘male problem’ that existed at these Talmudic times. Crossing a river is a symbol in Rabbinic Judaism for going against the tide. Rabbi Elazar was so obsessed with being with a prostitute, that nothing could stop him. He was able to gather the tremendous resources for this experience, but questions should be asked; who is this man and why couldn’t he control his sexual desires while we learn that Torah study is supposed to suppress these libido urges.

     And here comes my second post (see my previous post) showing how a prostitute generates a positive attitude from the rabbis, despite of their male oriented perspective. They seem to look past the profession of this women and elevate her by giving her the power to bring forth a correction to the life of Rabbi Elazar. Another example of a woman who gets a positive spotlight is Rahav the prostitute from the book of Joshua 2:1-4. The Talmud in Tractate Zevachim 116b describes her as one who “There was no prince or ruler who had not slept with Rahab the prostitute”. She also gets rewarded in spite of her low social status because she hid the spies in her home.

     This woman in Avodah Zarah 17a is a smart woman who does not hesitate to rebuke a man who she never met before. For someone who is used to give away her body with no emotional attachment she now gives away her inner spiritual wisdom. Interesting is the fact that she is not embarrassed by her flatulence and uses it as a teaching moment. The sexual excitement becomes an illusion and a fart with a rebuke become the turning point for Rabbi Elazar. The erotic ambiance is disrupted and becomes a taboo and a boundary for him. From now on there is no way for him to enter his world of fantasy and illusion. But how could she know or understand that Rabbi Elazar is actually sinning by being with her? How does she know about repentance? Is she also a very intuitive person or a medium for divine intervention?

The Gemarah continues:

He went and sat himself down between two mountains and hills, and he said, “Mountains and hills, seek mercy on my behalf.” They said to him, “Before we seek mercy for you, we have to seek mercy for ourselves: ‘For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed’ (Isa. 54:10).” He said, “Heaven and earth, seek mercy for me.” They said to him, “Before we seek mercy for you, we have to seek mercy for ourselves: ‘the Heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment’ (Isa. 51:6).” He said, “Sun and moon, seek mercy for me.” They said to him, “Before we seek mercy for you, we have to seek mercy for ourselves: ‘Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed’ (Isa. 24:23).” He said, “Stars and constellations, seek mercy for me.” They said to him, “Before we seek mercy for you, we have to seek mercy for ourselves: ‘All the hosts of Heaven shall molder away’ (Isa. 34:4).” He said, “The matter depends only on me.” He put his head between his knees and he wept a mighty weeping until his soul expired. A voice from heaven was heard proclaiming: “R. Eleazar ben Dordia is destined for life of the world to come.”
     The main theme in this part of the story is Rabbi Elazar’s transformation. He is aware of his sins and acknowledges them. At first, he is totally lost and has no trust in himself to make the change. Only after realizing that there is no one out there to support him, he turns to his own inner self. The sad part of all of this that he physically dies even after his pure intention to repent. The rabbis explain that his death is a result of his inability to control his sexual addiction, so that he is like an idol worshipper, and idolatry is a sin that can never be redeemed. (According to Tractate Sanhedrin74a, murder, incest and idolatry are sins that it is better to suffer or die for rather than transgress).

     Really? Doesn’t a sincere intention count? Would anyone even want to try to change ones behavior knowing that failure is inevitable? I can only imagine how lonely this man must have felt. On the other hand, maybe Rabbi Ealazar's reaching out to God (by asking nature to help) and bringing God to his heart were the healing tools for this situation to strengthen him. If we look at Step Three in the 12-step program--turning one's life and one's will over to God, (although seems more "Christian" than Jewish), Torah, Psalms, and rabbinic literature all stress the concept of surrender to God's will.

     To me, the physical death of Rabbi Elazar in this world and his redemption in the World to come are the symbols of a spiritual revival, from this material world to the spiritual world. While in this world his death is a symbol for the completion of his sinning identity, his reward in the next world is the symbol for his new identity as a recovered person. And the tools that he used to merit this award are his prayers and meditations.

     There are no easy formulas to give to people that are fighting addiction. It is a tough personal journey which requires strong faith, a connection to God and pure intention. And how do a fart, a prostitute and addiction connect in this story it is for you to explore further.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Menachot 44a: Redemption for a prostitute because of Tzitzit ?

My previous post elicited interesting responses. There were colleagues who rejected my premise that sages might have gone to prostitutes – saying for example - “To suggest, without a supporting frame of reference, that in these cases they were involved in an antithetical activity is the same thing as suggesting that they rode into town on pink elephants.”. Or, another asked me why am I ‘obsessed’ with sex outside of the marriage, neglecting the fact that I have many blog posts that deal with many other real life issues.

I do not mean to conclude whether sages of the Talmud did or did not go to prostitutes. But there are some relevant issues that I like to consider - (a) prostitution existed during all ages since antiquity and indeed, there are many anecdotes about prostitutes in the Talmud, (b) Talmud deals extensively with male sexual inclinations and how to possibly take actions to control these urges, and (c) there is not a clear halakhic prohibition or punishment for a male Jew to have sexual relations with a prostitute in the Talmud. 

I do not think that our society today is different.

By association, the latest news about allowing female students to don tefillin during the Morning Prayer services at school stimulated me to present another Talmudic treasure. My post is not going to deal with this controversy, but rather it will deal with the symbol of Tzitzit in the men’s world at the time of Talmud.

In Menachot 44a, we find the story of an unnamed young student who went to a prostitute but was distracted from sinning with her. His Tzitzit protected him and he was rewarded by marrying this prostitute after she decided to convert to Judaism.

It was taught: R. Nathan said: There is not a single commandment written in the Torah, even the lightest, whose reward is not enjoyed in this world; and as to its reward in the world to come I do not know how great it is. Go and learn this from the commandment of Tzitzit (fringes).
Once there was a man, who was very careful about the commandment of Tzitzit. He heard about a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who charged a fee of four hundred gold coins for her hire. He sent her four hundred gold coins [in advance] and scheduled a time [to meet her]. When his time arrived he came and sat at her door step. The harlot’s maid told her: “The man who sent you four hundred gold coins is here and is waiting at the door”; to which the harlot replied “Let him come in”. He came in.
This student must have prepared for his visit to a prostitute for a long time. He saved a VERY big sum of money, which equals to more than 5 times the sum he would have had to pay for his wife at the wedding ceremony (200 zuz for the Jewish marriage contract-Ketubah). He also chose a prostitute that is of a high rank in her profession, and obviously, he had to take time off from studying Torah and travel great distances to reach her. I wonder why he could not contain his desire. After all, Torah study was supposed to be a way to help channel libido.
The harlot prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then went up to the top bed and sat upon it naked. He too went up and sat naked next to her, when [all of a sudden] the four fringes (Tzitzit) of his garment struck him across the face; he slipped off the bed and fell upon the ground. She also [let herself fall] and sat upon the ground.
So far, the prostitute is getting the spotlight. She owns gold and silver and is not easily accessible. The student had to clime 7 beds in order to be able to get closer to her. And here comes the accident -- all of the sudden he was slapped by the fringes. It is not clear what exactly happened but a supernatural force entered the picture. More amazing is the combination of the role of the Tzitzit juxtaposition prostitution. And if it is not ironic that the student was saved from sinning by his fringes, the same ones that any Jewish woman cannot wear. If they are his identity, what was her sign of identity?
She said to him; “By the Roman Capitol (A form of oath. According to Rashi: By the head of Rome, referring to the Emperor), I will not leave until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.” He replied: “By the Temple (the service of the Temple), never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you are; but there is one commandment which God has commanded us, that is called Tzitzit, and with regard to it the expression “I am the Lord your God” is written twice, signifying, I am He who will exact punishment in the future and I am He who will give reward in the future. The Tzitzit appeared to me as four witnesses”.
She said; I will not let you go until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, and the name of your school in which you study the Torah.” He wrote all this down and handed it to her. Thereupon she arose and divided her estate into three parts; one third for the kingdom, one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand; the bed linen she kept.
Interesting conversation. It is amazing how this prostitute treats a young Jewish man with such compassion and respect. She sits on the floor with him naked and wants to get to know him. Both are almost equal. She is a real person with feeling.
She [then] came to the house of study of Rabbi Chiyya, and said to him, ‘Master, give instructions that they may make me a convert’. ‘My daughter’, he replied; ‘perhaps you have set your eyes on one of my students?’ She thereupon took out the paper and handed it to him. ‘Go’, said he ‘and enjoy your acquisition’…
Those very bed-linen which she had spread for the student for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully.
This was his reward in this world. And as far as the reward in the world to come, I do not know."
R. Natan tells us that this prostitute apparently was so impressed with this man’s faith that she gave up her career and powerful social status, converted to Judaism and later married this man. In addition, note how Rabbi Hiyya was not even shocked; on the contrary, he was prepared to accept the prostitute as a convert and to reward his student by sanctifying their marriage.

If this story is supposed to be about self-control it tells us that in order to control our temptations we need more than just will power. We need external articles that can serve us as reminders. In many ways, I feel a bit liberated to think that I can be controlled by an “alarm clock” that is meaningful to me at times when my will power fails. But, is it really the message of this story? If the point of this story of R. Natan is that Tzitzit are a protection against sin and immoral temptations, how come this student could not avoid going there to begin with? And lastly, why did the rabbis feel that they had to redeem this woman?

©Rabbi Ziona Zelazo