Creative Commons License
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.