9/18/2007

A Reading of Avoda Zara 17a: The Strange Case of Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya, Part 1

תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף יז עמוד א

תניא: אמרו עליו על ר"א בן דורדיא, שלא הניח זונה אחת בעולם שלא בא עליה. פעם אחת שמע שיש זונה אחת בכרכי הים והיתה נוטלת כיס דינרין בשכרה, נטל כיס דינרין והלך ועבר עליה שבעה נהרות. בשעת הרגל דבר הפיחה, אמרה: כשם שהפיחה זו אינה חוזרת למקומה, כך אלעזר בן דורדיא אין מקבלין אותו בתשובה. הלך וישב בין שני הרים וגבעות, אמר: הרים וגבעות בקשו עלי רחמים, אמרו לו: עד שאנו מבקשים עליך נבקש על עצמנו, שנאמר: +ישעיהו נד+ כי ההרים ימושו והגבעות תמוטינה. אמר: שמים וארץ בקשו עלי רחמים, אמרו: עד שאנו מבקשים עליך נבקש על עצמנו, שנאמר: +ישעיהו נא+ כי שמים כעשן נמלחו והארץ כבגד תבלה. אמר: חמה ולבנה בקשו עלי רחמים, אמרו לו: עד שאנו מבקשים עליך נבקש על עצמנו, שנאמר: +ישעיהו כד+ וחפרה הלבנה ובושה החמה. אמר: כוכבים ומזלות בקשו עלי רחמים, אמרו לו: עד שאנו מבקשים עליך נבקש על עצמנו, שנאמר: +ישעיהו לד+ ונמקו כל צבא השמים. אמר: אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי, הניח ראשו בין ברכיו וגעה בבכיה עד שיצתה נשמתו. יצתה בת קול ואמרה: ר"א בן דורדיא מזומן לחיי העולם הבא… בכה רבי ואמר: יש קונה עולמו בכמה שנים, ויש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת. ואמר רבי: לא דיין לבעלי תשובה שמקבלין אותן, אלא שקורין אותן רבי.

BT Avoda Zara 17a

It was taught: It was said about R. Elazar ben Dordaya that there was not as single whore that he did not have relations with. He once heard that there was a certain whore in one of the towns by the sea whose price was a wallet full of dinarim. He took a wallet of dinarim and crossed seven rivers to get to her. During foreplay, she passed gas and said, “Just as this wind will not return to its source, so, too, Elazar ben Dordaya’s repentance will never be accepted.

He then went and sat between two hills and mountains. He said: “Hills and mountains, plead for mercy for me!” They replied: “Before we pray for mercy for you, we must pray for ourselves, as it says ‘For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed’” (Yeshaya 54). He said: “Heaven and earth, plead for mercy for me!” They replied: “Before we pray for mercy for you, we must pray for ourselves, as it says, ‘For the heavens shall vanish like smoke, and the earth will become worn out like a garment’” (Yeshaya 51). He said: “Sun and moon, plead for mercy for me!” They replied: “Before we pray for mercy for you, we must pray for ourselves, as it says, ‘Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed’” (Yeshaya 24). He said: “Stars and constellations, plead for mercy for me!” They replied: “Before we pray for mercy for you, we must pray for ourselves, as it says, ‘And all the hosts of heaven shall rot away’” (Yeshaya 34). He said : “It all depends on me alone.” He placed his head between his knees and he wept aloud until he died. A heavenly voice issued forth and said: “Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai is destined for eternal life.”…Rabbi [Judah Ha-Nasi] wept and said: “Some acquire eternal life over many years, and some in one hour!” Rabbi also said: “It is not sufficient for ba’alei teshuvah that they are accepted, but they are even called ‘Rabbi’!”

The story seems straightforward enough: there’s a beginning, where we meet a decrepit Elazar ben Dordaya and hear of his sexual adventures. There’s a middle, where he seeks mercy from various inanimate entities, and an end, where he achieves true repentance. There’s also an epilogue where Rabbi makes several points about the experience of repentance. The main thrust of the story is obviously Elazar’s transformation. Understanding this Gemara means getting to the bottom of his experience in all parts of the story.

First, a word about the main character’s name. Maharal points out that the name ‘Dordaya’ is related to ‘le-darder’ – ‘to degenerate’, and also to God’s curse of Original Man – ‘it will sprout thorns and thistles (dardar)’. Thus, the name ‘Elazar ben Dordaya’ means ‘God helped the degenerate son’ or something like that. God’s only appearance in this story is as a part of Elazar’s name/identity.

Elazar was no lowlife. When a guy sits around drinking cheap booze, he’s a wino, a drunkard. When a guy drinks an abundance of very good wines, he’s a connoisseur. He was not simply chasing after his desires, a creature overwhelmed by passion. He promoted it into a lifestyle. In Biblcal and Rabbinic symbolism, ‘crossing a river’ has a similar connotation to ‘going against the tide’. Elazar defied convention and overcame obstacles in his pursuit. Neither money nor distance was an obstacle. His goal was to experience it all simply because he could, like the first man who scaled Mt. Everest, “because it was there”.

The Gemara doesn’t tell us how Elazar could afford his luxurious and sensual lifestyle. One gets the impression (from his name, mainly) that his wealth was inherited. He was a rich kid with Daddy’s credit card and become famous for something fundamentally unproductive. He just as easily could have chosen to ride every roller coaster or smoke every brand of cigar. Sleeping with every prostitute is paradigmatic of this lifestyle choice. He is a millionaire playboy – nay – he’s THE millionaire playboy. Elazar ben Dordaya was the Hugh Heffner (intentionally misspelled to avoid automatic amazon links) of his generation.

Elazar travels far and is willing to spend a small fortune on a particular prostitute in a city by the sea. Perhaps this was to be his ‘crowning achievement’, his last and greatest experience. After this, what’s left? Indeed, while he was with this prostitute, she tells him that very thing. This is it. There’s no going back for you. You can never get back to your origins. You are a lost cause.

Perhaps if Elazar had finished what he started, there indeed would have been no going back, or at least not all the way back. Had Elazar slept with that whore, he might have woken up the next morning feeling totally empty. What’s left? The incredible meaninglessness of his life would have finally dawned on him, after the thrill of his pursuit had blinded him to it for so long. One often hears about entertainers, athletes, and celebrities who return to religion, Judaism included, once they are on the downside of their careers. Something which had occupied such a central place in their lives had been removed, leaving a gaping emptiness. Granted, the doors of repentance remain open, but, as Rambam writes (Laws of Repentance 2:1, where he ‘paskens’ this Gemara, and in the process strips away the narrative elements), full teshuvah occurs only before the onset of the downside.

Elazar’s ultimate teshuvah is complete specifically because he turned around before reaching his summit. The whore’s prediction proves untrue because he did not let the moment that it would become true – perhaps just minutes away – arrive. One may ask what this prostitute was doing giving mussar shmuessen. She is not in much of a position to issue rebuke to others, and from a purely pragmatic perspective, it’s probably bad for business (‘You naughty boy’ does not count as mussar). So what is she saying?


I would suggest that she did not need to say anything. Something, some gesture, called his own futility into relief. Something about the moment gave him pause. Perhaps he had glorified his actions and glorified this woman (as a ‘godess’, perhaps), but was called back to earth by the recognition that she, too, is just another human being who holds no keys to immortality. Indeed, the Gemara later suggests that Elazar’s devotion to his ‘cause’ was so strong that it actually became an avodah zarah. The very act of turning away, exhibiting strength of character similar to Joseph’s, enables his ultimate redemption.

TBC...

Post a Comment