What Sex Workers and Farts in the Talmud Teach Us
Rabbinic Reflections on Redemption
This season, I’m unsettled by apologies.
I’m unsettled by the voids they create, the demands they make, and the power dynamics they elevate.
Judaism teaches that teshuvah or repentance involves the “repair” of relationships. During the high holidays, as we contemplate the connection between actions and mortality, we beat our chests to the rhythm of self-awareness, ownership, and admission. Ashamnu, we confess our sins with the collective as witness. Slach lanu, we ask for forgiveness and pardon. Blessed are You, we cry, who is gracious and ever willing to forgive.
During the season that we ask God for forgiveness, we embody the practice ourselves. Our tradition teaches us to recognize nuance, to accept and embrace people for their mistakes and imperfections, and to forgive– because each of us is flawed and growing too, begging for compassion and another chance year after year. We yearn to return to what is real, right, just and healed. And as we ask God to forgive us, we validate the practice outwardly by forgiving others.
But this year, I’m unsettled by apologies. They can be distracting, misleading, and an opportunity for deflection. By projecting and reflecting inner upset, grief, or distress externally, apologies can sometimes discombobulate situations and burden the already wronged party even more.
I’m unsettled because outward expressions of remorse can often delay, distract, and even prevent someone from doing the difficult work of genuinely looking within. Formulating and offering a seemingly honest apology can interfere with the potentially more complex task of being honest with oneself and seeing the difficult and more base parts of ourselves.
A strange and surprisingly crude episode in the Talmud deals with unscrupulous and often buried components of being human. The story tells the tale of a man named Eleazar ben Durdia who was concerned with“ visiting” as many women as possible in his lifetime, which the Talmud understands as dishonorable. One time, he crossed seven rivers with a large purse full of money to solicit sex work from a woman who was said to be the most flawless in all the land.
After a long and trying journey, he finally arrived and beheld the beautiful woman he was eager to meet. Amidst soliciting sex work from her, during their proceedings, she passed gas. He was taken aback. At that moment, the woman declared: “Just like this gas will never return to its place, so too will you, Eleazar ben Durdia, never be able to return to God.”
Stunned by the situation and the utterance of her words, something broke through for him. He fled to the mountains and sat between two, begging them to ask for God’s mercy on his behalf. They replied: “How can we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves.” He made the same request of the heavens and earth, and they also refused. So did the sun, moon, stars, and constellations.
So Eleazar realized he was the only one who could help himself. He put his head between his knees and cried until he died (!!!).
And at the moment of his death, the Talmud teaches that a voice came down from Heaven and proclaimed: “Only now is Rabbi Eleazar ben Durdia ready for the World to Come.”
For Eleazar ben Durdia, coming to terms with himself was so painful, unsettling, and rattling that the story describes him as literally perishing and leaving this earth.
Preoccupied with crossing rivers, paying steep fees, and continuing with behaviors that he convinced himself were permissible, Eleazar ben Durdia was likely unable to process how his actions and priorities had become central to defining his identity. Over the years, he grew accustomed to and wrapped up in the complexities of justifying his deeds. This allowed him to forge ahead without being honest, considering how his behaviors impacted others or looking within, until the stories he told himself eventually became central to his self-understanding. Constructing an ego around validating himself and continuing onward with blinders affixed became so mixed into his nature that confronting his actions, reflecting, and returning would require Eleazar to essentially deconstruct his entire sense of self. And when he finally awoke to that process, it was so difficult and intense for him to look within, confront his base self, and dismantle the comforts he relied on for so long that it ultimately killed him– an ego death so significant that the tale describes him as literally dying.
Based on the details of this Talmudic tale, we assume that Eleazar is overcome with lament in the end. Before turning inward, he looks to sources outside and around himself for validation or comfort. But what Eleazar does not do is apologize or make any effort to change how he engages with others interpersonally. Eventually wrapped up in dismantling his own stories to such an extent, Eleazar inadvertently centers himself in a pseudo-teshuvah process that fails to address his relationships with others. To offer a genuine apology, one must not only fully surrender to the reality of themselves but simultaneously internalize the perspective of another and ultimately commit to change.
Moreover, how do we protect ourselves from the confusion and damage that apologies born only out of self-conscious guilt prompt? Words that may compel our spirits but contain an ulterior agenda? Apologies that ultimately center our ego-experience, apologies that silence or dismiss, apologies that enable gaslighting and blame-shifting, apologies that use remorse as a method for disguising control, apologies that don’t recognize the party harmed, apologies that strip victims of agency by demanding their forgiveness, apologies that allow someone to ascend a moral high ground wrongfully, apologies that sneakily perpetuate the very injustice they claim to address?
It’s worth remembering that the event that caused such a dramatic wake-up call for Eleazar ben Durdia was not only the woman’s acute wisdom but her incidental fart. Our calls to Teshuvah often come to us through modes that feel ungraceful and startling. The word used in the text is heficha; Rashi explains that a wind (or spirit – Hebrew word is ruach) blew forth. The first time a derivative of heficha is used in the Torah is when man is given his soul.
”And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed (vayipach) into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (Bereishit 2:7)
The word heficha in the context of this story reminds us that breaking out of a deeply engraved way of navigating sometimes requires a force as profound, uncontrollable, and unforeseeable as wind (or a fart). In our tradition, we connect wind or breath to creation, the unknown, and the unfathomable. Just like we can’t understand the timing of creation or set in motion a gust of wind, so too can we not impose reflection, remorse, or honesty onto anyone else. We can barely urge it onto ourselves.
Knowing this, how will we release ourselves from the impact of harm anyway? How do we let go, move forward, and remain gracious and ever-willing to forgive ourselves amidst apologies that can’t, don’t, and will never satisfy, remedy, or rectify an injustice? Where must we turn, who might we lean on, and what must we fully and gently release? For ourselves, for the people who rely on us, for the practice of cultivating a better world?
On the other hand, how do we honestly and actively observe, investigate, and remove our blinders? How do we sort through stories we have constructed and relied on to protect our egos and avoid the difficult task of confronting our flawed, fragile, and fearful selves? How can we commit ourselves to introspection and inside work, removed from the satisfaction of external validation, relief, reward, and repair? What practices can we apply, and which rituals can we lean into to confront ourselves and truly look within? And how can we be acutely attuned to and awakened by the sometimes soft breezes, strong winds, profound farts, and generally subtle signs that the world graciously and continually gives?
During the season of reflection, admission, new beginnings, and forgiveness– the time of year where we have been taught to intentionally seek reconciliation, reunion, and resolution; not just with God but with each other; like Eleazar ben Durdia, how might we realize that we are the only ones who can help ourselves?