Farting Prostitutes and Talmudic Rabbis
In Haaretz there is an article that compares stories in Judaism and Christianity that include prostitutes and discuss repentance. One of the Jewish stories discussed is the well-known story from Avodah Zarah 17a about Rabbi Elazar ben Dordia and the prostitute with whom he just had to have relations. Here is the story in the original along with a translation.
They say concerning R. Eleazar b. 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 she charged as her fee a whole bag of dinars. He took a bag of dinars and went and for her sake crossed seven rivers. At the time that he was with her, she farted, saying, “Just as this fart will never return to its place, so Eleazar b. Dordia will never be accepted in repentance.” He went and sat himself down between two high mountains and said, “Mountains and hills, seek mercy in 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 moulder 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. An echo came forth and said, “R. Eleazar b. Dordia is destined for the life of the world to come.”
(trans. Neuser with a few changes)
Tali Artman-Partock, the author of the articles, writes:
In this story, the prostitute is God’s agent and the wise man is the “sinner,” though at least at the beginning of the story, it is unclear what his sin is. The passion is described as being his passion, and its fulfillment occurs verbally even before it is (not ) fulfilled in reality. The purse of gold coins is metonymic to the harlot’s body and its function as her source of livelihood. It should be noted that Ben Dordia crosses seven rivers to reach her – and it seems to me there’s no need to spell out what is flowing in these rivers. When coitus between the sage and the prostitute does occur, it seems to be fueled by “residual energy,” and her flatulence is essentially the burp that follows a feast of lust that has already transpired through language.
The use of flatulence as both the high point and the turning point of the sexual encounter is wonderful, for several reasons. First, because it breaks the illusion that enables the eroticization of the prostitute’s womanly body. Second, because the fart, which breaks the sexual enchantment, does not embarrass this sex priestess in the least. Indeed, it is this flatulence that turns her, like other prostitutes who serviced Jews before her (Rahab, Tamar and others ), into something approaching a prophet.
The entire article can be found here. Gemar Tov