Tag Archives: Rabbi

Will Online Jewish Conversions Further the Chaos?

Sometimes the topic of “Who is a Jew” is actually the least of the problems

 Also, please see the follow-up: “Jewish Conversion Scams Still Trying to Thrive on the Internet” (Jan. 2014)

Note: While I have a deep respect for the passion and spirit of PunkTorah and feel a close connection to the many great people from OneShul, I feel that intellectual honesty demands that I speak up regarding recent events. While I cannot help but be critical of the leadership and present them in a light that is clearly unflattering, I would like to reiterate my love and respect for each person and their unique challenges. I regret much of what I must say, but I think we are all adult enough to take on this topic with the gloves off. Though I am not a member myself, I feel a special concern for the people who are turning to me in confusion on this matter. Personally I like Patrick, but I just wish he hadn’t made a blind power grab akin to a protestant youth pastor trying to take over a church. Hopefully, this is just a phase.

NPatrick "Aleph" Beaulier and Punk Torahever before in my life have I seen Judaism been more appealing to the masses. In a modern age where information is so easily accessible, many people have taken interest in exploring Judaism. And not so infrequently people become so touched and inspired by the values and culture of Judaism that they embrace the Jewish faith through conversion.

Though honestly, conversion has never been harder than it is today. The cost, demands and political constraints have never been so heavy. As standards vary between the movements, and between Israel and diaspora as well, the answer to the “Who is a Jew” question has never been more frustrating.

Truth is, conversion has always been something looked at as rare and obscure. In the less exciting times few people converted, and even fewer rabbis did conversions at all. Though there seem to be more rabbis doing conversions today than before, there is still whole states and countries that don’t have a local rabbi to serve in this capacity. Harder yet, many don’t have a congregation near them at all.

And this is where PunkTorah and OneShul came in, presented as a truly revolutionary approach. If you can’t get to the shul, Patrick “Aleph” Beaulier said they should bring the synagogue to you. With a mix of counter-culture and DIY flair the project helped found the first fully-interactive way to study and hold Jewish prayer services. Programs and services attracted a wide range of involvement and people of various affiliations.

Seeing itself as an actual congregation in the true sense, it only seemed logical they would need a leader. Patrick stepped up as “Rabbi” for the organization. In the same manner, it seemed a natural progression that for a congregation that has an amazingly large number of the attendees interested in conversion that they would also seek to Do-It-Yourself in terms of conversions to Judaism as well. But not just performing their own in-house conversions, they have announced that they plan to offer a future conversion study program entirely on the Internet. (see “Coming Soon: Online Conversion“) Why not, as that is their native medium anyhow, right?

While this was well received by many of their fans, quietly a lot more went into panic-mode and ran-off as they watched a promising program jump the shark in a most gruesome fashion.

It got even worse when the announcement of the proposed conversion program, written by Patrick “Aleph” read:

“The conversions will be valid, but not under Orthodox and/or Israeli religious law. Just as Reform and Conservative conversions are not taken as valid by Orthodox Israeli rabbis, our post-denominational conversion would not be either. However, because our program will include a bet din, mikveh in a Conservative shul and brit milah for men, the conversions will be valid and anyone who says otherwise would be ignoring halacha. (Jewish law)”

No defense of halachic standards, just a statement that everyone else is ignorant if they don’t accept him. Sounds as punk as hell, sure. But also quite childish, and a lot naive.

Then it made it to the Times of Israel (see “To Convert to Judaism, click here“). That is when people really panicked. In truth, it was just about the most damaging article imaginable. It coarsely displayed certain elements that have troubled people about Patrick for some time. Strangely he is talking very triumphantly about the exposure, even as harmful as it is to his cause and the reputation of his followers.

On a personal note, I have spent much time hearing the pain and counseling bewildered people after this announcement. This was received with great applause by the many people interesting in pursuing conversion through them. But in the background many others were left scratching their heads as to how Patrick and the program could offer something which he couldn’t possibly deliver, while at the same time talking about the potential cost of a program.

At first people did just accept it as someone being artistic of cute. But little did we know there were more issues related to why this person refused to go by his name for years.

Who is Patrick “Aleph”? At first people did just accept it as someone being artistic or cute. But little did we know there were more issues related to why this person refused to go by his name. See him try to explain this away at Jewcy.com One can write a whole paper alone on how Patrick’s approach and philosophy was built out of the spasm of one occurrence with a Orthodox rabbi and being asked his full name. There is an incident cited by him several times elsewhere which raises the same discussion as this. He recounts how he was traumatized over having to figure out how to respond in a way without outing himself with a false moniker a or an unJewish sounding name. Someone who is that uncertain and mixed-up about his own identity does not need to be defining the personal status of anyone.

It’s even more bewildering because not long ago Patrick “Aleph” posted a piece titled, “Why I Don’t Perform Conversions (Even Though I’m A Convert).” While I wanted to applaud the position of restraint in this halachic matter, I said nothing as I felt that he was priming the pump, just teasing the conversation forward. It appears I was unfortunately right. Two months later he announced that he would do conversions on-line.

I am disappointed in the direction he has decided to go, but it is not because I am another person splitting hairs with him on halacha. In fact that seems to be Patrick’s position, that if he does everything properly his conversion is valid (except for the Orthodox, of course). But even if he followed everything according to the Shulchan Aruch (The Code of Jewish Law), unfortunately his conversions are still going to be invalid and non-transferable to another movement.

Whereas Patrick might have some interesting and valid points when he talks about the hardships in answering the “Who is a Jew” question, he oddly steps around the issue that supersedes this. The issue of “Who is a Rabbi.”

Though most lay people consider the issue of conversion to be a matter of who can call themselves a Jew, the bigger issue that comes into play is who can call themselves a rabbi. Who is truly ordained, and which ordained rabbis are further recognized to do conversions. This is something that Patrick seems quite aware of because it was his first objection back in October, that people would not recognize his work as a “post-denomination rabbi.”

As a religious commentator, I have to say that Patrick and his branding of this program and ordination as “post-denominational” was quite interesting. It’s a term that is almost never used in Judaism, mostly because it always has a bad connotation carried over from the Evangelical Christian culture that popularized that term. To attend a post-denominational congregation in America is most often described as attending a break away movement, lead by a minister that didn’t go to seminary, and that their church has no active oversight or superior governance. They are an island on to themselves, governed by themselves.

Let me be clear, the problem most have here is not with his halachic approach as such (since we have nothing to inspect from him so far), nor even his movement being outside of “the establishment.” The issue is graver, that Patrick “Aleph” Beaulier is not properly ordained as a rabbi, despite his claims to the contrary.

Working in the different Jewish movements I’ve had time to learn a lot about the business-end and politics of religious governance.

At one time I even worked for the Union of Reform Judaism. One of the issues that often came up was the difficult topic of defining who is a rabbi. As new leaders would come into the region there would often be contention over a rabbinic appointment because occasionally temple boards would pick a person that was not officially ordained by any of the recognized movements or institutions. Most often these people had “private ordinations” or came from dubious institutions.

I once had an interesting observation while working with the definition of the rabbinate. I was made clearly aware that progressive movements would not even ordain former Orthodox Rabbis out of hand. Unconsidered by most of us who came out of orthodox movements, I came to realize that it wasn’t just a matter of halachic knowledge or chain of ordination through notable individuals. Today the progressive rabbinate most often requires actual post-secondary education, training in pastoral counseling, psychological screenings of potential candidates, completion examinations, etc. As my superiors insisted, “Orthodox smicha lacks most of those qualities.” It was clearly made known to me that they could not become ordained rabbis in progressive movements until they fulfilled those requirements and joined the association. The contention of the Reform movement was that they had higher standards, ones that are standard across the progressive movements. Though in recent years the same type of requirements have become more standard even in the Orthodox Rabbinate of Israel as well.

So what of a person who is not really ordained? In such cases they could be called “spiritual leader,” but not as rabbi of the congregation as they were not fit to join the Central Congress of American Rabbis. In fact, even cantors are now regularly required proper ordination and membership to their association in order to hold the official title of “Cantor.” (see American Cantoral Congress)

The status of rabbinic authority most often lays not just in the proper education of a person and a one-time ordination, it also requires being in good  standing with the governance of the movement for their rulings to hold the weight of authority of the movement’s rabbinate.

None of this can be said about the ordination of Patrick, nor is it even true of his teachers and “mentors.” None of them are able to confer “smicha” (rabbinic ordination), because all the programs he has cited are pointing towards rogue rabbis who have basically been forced to resign, or in some cases even thrown out of their movement.

Furthermore, as members of the rabbinate they are urged not to offer ordination to another individual. The by-laws of the rabbinic associations generally ban the offering of “private ordinations,” meaning the conferring of the appearance of rabbinic authority on another person outside of the auspices of the movement’s institutions. This is a ban at risk of expulsion, the equivalent of a lawyer being disbarred. But in the absence of active rabbinic oversight, of course there is no perceived risk for these people who are diploma-milling.

Close inspection of Patrick’s credentials and the organizations who issued them reveals an interesting web of self-aggrandizement and false claims.

First, Patrick identified himself with receiving “rabbinic ordination” from Rabbinical Seminary International, founded by Rabbi Joseph H. Gelberman, who Patrick defines as a “radical” who was kicked out of the Conservative movement. [Correction: Gelberman claimed to have studied “Hungarian chassidism” and was ordained there in Hungary, and his ordination of Orthodox smicha is supposed to trickle down to his followers from there.]

Apparently this “ordination” was still insufficient because Patrick then appears to have marketed himself just down the street and one zip code over from RSI, and joined another dubious organization called Jewish Spiritual Leadership Institute (JSLI) for ordination, which is without question founded and run by individuals who are ordinarily banned from the rabbinate and cantorship (however, their Director Steven Blane never receiving official rabbinical ordination himself, apparently at one time only being member of the Cantor’s Assembly and not the actual rabbinate, see his profile at JSLI).

JSLI’s Rabbi Steven Blane, is also RSI ordained, and by self-admittance, “…resigned [from the Cantoral Assembly of the Conservative movement] after being offered either resignation or expulsion when he began officiating at interfaith weddings.” Thought this might seem to some progressive Jews to merely be an infraction on account of his open-mindedness, the further couldn’t be from the truth. [Blane is also opposed to brit mila – ritual circumcision, as well. Blane is proud to say, “We do not engage in circumcision… There’s no official place in our movement’s philosophy for circumcision…”]

And he isn’t the only strange character on the radar. Patrick admits that he was a student of Rabbi Johnathan Ginsburg, and studied through “Rodfei Kodesh,” for para-rabbinic ordination. Ginsburg is also like many of the JSLI leadership too, he also claims his line of authority stretching from the Conservative Movement. In reality Ginsburg has been formally disavowed for irregularities related to conversion and ordinations. Part of his withdrawal from the Conservative Movement might have been further pushed along by a sexual abuse and exploitation suit from a convert and rabbinic student.

In fact, earlier this year (August 13, 2013) the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement had to reiterate their disavowal of Ginsburg because he has been continuing to build conversion and ordination outlets under other names (convertjudaism.org, jconversion.org, convertjudaismonline.org, watch him pitch for these programs of his on YouTube). The statement by the RA reads as follows:

“The Rabbinical Assembly, the international membership association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis has received numerous queries regarding an organization known as the “Chicago Conversion Beit Din.” The Chicago Conversion Beit Din, one of whose principals is Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg, conducts long distance conversion and, according to their website, it is now sponsoring programs they refer to as “pararabbinic training.”

“The Chicago Conversion Beit Din advertises that it will provide its students with a “Conservative Bet Din.” The Rabbinical Assembly, as the world’s sole membership organization of Conservative/Masorti rabbis, wishes to clarify that, as a body, we do not endorse the work of the Chicago Conversion Beit Din and will not endorse conversions completed under its auspices, for any purpose, including to seek citizenship in Israel under the law of return.

We have been asked whether Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg is a member in good standing of the Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg is no longer a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, nor is he eligible for readmission. The RA has no association with nor does it endorse or recognize any bet din or other program run by, or participated in by Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg. Even if Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg does not participate in the bet din personally, the RA does not recognize or endorse any conversion under the auspices of the Chicago Conversion Beit Din.” [emphasis added]

The  influence of Ginsburg is not just something in the past, and this is easily revealed in a paper-trail left by a Rabbi Rob Thomas, a board member of PunkTorah and rabbi ordained from JSLI. If one takes a look at his Linkedin you will see that Thomas has also actively been building an “eSyngogue” and distance learning program, that follows a similar evolution as PunkTorah and other JSLI programs. Odd and damaging is the connection of PunkTorah and eSynagogue back to Ginsburg made here by Thomas in his resume:

“Director, Board of Directors, eSynagogue; June 2011 – Present (2 years 7 months); eSynagogue is a non-profit online Jewish educational foundation focused on all things yiddishkeit. It includes courses for conversion, para-rabbinic education, and lifecycle events. Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg is widely recognized as one of the founders of the online Jewish educational movement.” [emphasis added]

Now notice, this is not the only board “directorship” Thomas holds. He is collaborating concurrently with banned rabbis while active in PunkTorah governance, whilst involving in the specific acts that Ginsburg has been censured for. This is a fact. You will find just two entries below this listing on his resume:

Director, Board of Directors, PunkTorah; March 2010 – Present (3 years 10 months): PunkTorah, a 501(c)(3) Jewish non-profit, is an online community helping people who have fallen through the cracks of Jewish life. Our multimedia network spreads a message of love, inclusion and hope to thousands of people around the world. No matter what shape you are, at PunkTorah, you fit.”

These are not the only connections back to Ginsburg in the PunkTorah program, in fact Patrick has already been directing potential converts and his group leaders to pursue Jewish conversion through Ginsburg by means of his distance program, still with the claim that they are recognized as valid Conservative conversions. (see  the evidence at, “Jewish Conversion Scams Still Trying to Thrive on the Internet“)

Once one closely looks at the programs of PunkTorah, JSLI, eSynagogue, etc. you will see that they all pretty much are doing the exact same thing. Though independent in appearance, they all point back to the same personalities and mutually aided self-aggrandizement. One cannot help but wonder if this is just a headless blunder, or if this is actually a kick-back system. One cannot help but wonder if they are attempting to corner the market to unsuspecting people through simultaneous branding and outreach attempts, and then sharing the profits.

Simply put, in the crude parlance of the punk culture from which I come, this all appears to be a circle-jerk by a bunch of poseurs. There is no credibility in the conversions of PunkTorah/OneShul and their affiliates, neither is there in the ordinations of Patrick’s matching Darshan Yeshiva. One doesn’t need to wait and see if these “halachic” rulings by them are going to be challenged and thrown out, they have already been formally disavowed higher up their chain of command so the matter is settled.

Federation - Punk Torah / OneShul Conneciton

This organization has been receiving funds from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta

As I’ve stated, the fact that there is collaboration is evident from their timing and cross over in promotional videos (see below). Just a few months before Patrick made himself “Rosh Yeshiva” of his own Darshan Yeshiva, he was directing people to get ordination through JSLI. They are all different faces of the same beast. They all seek to not just convert, but also create their own rabbinate.

So why should one make such a big issue out of a runaway sect? Aside from disrespecting the values of Judaism and the dignity of the rabbinate, the PunkTorah venture has been greatly funded but the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. It is appalling to both the affiliated and un-affiliated that Federation monies, which are not to be used for politics or dogma, are being utilized for this program. Not only was PunkTorah / OneShul funded by the Federation, their site still bares the branding by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta to give them the appearance of respectability. This in and of itself is appalling and insensitive of the feelings of the Jewish community for them to use Federation resources for engaging in overtly provocative endeavors related to our community’s religious politics. Federation money should not be used for sectarianism, let alone the formation of new rogue sects.

This program is both defrauding the Jewish Federation, and the members of PunkTorah who turn to them for religious rulings and ordinations.

Many followers of Patrick are extremely desperate for the conversion they have not been able to attain by other means. People who badly want this program to be legit in their minds, so they are fiercely defending this potential conversion program. Little are they keeping in mind of the reality that no matter how they perform their conversion with these people, they will not be recognized by any of the official Jewish movements in North America; Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and of course Orthodox. Neither are they valid in Israel.

A person that is seeking a valid conversion from a recognized beit din are best advised to join and convert through a local program. Any conversion by a valid and recognized beit din, which is verifiable and properly performed, will be recognized not just by their movement here, but is generally valid for immigration to Israel as well (while not recognized according to Orthodox law and standards, one is still applicable for aliyah under the Law of Return according to the civil law of Israel). Anyone who is offered a mere partial conversion is advised to run and not walk.

As Patrick "Aleph" doesn't believe in transparency and accountability, he has begun to delete his social networking connections and locking his videos

As Patrick “Aleph” doesn’t believe in transparency and accountability, he has begun to delete his social networking connections and locking his damning videos.

Though on the surface it appears that Patrick and his cohorts are simply being more compassionate and innovative, in reality their actions have left several of their most ardent fans and contributors feeling hurt, misled, shamed and defrauded. Even worse it is causing a crisis of identity for potential converts who feel that they have now been further alienated and stigmatized though the false hopes offered them by PunkTorah and Patrick. Keep in mind, PunkTorah is already funnelling people to Ginsburg for conversions, Patrick is merely attempting to go one step further in doing it himself now.

I feel for these potential converts. Sincere people, who don’t deserve to have their experience with Judaism soured by the actions of people who don’t actually represent the Jewish community in any true capacity.

I can’t think of anything more cruel for an individual to face than  for them to be told they are not Jewish, an issue that wouldn’t be such a wound had it not been for sheisters who fed them false hopes and an unfounded sense of entitlement. People playing with the emotions of the helpless. I feel sorry for the people who are already too emotionally crippled by stigma to recognize they aren’t being faulted for being a convert, but for their association with people of bad reputation.

Please note, this is not the first consorted effort to do halachic conversion outside of the auspices of a movement. There is also the group once know as Dor Deah, but has since been rebranded several times and repackaged with other programs called Bejewish.org, TorahJudaism, and Ways of Israel. It imploded nearly immediately after it was pointed out they were not just doing something unsanctioned, but also accepting money for it which constitutes fraud. Shortly after they dropped the costs associated with program, reiterate that their program is “100% free” as one is only paying for cost of materials. While claiming to be Orthodox, eventually they were even forced to backtrack and state the obvious for their “converts:” (see actual text)

Although WAYS OF ISRAEL is an Orthodox organization, our conversions are not guaranteed to be recognized by other Jewish courts or the State Israel. This is due to conversion controversies around the world and the relatively recent politicization of the conversion process in general. If recognition by the State of Israel is what you desire, we suggest that you move into an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and begin your process there under a more widely recognized Orthodox beth din. Another option for one who wants recognition by the State of Israel may be to first convert under our auspices and at a later date do another conversion under a more widely recognized beth din when one has the financial means to do so.

This is some semi-good advice from some sketchy people who have already tried going there. People who have learned the hard way that no matter how you perform it halachically, conversions will be rejected outright and summarily when performed outside of the auspices of a recognized rabbinate authorized for this function.

Any movement, be it conservative or liberal, is only going to recognize the rulings of people whom they recognize to be rabbis. To expect anything different is just childish and ignorant on a paramount level.

The bottom line is this, the only weight a conversion certificate has comes from the name of the Rabbi that signs on the dotted-line. Unfortunately the leadership of PunkTorah and their affiliates/associates may have already soiled their reputations in a manner which can’t be laundered, no matter how pricey of a mikveh fee you pay to a self-appointed group.

Related articles:

See Patrick “Aleph”  promote JSLI in March 2013, right before he founded his own “yeshiva.” The video is captioned, “Become a rabbi in one year? We tell you how!”



When Redemption Turns Fatal

When Redemption Turns Fatal
Atonement and the implications of premature death

lost in the desertRecently as I was studying Parshat Bo I was taken back by seeing an interesting statement made regarding the celebration of Pesach with the eating of matzah. As Pesach is quickly coming upon us I was captivated by the details relating to the unique aspects of the first celebration and the way that it prescribes future observance. While bridging the two the Torah indicates that one who eats leaven will “v’nich’rata ha-nefesh hahi miYisrael / have his soul is cut-off from among Israel.” (Exodus 12:15) This is a “chukat olam t’chagu’hu / an eternal commandment that one rejoice.” (v.14)

The statement is unique, not necessarily in wording but in placement. We will see the phrase “cut-off” used many times in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy; but aside from that there are few reference earlier in the chumash. In Genesis we only have a couple similar examples; once in passing used by Isaac, and the other being the commandment given to Avraham Avinu that each Hebrew male be circumcised. (Genesis 17:14) It warns us that anyone who is not circumcised may be cut-off from his people, so they must carefully observe this.

But what do we mean by being “cut-off?” The Rashi to this verse explains to us:

And that soul shall be cut off:

He goes childless (Yevamot 55a)

and dies prematurely (Moed Katan 28a).”

ונכרתה הנפש: |

הולך ערירי |

ומת קודם זמנו: |

Rashi to Genesis 17:14

Though neither of these statements come with any prescribed punishment or qualification in the Torah, this phrase is one of the most harsh we can find in the scriptures. Our sages recognize 24 egregious sins that result in one being cut-off; meaning, ones life and legacy is cut short. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilichot Teshuvah)

That is not to say that one is without remedy, Leviticus chapter 22 presents us with a means for repentance by removing whatever is the cause of ones offense and approaching G-d again through in worship. Clean yourself up, and return. By making teshuvahmaking repentance, returning, turning back – one is forgiven and their judgment is lifted; according to the halacha this is true for all cases, except for with the sin of idolatry (avodah zara). Though these sins seem to demand that a Sanheidrin (the supreme court of Jewish law) prescribe death for a person who commits any one of these sins, any person that repents is forgiven without consequence, except in cases of idolatry.

In Talmud Bavli mesecta Avodah Zara – which discusses the halachot related to judgment for idolatry – it is explained to us that the judgment of death is not necessary when the sin is not serious enough to demand such punishment. Thus the halacha of the Talmud is that all sins are fully pardonable, except for idolatry. Even if judicially forgiven by the sanheidrin there is a consequence to idolatry that cannot be avoided, as it is a sin against G-d the consequence comes from the hand of G-d even in face of repentance. More precisely, the hand of G-d’s mercy is restrained so that the person dies at a time and in way that only heaven knows. How can this be?

Simply put, the Torah says that when one commits a severe sin it results in keret – being cut down, one’s life cut short – though it does not necessarily imply a sentence, as much as it is a description of ones state. As the Tanya teaches, to be cut-off merely means to disconnect from our spiritual source – one disconnects themselves, and they in turn die from the atrophy this causes in their soul. (Lekutei Amarim – Tanya, Iggeret haTeshuva, siman 5)

Though this is generally the case, there are certain exceptions to the rule. The Talmud presents us a tragic example of someone, who despite his sincere repentance, still perishes; even more confusing, he is not guilt of idolatry at all. What could be so severe that one still dies after repenting? And what does this mean, is it that he was not forgiven or can it be that G-d yet demands “satisfaction?”

To understand this the rabbis present us with the story of Rabbi Elezar ben Doria as an example. We will find this presented in Talmud Avodah Zarah 17a:

והתניא: |

אמרו עליו על |

רבי אלעזר 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 |

We learn in a b’raita of a Tanna:

‘It was said of

Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia

that there was no whore

in the whole world that he did not go to.

After he heard of this certain whore

in a large seaside city

who accepted a purse of denari [coins]

as payment

he took a purse of coins and crossed

seven rivers,

all the while traveling on foot without anything.”

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a

As we see from the Talmud the sin of Ben Dordia was related to sexual immorality. So caught up in his sexual indiscretions that people reckoned that there wasn’t a prostitute in the entire world he hadn’t slept with.

As the story goes, one day he hears that there is a certain whore in a far off place that he hasn’t been with. Driven by compulsion, his desire to have her is so great that he immediately begins to gather the necessary money to pay her. Knowing that her fee was 100 denari, he collects only enough money necessary to pay her and then sets off on foot. And this is a hint to the level of lust that motivated him. As she is so far away and in a seaside town you would think he would pay to go by ship. Instead he is unwilling to wait or delay and therefore makes this ridiculously long journey by foot and without provisions. Being blinded by lust, he disregards his own needs and wellbeing in pursuit of this prostitute.

דבר הפיחה |

אמרה: |

כשם שהפיחה זו |

אינה חוזרת למקומה – |

כך אלעזר בן דורדיא |

אין מקבלין אותו |

בתשובה. |

So he he got it on with her.

And she said:

‘Just like this breaking-wind

will not return to its place,

so too Elezar ben Dordia

will not not be received back

in repentance.’”

As unlikely as it was, he did actually make it to his destination and get with this woman. Considering all the effort and personal cost, one would hope that his fling have would actually be worth it to him. Instead of her being the desirable woman he probably imaged, she instead showed herself to be crude and unrefined. To the point she broke-wind in bed and even made a joke over it. Then she actually went so far as to make fun of him, teasing him that he would never be accepted back because of how far he had strayed; the pun being just like her fart couldn’t go back to where it came from, so too he couldn’t go back to where he came from. Considering all he had done, his people would never accept him back.

Though she is an inappropriate and seemingly vile person, she isn’t the only one that needs her character scrutinized in this story. One has to wonder anyhow, what is Ben Dordia doing there at all? How is it that this man is even called “rabbi” when he is completely consumed by his perversion?

What we should first understand about Ben Dordia was that he was not actually a “rabbi” in the conventional way we think, as he was not a member of the sanheidrin at all. Notice even the prostitute calls him merely by name, the redactor doesn’t give him this title of honor early on here in the story either when recounting it. Ben Dordia was just an ordinary man, in fact probably someone best described as a mediocre man in terms of his practice; there is no other way to explain how he is able to have such a serious pursuit of his sin and not neglect his religious duties. Also notice most of the people we see in the Talmud come from legacy and with a lineage we all know, but this man just comes out of nowhere and onto the pages of the highest source of rabbinic discourse.

Despite his lack of character and duplicity, Ben Doria is somehow deeply troubled by the prostitute’s words. Though being desensitized to the depravity he was surrounded in, he had enough conviction left in him that he became overwhelmed by the realization of the truth of her estimation and completely broke down. He then ran from the place where he was at, seemingly to find his way back. His need for teshuvah was not just metaphoric, he was literally desperate to find his way back. The Talmud continues:

He went away and sat down

between two hills and mountains

and said:

‘Hills and mountains,

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘For the mountain be departed

and the hills be removed…’

(Isaiah 54:10)

He said:

‘Heavens and earth

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘For the heavens

shall vanish away like smoke,

and the earth will wear out like

a garment’

(Isaiah 51:6)

He said:

‘Sun and moon ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘Then the moon shall be confounded,

and the sun ashamed;’

(Isaiah 24:23)

And he said:

‘Stars and mazalot [constellations]

ask for mercy for me!’

And they said to him:

‘How can we ask for you

when we need to ask for our own sake.

As it is said:

‘And all the host of heaven shall moulder away!’”

(Isaiah 34:4)

הלך וישב |

בין שני הרים וגבעות, |

אמר: |

הרים וגבעות |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

כי ההרים ימושו |

והגבעות תמוטינה |

(ישעיהו נד י) |

אמר: |

שמים וארץ |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

כי שמים |

כעשן נמלחו |

והארץ כבגד |

תבלה |

(ישעיהו נא ו). |

אמר: |

חמה ולבנה בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

וחפרה הלבנה |

ובושה החמה. |

(ישעיהו כד כג) |

אמר: |

כוכבים ומזלות |

בקשו עלי רחמים! |

אמרו לו: |

עד שאנו מבקשים עליך – |

נבקש על עצמנו, |

שנאמר |

ונמקו כל צבא השמים! |

(ישעיהו לד ד) |

As the Talmudic text picks up again we then see him sitting between two hills and two mountains. Lost and unable to orient himself he begins to cry out to the mountains and hills. He speaks to them in a personal tone, going so far as to ask them to pray for him; pleading “rachamim,” have mercy on me. As strange as his actions seem, what is even more strange is the fact that they actually speak back to him; the rabbis tell us that they were granted a voice to respond to him in his time time of need. Without anyone to turn to he begins to carry on a dialogue with the natural forces, and they respond to him.

If you got a miraculous response from heaven, you like most people would probably want to hear words of comfort. But there weren’t any words of encouragement or compassion given. As he goes through this back and forth with nature, each time they are going to respond with the simple truth that there is nothing they can do for him. In fact, if we look at the wording it not only tells us they are in need of help from G-d themselves, but it also suggests to us one must ask “atzmeninu / ourselves,” meaning on their own behalf.

As concise as the Talmud tries to be with content, this whole episode is not only drawn out but it is unusually repetitious. He makes the same statement each time, and the responses are the same, except for a single variation when it comes to supporting biblical quotes offered. The majority of the details are in the list of the elements he cries out to. Our rabbis suggest there is some type of deeper psychological association he must be making, for this reason their commentary mostly concerns itself with asking “what do these statements mean to him?” Though it would be easy to dismiss his pleading as mere ranting and look no further than his hysteria, we need to keep in mind that for Ben Dordia his need for a response was so great that G-d was compelled to grant him this by supernatural means; his desperation was not all trivial, nor were the words of his pleading.

Rashi is the first to offer us a explanation, suggesting that when he called out to the “harim / the hills” what he actually meant on a heart level was “horim / ancestors;” literally meaning his parents. Rashi deduces this based on Talmud Rosh haShanah 11a; citing Micah 9:2 the rabbis compares our ancestors to the mountains. The hill and mountains are made of many layers of rock and soil, each generation built upon another to provide a firm foundation. This is true of mountains and also of ones heritage. We make this journey in life on a higher road, built upon and paved by the contributions of our ancestors. Any moral higher ground we have is provided us from their ethics and experiences. The rabbis teach us here in the Talmud that we aren’t just raised to a higher and better place, but we are recipients of their divine merit. Instead of merely calling us to stand on their giant shoulders, the rabbis insist that just like wise Solomon they call to us “listen my beloved, and come leaping upon mountains, and skipping over the hills;” (Shir haShirim 2:8); our heritage in them provides us a source of joy that comes from divine grace. The mountains represent the patriarchs, the hills are the matriarchs. He cries out to his holy parents “rachamim / have mercy on me,” he is pleading for them to help him.

We can look at the other references to the natural forces likewise. The heavens and earth are also thought of in a complimentary gender dichotomy, and so too the sun and moon. It is easy for us to understand, as the ancient peoples similarly recognizing the greater light of the sun that rules the day as a symbol masculinity and the less light of the moon as the a symbol of femininity. Even in the Torah we see this, in the story of Yosef’s dream the sun represents his father and the moon his mother. (Genesis 37:11, see Parshat Vayeshev)

Though his second request, to the heavens and earth, does also clearly show a more obvious intention. He asks for mercy, first from the heavens and then from the earth. He starts first by asking for grace from heaven, and then secondly for mercy from the earth; the heavens being the mysterious seat of G-d’s mercy, the earth being the calculated world of justice.

Even the sun and moon imply to us a deeper meaning, the sun also being an ancient symbol of authority. The ancient kings and rulers of the nations often considered themselves as the earthly representation of the sun-god, the moon conversely represented their goddesses and queens. In his third request he appears to be asking for the help of the rulers and authorities.

Having made three request for mercy and compassion, Ben Dordia then makes one final request to the stars and the mazalot – the signs of the zodiac. This is less in line with the dichotomy but easier to explain. He is literally pleads for the stars and zodiac (mazalot) to intervene for him and change his fate.

When we consider all this, the story begins to take shape and his motivation becomes clear. He is asking for help from anyone who will listen, from the most accessible to the least; “mom and dad, save me,” “world and universe, help me,” “your honor, sir, ma’am, have mercy on me,” and lastly “fate, can you please give me a break here.”

Though they are not able to help him, they do respond to him. And their responses are neither harsh nor unkind, they each declare their limitations and need of help from G-d themselves. They don’t just turn him down, they reveal their own frailties and inability sympathetically. They weren’t telling him “sorry, but we have our own problems to worry about,” they instead seem to be saying that they can relate to being in need.

Hearing this and understanding the truth of it Elezar ben Dordia stops his pleading. The Talmud continues with his response:

And he said:

There is nothing that doesn’t depend on me!

And he hung his head between his knees

and wept until he exhausted

his soul to death.”

אמר: |

אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי! |

הניח ראשו בין ברכיו |

וגעה בבכיה עד שיצתה |

נשמתו; |

As there is no one that can help him, Ben Dordia becomes even more inconsolable. Lost and helpless he remains crouched on the ground, head hung low between his knees, weeping – not just crying, but bawling with all the strength left him. He cries with all his being until his entire soul is exhausted to the point of death. As no one is coming to rescue him he exclaims to himself alone, “it all depends on me.” And there on the ground he remains until he weeps himself to death.

Is it possible for a person to die from inconsolable crying? And if it is, what can break a man so that he weeps until he dies? What has him so tore up and broken down? Though one might assume that his hysteria is because no one will help him, his words reveal something different all together. Sure he is broken from the reality that he is solely responsible for his own redemption, but even more so by the truth that the whole situation (ha-davar) is of his own making. He is dying inside from the revelation that “it’s all on me.” Those are the last recorded words of Ben Dordia before he lays down and dies.

Fortunately the story doesn’t end there. The Talmud continues:

Just then a bat-kol was heard saying:

‘Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia is destined

to live in the world to come!’”

יצתה בת קול ואמרה |

רבי אלעזר בן דורדיא מזומן |

לחיי העולם הבא.’ |

In his final moments before he draws his last breath a heralding voice is heard from heaven declaring that he has been accepted in repentance and earned his place in the world-to-come. His personal confession is heard in heaven and his pardon is declared by an angelic messenger.

As we look at this incident and consider his acts of repentance it is clearly evident that he is sincere and contrite, but what merits the response of heaven to pardon him is his confession, “ain hadavar talui elah bi / there isn’t anything that doesn’t depend on me.” This is not any matter for which I am not responsible.

What is so remarkable about his words? These word don’t seem intended for anyone other than himself, but they catch the attention of heaven. They are few and unsophisticated, neither lofty nor spiritual sounding in the least. But if we look beyond the simplicity of his statement we will find more than just a realization that he is helpless. G-d does not respond to him out of pity, He responds to him because Ben Dordia has a dramatic change of heart and mind. He moves beyond being more concerned with the role everyone else plays in his tragedy.

As unbecoming as his pleading with all of the world and the sky to help him seems, his attitude is very actually very typical. In fact many people go one step further and actually blame others for their downfall. He could have easily said like many people do, “its not my fault, its my parents and my culture that are to blame.” He could have blamed the world, the politicians, the system and even fate itself. But here we find him for the first time taking full responsibility. This is such a drastic change in his character that it merits him full salvation.

Though he does find a place in heaven, we cannot avoid the fact that he still dies. As discussed, this is not demanded by the halacha. This is so unusual most editions of the Talmud contain an extra line to emphasize this lest we miss this point (in brackets). This is what makes the story even more tragic, his death was unnecessary. His repentance is complete and attested to by the bat-kol, for this reason none of our rabbis suggest that his death was part of his atonement. He was not dying for his sins. The Talmud continues, and provides us a simple suggestion:

[For he only committed a sexual sin and yet he died!]

And this is how it comes together:

As he was so addicted to [his sin]

it was counted as minut.”

[והא הכא בעבירה הוה ומית!] |

התם נמי: |

כיון דאביק בה טובא – |

כמינות דמיא. |

Our halacha is that one is only required to die in cases of idolatry. Here the rabbis suggest his sin was so habitual and severe that it was equivalent to minut – to apostasy and heresy. He was not necessarily guilty of idolatry, but his sin was so great that it like a idol in his life and thus suffered likewise.

Had his sin been considered a typical transgression or he been a member of the sanheidrin, his resulting death might be understandable. The Torah commands that willful sinners among the elders are to be put to death, for intentionally violating the law and causing others to do likewise even after being censured by their peers. There are three ways ones atonement can be secured after execution is ordered if one chooses to repent; being pardoned by the sanheidrin, Yom haKippurim – the Day of Atonements, and suffering. Ordinarily any one of these will suffice. But in the case of a religious leader the offense holds much more weight. Even if being reconciled to his people and his peers, the elder suffers in death. The Talmud elsewhere tells us:

אבל מי שיש חילול השם בידו – |


אין לו כח |

בתשובה לתלות, |

ולא ביום הכפורים לכפר, |

ולא ביסורין למרק. |

אלא כולן תולין, |

ומיתה ממרקת, |

שנאמר: |

ונגלה באזני הצבאות |

אם יכפר העון הזה |

לכם עד תמתון” |

(ישעיהו כב) |

But if the sin he enacts is a chilul Hashem

(a desecration of the name of G-d)

it is not enough for him;

relying only on repentance,

Yom haKippurim to atone,

nor suffering to purify.

However, all of them together suspend it,

and death finishes it off.

As it is said:

‘It is obvious in the eyes of the L-rd of Hosts

that the atonement for this one

will not be until he dies.’”

(Isaiah 22:14)

Talmud Bavli Yoma 86a

The first reason this example does not apply to Ben Dordia is because the scripture cited is actually about an unrepentant person. The Tanach speaks of a person who refuses to call out to G-d in weeping and humility (v.12), and they instead are happy in their sin and glad of it as they eat and drink themselves to death (v.13); of such a person G-d is saying that until it kills them they will not atone for themselves (v.14).

Though the rabbis only use this verse figuratively when they cite it here. They are rabbis who most often concern themselves with matters that pertain to themselves, with the Talmud being their court records and transcription. They naturally discuss things herein that relate to themselves. But they are fully aware that they are merely men, even among them their could be found people who despite their wisdom and sincere religiosity retained the attitude of “eat, drink for tomorrow we die.” They therefore read this verse another way, that sometimes sins of pleasure are so strong and binding that even for the religious the battle will remain until the day they die. Maybe even more so, we all know the rabbinic maxim that states: “the greater the man the greater the yetzer hara (negative drive).” (Talmud Bavli Sukkot 52a) The impulse towards sin only dies with with the person, but a living person will always need to balance the influence of their higher-self and their base-nature. But its not possible to kill the drive of a person’s sinful nature without killing them intern.

But again this does not apply to Ben Dordia in either case. He is just a lowly man, that is fully repentant. But there is some similarity, he will battle sin until his dying day. But his death is incidental, in that there is no way for him to find his way out of the wilderness and back to his people. Being only indirectly consequential, in that his death was caused by the lifestyle he lived prior to repentance. The damage he had done to himself could not be reversed, so he died. We don’t know if he would have survived if he found his way back and repented in the proper way as a Jewish man before the elders, on Yom haKippurim or through personal infliction. He was left in such a fragile state that he could go no further and so he died where he lay. As he could not find his way back, a voice from heaven came to him and declared that he would be destined for salvation.

This outcome for him seems so unfair that heaven itself has to speak up and say that if he cannot live in this world he deserves to know that he will live in the world to come. This is because the scripture do explicitly tell us that life is the rewarded of the penitent. G-d sends messengers to call people back; even if only for them to hear the message and care less, or see the point of their error but not “get it.” Some people will never accept the message, closing their eyes and ears. But for those who understand and who take this call to heart and return, they will be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)

His death seems to trouble the rabbis even more so, they understood these laws and scriptures thoroughly and found no reason for his demise either. Instead of being insensitive and without comprehension, Ben Doria comes to this ascent of consciousness of his personal responsibility on his own, and without any intervention. His understanding is something so remarkable that they count him among the chachamim. For this reason they elevate him beyond being a simple person that they could not find remedy for, and instead reckon him a great man who suffered post-facto for apostasy.

That is not to say that his deathbed repentance doesn’t trouble some. Unlike the many other religions that hang their atonement and salvation on ones belief, Judaism does not and instead puts greater stock in ones actions. Emunah to the Jew means faithfulness, not faith that is an abstract feeling; it’s a description of ones ethic to follow through. Even our term for Jewish law – halacha – is a term that emphasizes the helek, the way one goes and the path they lead in this life. One should repent and live a life of holiness. This was not the case for Ben Dordia. No one challenges the truth of his redemption, yet even the Talmud itself shows the discomfort some feel with his late reflection:

Rabbi heard this and wept, saying:

‘It is possible to acquire the world to come

after years [of dedication],

and another to quire that world in an hour?’”

בכה רבי ואמר: |

יש קונה עולמו בכמה |

שנים |

ויש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת. |

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a

The concern of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi is also understandable, being devout and faithful in Torah was the lifetime occupation of the rabbis of the Great Assembly, the sanheidrin that he headed; that enforced Jewish law, which he was chiefly responsible for documenting in the Mishnah of the Talmud; he is a tzadik par-excellence. We can look at the above statement several ways, but the obvious tone clearly carries through. For all the dedication Rabbi has invested in his practice he is anguished that Ben Dordia did nothing at all and was granted salvation. It might even seem convenient. He has no opportunity to exit his situation and there he remained, until there is nothing left he can do and then he repents. It angered Rabbi to the point of tears that for all his years of dedication, this single act of repentance by this sinner was regarded just as meritorious as his accomplishments. If this story concerns itself with what is fair, in the eyes of the faithful Ben Dordia’s “easy” redemption is unfair.

It is quite true, this is not something ordinarily we as Jews would look upon favorably. But the truth of the validity of such redemption remains even if it saddens and upsets anyone. Though this type of atonement is extraordinary and surely less than ideal, it is necessary that one not compare their own path of redemption to that of Ben Dordia or anyone else. Though most people who occupy themselves in Torah living will have an entire lifetime of personal growth and struggles to master, this story of redemption does not cheapen our approach towards atonement. What is important to comprehend here is that the understanding that Ben Dordia had to come to was his life’s struggle, this battle with himself was just as difficult as the entire life-struggle of anyone else.

Even his very name showed a tendency to be prone towards depending on supernatural help, his name Elezar means “G-d will help” or “G-d has helped.” But here he has to transcend his understand of his self and realize “there is nothing that isn’t dependent on me” to solve.

This is not hard to understand if we look beyond our own personal discomfort and consider the struggle of another. It should not need to be explained, for this reason no one responds to Rabbi’s lament. It is Rabbi who reflects upon this and rebuffs himself. The Talmud for this ends with Rabbi himself commenting a second time:

Rabbi [also] said:

‘Not only are baalei teshuvah

[repenters, lit. people who return]


but they are even called “Rabbi.”’”

ואמר רבי: |

לא דיין לבעלי תשובה |


שמקבלין אותן, |

אלא שקורין אותן רבי‘! |

Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah 17a – Rabbi Yehuda haNasi, 2nd century CE

Considering all this, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi goes on record in praise and support of Elezar ben Dordia. He not only comes to the conclusion that this man’s story of redemption is honorable, but acknowledges the commonality of their human experience. Yehuda haNasi calls him “Rabbi,” a nickname that most often refers to himself in the proceedings of sanheidrin; he is the chief and senior elder and is called “rabbi / my teacher” by the others in the Talmud. The redemption of Rabbi Elezar ben Dordia is something which all of us, even the most pious of people, should learn from.


As we come to the completion of this study, one of the things that I want us to keep in mind is that reality that we are always able to make teshuvah – to turn around and make a change, to return. But we do need to keep in mind the reality of repentance, it might remove the stains of sins no matter how deep they run (Isaiah 1:18) but this does not mean that we are free of the natural results that such distorted living causes. This does not in any way effect our level with G-d, but it can be confusing and almost unfair that some of the results of sin can be revisited in our lives. Most often take place after a while, once a person has moved on from that type of life. Revisiting it can often bring confusion and shame of ones past back to haunt them. But our place as penitent people is not in any way compromised before the Throne of Heaven.

Keeping this in mind it should on one hand bring us comfort, our struggles are merely with the physical that we are trying to subjugate to our spiritual and higher selves. Sometimes it takes a lot longer to remedy distorted living in our physical person than it does on a heart level, and what we sow today does not necessarily reflect what we are currently reaping. When your hearts is right, it is right no matter what the physical manifestations say. But conversely, we need to bare in mind that we cannot be foolish enough to sow today and think that we wont reap the consequences of our deeds at some point.

Shmueli Gonzales, is a writer and Torah student from Southern California. In addition to divrei Torah and contributions to the Open Source publication of the siddur, he also spends much time as a volunteer educating people regarding HIV/AIDS.

%d bloggers like this: