R. Judah, R. Jose, and R. Simeon were sitting, and Judah, a son of proselytes, was sitting near them. R. Judah commenced [the discussion] by observing, 'How fine are the works of this people! They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.' R. Jose was silent. R. Simeon b. Yohai answered and said, 'All that they made they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them.' Now, Judah the son of proselytes went and related their talk, which reached the government. They decreed: Judah, who exalted [us], shall be exalted. Jose, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris; Simeon, who censured, let him be executed.
This conversation must be understood on its own, but beforehand it must be understood in light of the following passage from Avodah Zarah 2a-b:
׳דרש ר' חנינא בר פפא, ואיתימא ר' שמלאי: לעתיד לבא מביא הקדוש ברוך הוא ס"ת [ומניחו] בחיקו, ואומר: למי שעסק בה יבא ויטול שכרו. מיד מתקבצין ובאין עובדי כוכבים… נכנסה לפניו מלכות רומי תחלה… אמר להם הקב"ה: במאי עסקתם? אומרים לפניו: רבש"ע, הרבה שווקים תקנינו, הרבה מרחצאות עשינו, הרבה כסף וזהב הרבינו, וכולם לא עשינו אלא בשביל ישראל כדי שיתעסקו בתורה. אמר להם הקב"ה: שוטים שבעולם, כל מה
שעשיתם - לצורך עצמכם עשיתם, תקנתם שווקים להושיב בהן זונות, מרחצאות - לעדן בהן עצמכם, כסף וזהב שלי הוא…מיד יצאו בפחי נפש.
R’ Chaninah b. Papa, or, alternatively, R’ Simlai sermonized: In the future, God will bring a Torah Scroll and place it in His lap, and say “Whomever occupied himself with this may comeand claim their reward. Immediately, every nation gathered in…the Roman Empire entered first… God said to them, “What did you occupy ourselves with?” They replied, “Master of the Universe, we instituted many markets, we built many bathhouses, and we increased wealth, and only for Israel, so that they may busy themselves with Torah. God replied, “Most foolish ones! All that you’ve done was for your own needs: markets to place whores there, bathhouses to rejuvenate yourselves, and all gold and silver is Mine!...they immediately left dejectedly.
Almost the exact same conversation which here is placed into the mouths of R’ Yehuda and R’ Shimon, is placed into the mouths of Rome and God, respectively. Were it not for the continuation of our narrative, it would be clear that the conversation recorded here is a critique of R’ Yehuda’s position. After all, he takes the position of the Romans themselves, whereas R’ Shimon stands with God Himself. R’ Yose, apparently, would remain undecided. However, since R’ Shimon’s attitude changes before we reach the end of the story, his identification with God’s position must be communicating something else.
The passage in Avodah Zarah addresses the objective question of ultimate worth. God passes judgment upon the nations of Earth, deciding whether they furthered His cause or detracted from it, whether their motives were pure or selfish. The three Rabbis face a situation that is far different; they must choose, given that they live in an alien culture, to what degree they will embrace or accommodate that culture, and to what degree they will reject it. That R’ Shimon maintains an idealistic, i.e., God’s position on this issue might mean that he takes a position of uncompromising idealism. He suggests that life in exile must be lived as a protest against reality, and that any culture which is not Torah culture is worthless.
R’ Yehuda, on the other hand, is willing to accept reality at face value without passing judgment. Features of the prevailing culture which further the Torah’s cause can be embraced regardless of their original intent. Indeed, he sees value in actively searching for means of accommodation and rapprochement, and in generating a modus operandi for Jewish life in an alien culture as soon as possible.
There would be no need to ascribe a position to R’ Yose had he simply been undecided between his illustrious contemporaries. R’ Yose’s silence, therefore, reflects the position of the quintessential ‘Golus Jew’ – lay low, keep quiet, and don’t draw attention to yourself. Questions of the value of cultural institutions are irrelevant for him. He will utilize elements of the prevailing culture when they meet his needs, but he will not allow himself to enter its mainstream and break his silence.
Analysis of this conversation would not be complete without addressing the fourth participant in the conversation, Yehuda ben Gerim. His proper name, Yehuda (Judah) is the paradigmatic Jewish name. It literally means ‘Jew’. At the same time, he is the son of converts or immigrants (the two terms are tellingly synonymous in Hebrew). He represents the contemporary generation, the audience to whom the religious leaders must address themselves. He is characterized by a strong but rootless Jewish identity, built upon an alien foundation. It is his perception which decides the fate of the three Rabbis, for he translates their words for public consumption. Not surprisingly, the words of R’ Yehuda alone resonate with this rootless Jew, and can construct a Jewish present for he who has no Jewish past. R’ Shimon, who has only the past and who denies the present, will have very little to say to the rootless child of the times.
The three verdicts are thus quid pro quo. R’ Yehuda becomes the Chief Spokesman. He is able to articulate a Jewish position that the authorities can trust. His rise to prominence reflects his ability to speak the language of the contemporary generation. R’ Yose goes into exile, where he can continue to survive and even thrive as a non-participant, where he won’t be bothered and won’t bother anyone. There, he can work to insure the survival of his people. There is no place for R’ Shimon, though; he remain the antagonist. The agitator for cultural independence who refuses to acknowledge military defeat becomes a public enemy who threatens the stability of the political order.
Though the framers of the Talmud set this conversation in a particular generation, their statements represent attitudes which recur in the Jewish experience until today; they may not even represent the full range of possible responses. However, in the aftermath of every revolution or migration, some resist, some deny, some accommodate - some perhaps become too accommodating, and some insist on silence. Meditating upon the experience of Eastern European Rabbis who made their way to the United States and Israel during the 20th century, a multiplicity of responses can be ascertained. It does not require a great imagination to see a contemporary Sepphoris in Lakewood or B’nei Brak.
Nevertheless, each avenue of response may, in fact, have its time and place. The accommodator in America might resist in the Soviet Union. It is thus impossible to draw conclusions from this narrative, and thankfully so, for history does quite repeat itself exactly. We can, however, gauge that there is a range of possible response, each with a strong voice, and, as we’ll see, R’ Shimon and the attitude that he represents will undergo significant changes before the end of this story.
 Cf. R’ Samuel Edels (Maharsha) ad loc. See also Rubenstein, who assumes that the passage in Avodah Zarah is earlier, an assumption which allows us to understand our passage in light of the other.