In our conversation, the Rabbis address three elements of Roman culture: Markets, baths, and bridges. As R’ Yehuda points out, each provides tangible benefits. As R’ Shimon points out, each can become a vehicle for exploitation. Each of these symbols represents a distinct element of culture.
An open market means division of labor, competition, free trade, and choice. It means variety and options. It means freedom. R’ Yehuda praises markets; he feels that this degree of freedom is a great asset to Jews in a foreign culture.
R’ Shimon counters that open markets don’t just fulfill the desires of the people, but they create new desires. Competition forces sellers to cater to man’s baser nature, slowly encouraging the consumer to gratify more and more of his desires. Everyone has a voice, but the voice of reason can seldom be heard in all of the din. Thus, the freedom of the market is an illusion; a child doesn’t stand a chance against a Big Mac commercial.
In the ancient world, baths were where one took care of his body. The bath represents hygiene, health, and sanitation. It was a place with running water, with sewage, that allowed every person to live with dignity, as a human being. R’ Yehuda sees this emphasis on health as an area of convergence between Jewish and Roman cultures.
R’ Shimon disagrees. In the Roman bath, he sees vanity epitomized. The human body is no longer a tool of the soul, but a pleasure-tool in its own right.
Bridges connect people. Everybody can find common ground if there are good bridges available. R’ Yehuda sees the up-side of bridges – a culture in which unity can be achieved, and hatreds overcome. Rome is great because Rome builds bridges.
R’ Shimon would consider R’ Yehuda extremely naïve. The more a culture is a ‘melting pot’, the more it’s possible to shape the emerging public. When a government or an empire builds bridges, connects people, it’s not for the sake of some kind of multicultural vision. Rather, says R’ Shimon, it’s a means to exploit the people.