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August 30, 2015 | 15th Elul 5775

Rabbi Yose’s Silence

Galilee Diary #287, May 28, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein
Rabbi Yose’s silence

Moving into summer, with the revival of the tourism industry, I find myself leading study-tours at Zippori again, about once a week. This is one of my favorite sites in Israel, and I have been following its development – as an excavation and as a tourist site – since it opened in the early 90s. The combination of the physical beauty of the site, with its striking panoramic view of the whole Galilee; the well-preserved ruins and beautiful mosaics, of which more are uncovered every year; and the many correlations between the archaeological findings and rabbinic texts make it possible for me to visit Zippori over and over without it becoming stale for me.

Perhaps even more important than the above considerations in making Zippori attractive and interesting is the site’s ability to stimulate thinking and discussion of value dilemmas that are as alive today as they were two millennia ago. For example, in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud (33b), we find this story:

Once R. Yehuda and R. Yose and R. Shimon were sitting with Yehuda the Convert. R. Yehuda said: How wonderful are the works of this people [the Romans]! They have established markets, they have built bridges, they have built baths. R. Yose was silent. R. Shimon bar Yochai answered: They established markets - for prostitutes to work there; they built bridges - in order to collect tolls; they built baths - to pamper themselves. Yehuda the Convert went and repeated their words and the authorities heard, who said: Yehuda who exalted - will be exalted; Yose who was silent - will be exiled to Zippori; Shimon who condemned - will be killed.

The debate between the two extreme positions – Rabbi Yehuda, who emphasizes the benefits of Roman rule for our quality of life, and Rabbi Shimon, who sees the moral price that such benefits exact – can easily be translated into modern terms, as we debate the benefits and costs of globalization. Specifically, here in Israel, there is no question that these two positions regarding Rome resonate strongly in the debate over American cultural influence. Clearly, on the level of physical comfort, free exchange of information, richness of choices of what to wear and what to eat, what to read and where to travel, Israel has benefited greatly from the penetration of global capitalism and American consumer culture. A generation ago this was a very provincial place; visiting relatives were encouraged to bring tuna fish, coffee, and video tapes. The wait for installation of a phone line was several months, and the token-operated pay phones often didn’t work. On a hot day you welcomed the long line at the bank, because it gave you plenty of time to enjoy the air-conditioning. Everyday life was simpler, and more difficult. Everything took longer, took more effort, with more discomfort. Coming from America, you made fun of Israeli inconveniences and primitiveness (on a good day) or cursed it (on a bad day) – but you also had the feeling that this life had a certain inexplicable authenticity: the suffering made you feel righteous. In living here, one was paying a price for an ideal, which, annoying and frustrating as it was, felt good.

Now, of course, most of these discomforts and annoyances are quaint memories. Israel has one of the highest per capita rates of cell-phone ownership in the world. No one imports tuna fish or coffee in her suitcase any more. Air-conditioned malls have replaced the downtown shopping experience. We have MacDonalds and KFC, Toy r Us and Office Depot. So if life is so good, is the nostalgia for those good old uncomfortable days just nostalgia, or has something of value actually been lost in the transition? Could it be that, as Rabbi Shimon suggested, hidden within all this comfort and convenience and sophistication nest destructive forces of selfishness and alienation, a numbing of moral sensitivity and a weakening of social solidarity? Should we welcome progress, like Rabbi Yehuda, or fight it at all costs, like Rabbi Shimon? Or is the best we can hope for to be Rabbi Yose, struggling (in my imagination, at least) in silence with his ambivalence?

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