Midnight in a bar is a turning point. It is the twilight zone that blurs the lines between out of place and acceptable, idiocy and brilliancy. After midnight, everybody lets it all hang out. Alcohol and exhaustion mix in the bloodstream and the result is always interesting and varied.
Simon (whose name has been changed), a shorter fellow, about 27 years old and wearing a sharp pea coat, takes a seat by the bar after one of his multiple trips to the outdoor smoking area. As he looks over the counter at me, his bushy eyebrows condense over his wide eyes, and his big glazed smile hints at what is about to come.
“The first thing that the first cell did was to reproduce itself- in identical form. Only after that could it evolve into bigger things. We’re trying to do the same with technology. To isolate it, contain it, and then take it up to another level.”
Slightly slurred, his words land on the counter with a slick alcohol coating, and fills the bar with the smell of half-past-midnight pseudo-intellectuality. His logic is interesting and surprisingly cogent, but every once in a while it wobbles on a couple of poorly formed sentences that hint that he might not be quite as clever as he seems.
After his first sentence about cells, I quickly realize that his head is barer than most of the kippa-less customers who frequent the Slow Moshe bar, and that my own kippa (skull cap) is hidden under a hat.
“We’re still in a quasi-dark age,” he continues. “People believing in ritual… it’s all mythology to set us apart from others. You’re incredibly optimistic if you believe that the percentages of believers will drop drastically over the next 20 years,” he explains to Ron, my boss’s son, who is sitting next to him.
Thanks to my cap, Simon has identified me as a non-religious bartender, and feels free to speak freely and naturally. I hold my tzitzit (ritual fringes) for grounding and wait for him to continue, intrigued by the direction of his drunken dialogue with Ron, and knowing full well that these rants are part of my job- and the best one at that.
“Religion was, and is, a way for leader to control their followers, a tool to keep their people in check through guilt and confession. You can trace all of the stories that various belief sytems attribute as unique to their god to a slightly older deity.”
My yeshiva bachur (yeshiva student) soul spots the devil dancing in the corner, and grabs his hand for a tango.
“Where do you see that in Judaism?” I ask. “Which government created a religion of one god to control their people? “
As soon as I left that fresh question mark hanging in the air, I intuited his answer.
“Moses of course.”
“Interesting,” I respond, continuing with my charade as someone other than the token Dos (slang for religious) bartender of the Slow. “A prince of Egypt looking for his own throne…”
“Exactly,” Simon responds. “Think about it, his brother is destined to be a god in the eyes of the Egyptian people. Moses in turn creates a monotheistic religion to counter this. He ascends Mt. Sinai for 40 days, inscribes a couple of stone tablets, and feeds the Jewish people below a fantastic story. The laws he creates are good ones in my mind. Fair and moral, but nonetheless meant to manipulate the people and establish a place for him as a revered leader.”
His logic is surprisingly crisp, and the back-story he has theorized for Moses is excellent. But he should have never mentioned Mt. Sinai. Every day-school product knows that receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the historic event we will be commemorating tomorrow night, has been passed down from father to son. The classic rebuttal to an argument against the validity of Sinai stems from this fact. Our grandfathers were told about the experience by their fathers, who were told by theirs, all the way back to the man who stood physically at Mt. Sinai and saw the lightning and smoke for himself. A lie of such a mass scale is hard to produce.
I open my mouth to respond with this tried and true answer, and close it quickly. Simon and I speak two different languages. His life revolves around evidence, proof-based logic. Straight up belief, with no added mixers of proof, is not a drink on his menu, and truth be told, though there are countless, and even better answers than the one mentioned above, without belief, there is no reason to accept them. Conspiracy theories, a lack of proof- there is always a reason to doubt.
Though I refuse to be deaf to the arguments of others, and will always question what I have been taught (especially on a late night in a dark bar), I have discovered that my belief is blind and yet to be shaken. There might be something naïve or foolish in believing that my soul was at Sinai, right next to that forefather of mine who started the tale-telling that reached my ears, but I believe it. The holy fires that burned on Shavuot, the thunder, lightning, and shofar blasts, all still burn and resonate within my soul. Shavuot for me is a time to reaffirm this fact- to stay up all night studying ancient teachings, analyzing them with the skeptical eye of modernity, and pondering the truth behind everything. Come sunrise though, I will be surrounded by other believers, thanking G-d for another day of life, and the strength to deal with the many questions that accompany it.