Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday 28 August 2011

A Sure Formula For Failure

The senior Rav in my community likes to tell the story of how, during the first few years of his service (perhaps overlordship might be a better word?) the congregation's leadership told him they intended to change the shul from Orthodox to Conservative.  They were fascinated by the vibrancy of the then ascendant movement and the idea of mixed seating didn't seem that odd to them.  As the story goes, he asked them about their daily minyan.  Well, came the reply, sometimes they don't get one.  His reply was quick: So you don't want us to get a minyan either?
There's a stage in the life of many organizations when the founding principles it stood for get forgotten and a desire to increase membership becomes the new principle.  However, the weaker the original commitment becomes the harder it gets to entice people to join.  People are either not interested or are looking for something specific and a poorly defined group does not tend to interest them.
If there is one thing the last 40 years of liberal Judaism has taught it is that liberal Judaism is not a formula for creating a large committed community.  Don't let the numbers fool you.  Unlike Orthodoxy, there is only one real commitment when it comes to being a Reformative Jew: paying your dues to the temple of your choice.  A Reformative congregation may have 1000 members but what percentage of them know anything about the movement they belong to?
Conservatism is especially bothered by this problem since, at least on paper, it does demand a certain level of commitment.  As much as they hate to label anyone a "bad Jew", someone who eats and bacon and cheese sandwich at a strip club on Yom Kippur is violating many of the few standards they have left.  Yet in their zeal to be "inclusive" and "progressive" they have shed as many principles as they can to avoid losing membership to the more nebulous but non-judgemental Reformers to their left.
Indeed Conservatism seems destined to ultimately split between those who really don't care about Torah and just want a place to sing songs on the occasional Saturday morning and those with a real sense of connection to Judaism who are looking for serious commitment.  The former will go left to Reform, the latter right to left-wing Modern Orthodoxy.  And the more Conservatism moves to accomodate the liberal left the faster this dissolution will occur.
The problem is that LWMO isn't going to be doing much better.  In fact, the more it trumpets its progressive nature the faster it will slide left into the failing arms of Conservatism.  For example, we are now told that a second "rabba" will soon be dealing out her wit and wisdom to the YCT crowd.
When Kaya Stern-Kaufman was ordained three months ago, her certificate looked different from those of other newly minted rabbis across the country. It included the English title “rabbi” and the Hebrew title “rabba.”

Stern-Kaufman, who was ordained by the pluralistic Academy of Jewish Religion in Riverdale, N.Y., became just the second woman in the United States to be given the title rabba. She followed the lead of Rabba Sara Hurwitz of the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
Of course Ms. Stern will serve God by strictly adhering to the principles of secular liberalism:
While Stern-Kaufman’s feminized title did put her in the spotlight, her work as a rabbi does not center on women’s issues. A social worker and a feng shui consultant before deciding to become a rabbi, she is focusing on outreach to unaffiliated Jews and bridging the denominations of Judaism. She is also a founder and member of the traditional egalitarian Berkshire Minyan.

She likened herself to Hurwitz in that both are “standing up for the right of Jewish women to be spiritual leaders in their communities.”
It must be the principles of secular liberalism as in Torah Judaism there is no "right" for a woman to be a spiritual leader, as the halacha demonstrates over and over.  Some have risen to the occasion and our nation has been stronger for it but the idea that there is some inequality when it comes to leadership positions in the Jewish community that needs to be righted is not born of Judaism.
It's interesting to note two things from this article.  The first is the difference between the original rabba, Sara Hurwitz, and her new companion.  While Hurwitz certainly perceives herself as breaking barriers she is very careful, at least in public, to remain as Orthodox as possible.  She talks about halacha, about Orthodox values even if one does not agree that her approach is a Torah true one.  Stern-Kaufmann, on the other hand, seems to be Orthodox in the mold of the Hartmann method: all the image, none of the substance.  If push comes to shove and Hurwitz were forced to choose between Orthodoxy and right wing Conservatism I do not doubt she'd move right.  Stern-Kaufmann sounds like she'd be just as comfortable with a radically left chavrusa from the Hebrew Union College as she would with someone actually Torah observant.
The second is the level of enthusiasm the article tries to bring.  This is a trend!  Things are changing!  Women are going to become mainsteam leaders in the Orthodox community as it changes to become more like Reformativism!
No it isn't.  No they're not.  No they won't.
Jewish history is littered with cults, groups and ideas that thought they could modify, improve or adjust Judaism in radical or progressive ways.  None of these groups have ever endured.  Despite a Conservative rabbi's enthusiastic approval, this idea will ultimately be relegated to the dustbin of Jewish history:
Like other professions in which women were once not welcome to join, the rabbinate has been forced to learn how to accept female rabbis into the ranks. Certainly this acceptance is most challenging for the oldest generation of rabbis who came of age in the old boys network -- a rabbinate sans women. Rabbis now in their middle age were the first to welcome women into the profession, but also have memories of the controversy that took shape around the seminary doors opening. But for younger rabbis -- I include myself in this cohort even though my doctor tells me I’m aging a bit each day -- there have always been female rabbis, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
I recall the first time I jumped into a New York City cab and noticed that my driver was a woman. I did a double take, but then things progressed as usual. She got me to my destination, I paid the fare and her tip, said thanks, and was on my way.
Not so with female rabbis, however. There are noticeable differences between the sexes, and we shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist. Having women as rabbis has added immensely to all aspects of Judaism, and female rabbis have helped shape the conversation.
Female rabbis have added beautiful new rituals to our tradition. They have introduced spiritual rituals that most men wouldn’t have dreamed up, like prayers for fertility, teachings at the mikvah and meaningful customs following a miscarriage.
Female rabbis have brought naming ceremonies for our daughters to the meaningful level of the brit milah. They can relate to the teenage bat mitzvah girl in ways that male rabbis never could or would never even try. Their commentary on the Torah and Talmud is fresh, and they can provide voices to the hidden personas of the many female characters of our rich text that have been missing for generations.
A Judaism based on fashion, liberal values and a desire to be as progressive as gentile society around us will not appeal to Jews serious about their Judaism.  Perhaps Miller has missed it but the result of his movement's amazing and egalitarian policies is an empty pew as people search elsewhere for what Conservatives refuse to offer their congregants for fear of appearing archaic.  Is he truly wishing that type of failure on the YCT crowd as well?

Thursday 25 August 2011

The Proper Focus

One of the most important questions a Jew must ask himself when performing a mitzvah is "Am I doing this for the right reason?"
Many times we don't do what we're supposed to for the right reason.  Sometimes it's for personal glory.  Sometimes it's because we're worried what the neighbours will think.  Only once in a while do we honestly put aside any personal considerations and keep God in focus the entire time.
As Rav Nathan Lopes Cardozo notes in this article, improper motivations can have horrible consequences:
Religious people seem increasingly to treat the Almighty as an idol, though totally unaware that they are doing so. They violate the most severe prohibition — You shall not worship any other gods — with full confidence that they are genuinely serving G0d.
And these people are none other than you and me.
Many of us are religious because we believe it is the best insurance policy and will guarantee a relatively easy life with not too many bumps along the way. To achieve this goal we make a deal with the Almighty: I will observe Your commandments, and You will do what I want You to do for me. We assume this is the way to avoid calamities and ensure a content and beautiful life. Instead of serving the Lord because He is G0d, we are attempting to manipulate G0d to serve us, making Him our servant. It is nothing less than idol worship.
This tragic development is the result of a major misconception about the nature of religion. Religious observance has nothing to do with receiving rewards or with G0d granting us anything. The purpose of religion is to make us aware that we live in the presence of G0d, to help us become better people, to increase our sensitivity, and to amaze us through the miracles that surround us every moment. These are the real rewards. The goal is not that G0d change His behavior towards us, but that we change our behavior towards Him and our fellow human beings.
Here's the amazing irony of the situation: this criticism is one we often level at the Reformatives.  They pick and choose, they do those things that make them feel good and then call them mitzvos.  Yet a cheshbon hafesh of our own community would reveal that we do the very same thing.
We dehumanize women and call it tznius.  We throw rocks at people who drive on Shabbos and say we're defending Shabbos!  We push someone aside in line and say that we're running to perform a mitzvah
We pick and choose.  We worry more about what our neighbours will say than God, assuming that He will approve because we're doing the socially acceptable thing, at least in our minds.
With Elul coming it is a good time for each of us to take a step back and analyze our religious behaviours.  Are we really putting God's will first in our actions or are we going through routines in order to fulfill our "obligations" and force Him to consider us Jews in good standing?  Do we tremble when the shofar blows on Rosh HaShanah because we feel its echo in our soul or because that's what you're supposed to do and if you don't the guy next to you will look over and mutter "frei"?  Do we shake and cry at Neilah because we sense an opportunity to connect to God in a way unparalled over the rest of the year coming to an end or because we don't want to look out of place?
If we are to merit anything it's by giving of ourselves to the Ribono shel Olam, not by manipulating Him through superficial actions.  Rav Cardozo's article is an excellent reminder of this.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

The Fundamental Problem With The System

Well it had to happen sooner or later.  I finally found an article written by Rav Avi Shafran that I partially agree with.  It deals with someone I've written about before, how in the last few decades the word "Orthodox" has become stretched to mean things it was never meant to.

The recent suggestion by the rabbi of a West Coast Orthodox congregation that one of the birchos hashachar (morning blessings) recited each day by Torah-observant Jews be eliminated—he sees it as insufficiently enlightened—is a reminder of an unpleasant but pressing task facing the Jewish community: To define the word “Orthodox.”
Words are mangled with disturbing regularity in the Jewish world. Jewish “observance,” once a clear and descriptive term, has become relegated to relativity. After all, isn’t a Jew who faithfully follows his clergyman’s prescription of social activism as the essential Jewish mandate… observant? He or she would certainly say so.
Adding the word “Torah” before “observance” doesn’t help much either. A Reform leader, after all, once famously proclaimed his movement’s wholehearted embrace of “Torah, Torah, Torah!”—undermining in six syllables more than 3000 years of a word’s synonymity with the very concept of revealed law that Reform theology unabashedly renounces.
“Mitzvah” has been turned on its head too. The Hebrew word for “commandment” has degenerated in many circles to mean “good deed” or even “what any particular person happens to think is a good deed.” The same aforementioned Reform rabbi once advised that every Jew “must examine each mitzvah [in the Torah] and ask the question: ‘do I feel commanded in this instance…?’” Now, feeling commanded and being commanded may not be mutually exclusive, but they are hardly one and the same.
Rounding out the abuse of words are chimeras like Conservative “halacha” and a Reform “Kollel.”
The word “Orthodox” has always been a lexical haven for Jews who affirm the divine origin of Torah and are committed to the entirety of our mesorah—traditional Jewish religious beliefs and practices—and the integrity of the halachic process as it has existed for millennia. Although the “O-Word” was originally imposed on believing Jews by others, we have worn the label proudly; it implies faithfulness to the past and willingness to stand against the winds of societal change. And it has allowed us to set ourselves apart from all the contemporary parallels to the Second Temple period’s Sadducean movement—to borrow a comparison from Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l.
In recent years, though, even “Orthodox” has been subjected to the Silly Putty treatment. People with ordinations from Orthodox institutions have invoked the imagined power of their pieces of paper to render “kosher” whatever the Zeitgeist or their own overly open minds have inspired them to embrace. Thus we have an “Orthodox rabbi” who prides himself on exemplifying what the Torah forbids as toeiva (“repugnant”); another who deigns to “ordain” women; now one who self-righteously declares that he can no longer “take G-d’s name in the context” of one of the birchos hashachar, and who “suspect[s], at this point in history, that it constitutes a Desecration of the Name.”
There is desecration here, yes, but not where the rabbi sees it.
Many Orthodox Jews, understandably, are reluctant to focus on attention-seeking rabbis seeking to boldly go, so to speak, where no Orthodox rabbi has gone before. But we ignore such things at our peril. Or, better, at the peril of forfeiting the last adjective signifying commitment to the Jewish mesorah.
Like tikun olam and mitzvah the general Jewish public have no idea how to properly use these words but instead apply them willy nilly to whatever seems to catch their fancy.  Rav Shafran is quite right that this is frustrating in general but at least before one could draw the line at "Orthodox".  Even that seems to be going the same way these days.
However, it do find it interesting that this article inadvertantly points out a major flaw in the Orthodox system today.
Think of it this way: a person who insists that a beracha established by Chazal or who lives a lifestyle that openly endorses something the Torah calls an abomination cannot rightly call himself Orthodox.  Fine, that's understandable.  The person in question may be a decent human being full of good middos and with a honest heart and mind.  It doesn't matter because the positions are definitely un-Orthodox.
So why is it that someone who cheats, steals, commits physical violence, trades illegally in human organs and then like but outwardly wears the right outfit and speaks the right dialect of Yeshivish can still call himself Orthodox despite engaging in such un-Orthodox activites?

The Spiritual Cut

Generally when a person has to announce what percentage Jew they are it's pretty safe to assume they're going to follow up with a definition of Jewishness that flies in the face of the classic definition.  They'll then add some secular liberal terms to try and convince their listeners that their new definition is absolutely legitimate and conforms to "real" Jewish values. 
The latest area this seems to be happening in is circumcision.  Not that this is much of a surprise, mind you.  We already have Jews who don't see a problem with not observing Shabbos, or eating bread on Pesach while insisting they are great Jews with no need for improvement except in areas like environmental awareness and recycling.  Yet it seems more emtional when circumcision is attacked by Jews.  After all, the Midrash tells us that any mitzvah Jews have kept despite oppression is beloved by them and the fact that until recently circumcision was practised nearly universally amongst our brethern, even those with a minimal connection to our eternal faith, was proof of this. 
Now, it seems, western liberal enlightment and religious revisionism has caught up with this sacred practice.  As this piece from The National Post notes (like I needed to see this at breakfast on Shabbos!!), circumcision is now being questioned by increasing numbers of Jews who are simultaneously redefining Judaism so that their refusal to bring their sons into the covenant of Avraham Avinu, a"h, is of no consequence:
Rebecca Wald is “100% Jewish.” She celebrates the high holidays, her children attend Hebrew school, she lights candles on the sabbath and she was married to a “100% Jewish” man under a chuppah at a traditional Jewish wedding.

But unlike most Jews, from the most secular to the ultra-orthodox, she did not circumcise her son. She has never attended — will never attend — a bris, the age-old ceremony where a Jew trained in circumcision (a ‘mohel’) removes the foreskin of an eight-day-old Jewish boy as a sign of his covenant with God.
“All of the babies I saw growing up — whether cousins or the kids I babysat — were circumcised, and it seemed like that was the way things were supposed to be,” said Ms. Wald, who in December launched Beyond the Bris, a website for Jews who question circumcision. “It took having a son, who is intact, for me to really accept how normal [the uncircumcised penis] is.”
The South Florida mom is among a growing and vocal minority of Jewish “intactivists” who are challenging the 4,000-year-old ritual because, they say, the procedure inflicts unnecessary pain without any health gains, causes long-term psychological harm, hinders sexual function and pleasure, and strikes at the core of consent. They say there are Jewish women who silently pray they will not bear a son, and that the question, ‘When’s the bris?’ is too presumptive.
Ms. Wald has not yet told her young son about her decision — she did not want to disclose his age. “Like many Jewish parents of intact sons, we’re not thrilled to publicly discuss the status of our own children’s sex organs,” she said — but said she assumes he will “at some point” learn about it.
“I imagine he’s going to be thankful that we spared him from this mutilation,” said Ms. Wald, adding that had she been born a boy, her “forward-thinking” parents would not have circumcised her.
What strikes me most of all from this article is the absolute selfishness of the parents who are refusing to do what any Jew should without hesitation.  They hide it with self-righteous platitudes but at the core this is selfishness.
What favour is Ms. Wald doing her son?  She must assume that he will want to remain non-religious all his life, that like her his connection with Judaism will be limited to a piece of matzah on Pesach and some latkes on Purim... wait - Channukah.  The idea that he might one day meet a religious Jew and be inspired to take up the practices of our nation, or that a visit to Israel might return him to the Torah community, simply does not occur to her.  In fact I would wager that she would be offended by such a life choice were her son to make it. 
But imagine that the unimaginable happens and this boy starts to become frum.  Then one day it comes out.  Someone mentions the famous Rashi from the story of the rape of Dinah, the one where the brothers insist the people of Shechem circumcize themselves because a foreskin is a disgrace to a Jew.  Perhaps it'll be after he's developed a relationship with a religious girl and the story of how his parents were "intactivists" comes out.  Suddenly he'll ask the question and the difficult answer will come: Boychik, you've gotta get circumcised.
Certainly there is no arguing with the enemies of circumcision.  Point out the growing body of medical literature showing health benefits and they say "Feh!" much like global warmers do when confronted with evidence that the Earth isn't actually getting warmer.  Far better to condescendingly dismiss opposition when you don't have the right comeback.  But all this does is expose their ignorance of Judaism:
They say neither they nor their sons are any less connected to God — or any less Jewish — than Jews who choose to circumcise.
“If the Jewish identity comes down to whether or not you have a piece of skin on your penis, then that’s a very sad thing for the Jewish people,” Ms. Wald said, pointing out that a child is Jewish if he or she is born to a Jewish mother.
“There are no religious consequences of not being circumcised — the boy could still have a bar mitzvah, for example,” echoed Eli Ungar-Sargon, the Jewish filmmaker whose tour starts in Los Angeles in September, with stops in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver in October. “The consequences are imagined and invented. They’re not actual.”
First of all, much to Ms. Wald's disappointment, her sons are less connected to God and are less Jewish.  Sorry but that's the way it is.  Yes, it seems strange that a man dressed in a black suit and hat who cheats, steals and adulters is a member in better standing than a decent man with a foreskin but good intentions alone do not a Jew make.  Without the circumcision the Jew is on the outside.  It is not a sad thing but a statement about our most precious beliefs, something we have been willing to die for over the millenia.
If Judaism was a religion that was limited to simply rituals with no deeper spiritual significance these ignoramuses might be right.  Judaism knows of spirituality deep enough to allow us to connect to the Master of the Universe.  Everything we do, even those seemingly physical routines, create a spiritual effect for good or bad that reverberates all the way to the highest level of Heaven.  The consequences are not imagined or invented, they are quite real for those whose spiritual antennae have not been dulled by too much fresh bacon at Saturday morning breakfast on the way to the mall. 
There is no other way to see this than to declare that these people are removed themselves from the Jewish nation and fooling themselves when they say otherwise.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Driving A Car Without Wheels

Imagine going shopping for a car and getting a great on one.  In fact, the dealer sold you a new model with all the extras but in order to meet your budget he had to leave one accessory out: the wheels.
Yes, the car looks great sitting in your driveway.  The stereo system makes you feel like you're hearing the music live in concert.  The air conditioning soothes the feeling of the sun burning down on your head.  How jealous your neighbours are!
Until you actually have to use the car for the purpose it was intended and drive it somewhere.
Judaism without God is like a car without wheels.  It might look great, give one a basic sense of fulfillment and fill in a hole in one's sense of needing to have some kind of ethnic belonging but when it comes to serving the purpose it was created for, it takes its adherent nowhere.
Consider this article from, of all places, San Francisco:
For Sally Ann Berk, it feels like coming out of the closet.
No, not that closet. Berk is an atheist.
The Oakland resident is a married mother of a 13-year-old son who attends Oakland Hebrew Day School. But her worldview, while grounded in Jewish culture and ritual, does not include a deity. To state that publicly, she says, is “something people don’t really talk about, like it’s like something shameful.”
She feels no shame, and she is not alone. With its core principle of peoplehood and ancient embrace of “wrestling with God,” Judaism has long boasted a skeptical strain, just like Berk’s.
“A lot of people have doubts and questions,” she says. “That’s the nature of being Jewish. I get my spiritual fulfillment when I’m out in the woods.”
Like many times before, this article shows that such people have a completely fundamental ignorance of what Judaism is.  Something inside them, the famous pintele Yid perhaps, demands of their conscience that they forge a connection to the Jewish nation but their conscious mind, unwilling to consider that there may be something out there they don't know about and might have to learn and accept, remolds Judaism into their own image.  All the image, none of the substance.
Well, some of the image.  When it comes to the things Jews have done for millenia such as prayer and other attempts to rise above the self and connect to God, these folks don't seem to have an interest:
“I think a lot of people stop praying with a congregation because they can’t make the words mean anything in their lives,” says Cantor Ellen Dreskin of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, N.Y., who says she interprets the words in the prayerbook “metaphorically and poetically,” not literally.

In the Humanistic Judaism movement, prayers have been scrapped altogether. That movement, founded by the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, adopts many of the rituals of traditional Judaism but deletes the references to God.
Alana Shindler serves as head of the rituals and celebrations committee for Kol Hadash, a Humanistic congregation in the East Bay.
She and fellow congregants celebrate the Jewish holidays and Shabbat. All are welcome at their gatherings in the Albany Community Center — God being the possible exception.
“We take the prayer out of it and look at the meaning of the holiday,” Shindler says. “Most have a humanistic component. In Yom Kippur, the notion of repentance to those you have wronged, trying to be better than the year before, those are very humanistic. They have nothing to do with praying to some God writing something down in some book.”
Again, if you don't need God, what do you need any of the time-honoured holidays and rituals for?  After all, these only exist in Jewish culture because He commanded them in the first place.  The mention of Yom Kuppir is very telling.  Yom Kippur is not merely about salvaging relationships with your fellow.  You can do that any day of the year.  Can a humanist seriously think of telling someone he's wronged: "Hey I'd apologize to you today but can you wait until next Tuesday?  It's Yom Kippur."?
Some of this is the fault of the Orthodox community.  In our zeal to force chumros down people's throats we have changed God from a loving, universal father interested in our spiritual growth into the distant, menacing CEO who sees no one from lower down in the company ranks and is only interested in punishing the faithful despite their best efforts.  Is it any wonder that people choose not to believe in such an awful figure?
One of the burders of Orthodoxy is to move away from a punitive model based on fear and conformance.  If people see yirei Shamayim who worship out of love, not concern about what the neighbours will think, perhaps some will be convinced that there is truly a God in Heaven who cares about us.  But the seachange necessary for that kind of approach is not a simple thing to achieve.

The Hypocrisy of the Left

As I frequently note, Chazal have opined that hatred disrupts normal protocol.  The classic example is Bilaam HaRasha who was so eager to curse our ancestors that he saddled his own donkey even though he was a rich man and had plenty of servants to do it for it.
The current classic example seems to be the liberal left in the West.  It's the only explanation for the following:
The liberal left believes in democracy, equality for all under the law, protection for minorities, women and homosexuals
Israel is the only country in the Middle East that is a democracy, offers equality for all its citizens under the law and has legal protections for minorities, women and homosexuals.
Therefore the liberal left hates Israel.
Yes, they cloak their hatred in high sounding statements of righteous concern but the bottom line, as Robert Fulford brilliantly points out in this column from The National Post is that they are nothing but Jew-hating hypocrites:
In the five months since the demonstrations began, the government has killed about 2,000 citizens. The official view is that the state is saving Syria from vicious gangs of criminals. State television reports that events are proceeding as they should.

Even Saudi Arabia and the Arab League have criticized Assad’s use of force. Barack Obama wants him to resign. So far, however, he remains committed to the homicidal style that kept his father’s Baath government in office for 29 years.
Last Saturday about 40 people with anti-Assad banners held a peaceful demonstration outside the embassy of Syria in Ottawa. They all appeared to be Syrians, according to the Ottawa Citizen reporter. They were talking about the monstrous government that’s ruling their homeland and the attempts by pro-Assad operatives in Canada to intimidate them.
But on that occasion, where were all the Canadian-born experts on the Middle East, those vociferous and self-righteous moralists, who come out of the woodwork every time Israel appears to be in violation of some UN resolution or strikes back against an outrage like the killing of the bus passengers on Thursday near Eilat?
Where, during the Syrian protest, were the massed student armies from York University and Concordia and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education? Where were the legions of academics and trade unionists who are always ready to declare what policy should be followed by the wise and the virtuous? Where, for that matter, were Dykes and Trans People for Palestine, who make such a great noise in Toronto and whose website proudly declares they support everyone’s rights?
It happens that the answers to these rhetorical questions are the same in each case: They were all at work on their next Israeli Apartheid campaign. The truth is that leftish Canadians have only one interest in the Middle East, the struggle between Palestinians and Israelis. That appears to be their entire foreign policy. They insist they are not prejudiced; they are devoted to human rights, nothing more.
But when they consider the world beyond Canada, and choose which cause deserves their energy, they usually select the Palestinians. Their chronically narrow focus on a single conflict is self-blinding. It produces a weird aberration of opinion.
When conflict appears elsewhere on the planet, whether it’s in Tibet or Sudan or Syria, our left-wing morality police go limp. They exhibit passion on one issue only. How can they be taken seriously?
As Fulford notes in a different column from a few weeks back, the Jew-hatred that characterizes these so-called enlightened groups is not limited to gentiles:
Among the multitude of insults that float around my world, there’s one I always find disturbing and a little mystifying: “Self-hating Jew.”
It’s been in the air for decades, but now appears more often than in the past. It shows up in letters from my readers and in casual conversations. On the Internet, we can find Steven Spielberg and Hannah Arendt, Jon Stewart and George Soros, all described as self-hating Jews, for various reasons. It was applied to the late Tony Judt, an otherwise much-admired historian, after he became a critic of Israeli policy. It occurs most often in discussions of Israel, but the term is at least a generation older than Israel itself.
The definition varies with the people using it, but generally it means a Jew who holds anti-Semitic beliefs or supports anti-Semitic causes (though many Jewish critics of Israel will argue that they are its best friends, urging it toward a higher moral position)...
Now there really is no such thing as a self-hating Jew.  These folks love themselves a great deal.  Its their fellow Jews who still take pride in their Jewishness and refuse to play the eternal suffering martyr that they despise.  They are, as I have labelled them before, Jew-hating-Jews and their hypocrisy is an affront to intelligent folks everywhere.
All this is, of course, a terrible shame.  There is no flotilla to save the citizens of Syria from their despotic rules.  As Egypt slides back into the same old military dictatorship it was before the Tahrir Square protests, none of these modern day flower children seem to care.  No one is calling for a boycott of Saudi Arabia which beheads homosexuals whenever given the chance.  It's only about Israel.
The real sickness of all this is seen when these dictators are given a bye.  Innocent people who want to live with freedom and dignity are killed with impunity because the liberal left is too busy worrying about wait times at Israeli roadblocks.  That is the most pathetic aspect of them.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Go Sit With The Women!

The classic definition of a chosid shoteh in the Gemara is the guy who sees a woman drowning in a nearby body of water but refuses to rescue her because he doesn't want to transgress the prohibition regarding negiah.
It seems that nowadays the definition could easily be updated and by those who consider themselves God's most pious and authentic servants:

An IDF officer who boarded a bus in Bnei Brak on Monday claims he and two other soldiers were humiliated by ultra-Orthodox passengers and an Egged bus comany employee, who ordered them to give up their seats for "real Jews," Yedioth Ahronoth reported.
The reserve officer, 26, boarded bus number 981 to Safed on his way to his military base."The moment I got on the bus, the driver told me that I will have to stand because the seats are reserved," he said. He noted that he was surprised because he found no such information when he looked up the line on Egged's website.As the officer, who met two other soldiers aboard the bus, sat down in an empty row, people began complaining that he was taking other passengers' seats.
 "Why are soldiers, who do not pay, allowed to ride the bus?" the passengers yelled as the officer tried to ignore the complaints.
According to the officer, an Egged inspector then arrived and yelled at him and the other soldiers to "get up and let real Jews sit." They refused.
As the bus set out on its way, a few seats remained empty.
 "As someone who served in the army for five years, and continues to serve in the reserve forces, I was appalled and ashamed," the officer said.
Egged said in a statement that the particular bus was part of a pilot program for ultra-Orthodox passengers travelling to holy sites in the north. As part of the program, passengers were allowed to reserve seats.
The Michtav MiEliyahu, volume 3, notes that hakaras hatov is such a quintessentially Jewish value that proper worship of God cannot proceed without it.  We are told by Chazal that the three main characteristics of the Jewish people are that they are rachmanim, bayshanim and gomlei chasadim.  
Now, let's review what Jewish soliders in the Israeli army do.  They spend 3 years of their life or more defending the borders of Israel from attack not just from hostile armies but from terrorist attacks, suicide bombers and all other manner of attempt to kill Jews.  Not Israelis, mind you because Arabs with Israeli citizenship are not the target of our enemies.  Just Jews.  The kiddush HaShem these folks do on a daily basis to preserve Jewish lives is incalculable and may God reward them justly.
But not these folks on the bus!  Even as they proceed on a trip to show how holy they are, how desperately they wish to commune with God at specific places (even though God is everywhere?) because of the high level of piety they are on, they make it a principle of their faith to show no hakaras hatov.  Give a seat to a soldier who is involved in protecting them?  Why, that would cause them to fulfill all three of the main characteristics listed above and they have no time for that.  Any effort to act properly in matters of bein adam l'chaveiro would take away from their bein adam l'makom efforts and that is a yeridah in ruchniyos that they couldn't tolerate.
For all we criticize those on the left who pick and choose, it's important to note that these folks on the bus are just as guilty and their picking and choosing is far worse because of the chilul HaShem it causes.

Thursday 11 August 2011

Still Not Getting It

In my last post I talked about the various levels of "evidence" (for lack of a better word) within Orthodoxy for various practices we have.  I noted that the YCT crowd is very good about changing Orthodox practices when they fit into the "soft evidence" category by using the "Pick a Posek" method in which a lone decisor or two are chosen as the basis of a deviant minhag despite the rest of the poskim being against it.
Now, on the whole, "Pick a Posek" is used by many segments within the Orthodox world whether or not we realize it.  One large example will suffice.  Lubavitchers strictly follow the psak of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav written by their Alter Rebbe.  On a particular issue 100% of orther decisors might hold something is permitted but if the Alter Rebbe wrote that it wasn't they would treat it as forbidden.
There is a huge difference, however, between Lubavitch's dedicated following of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav and the YCT method.  Come hell or high water, Lubavitchers will go with the psak of the Alter rebbe no matter how inconvenient the final psak might be.  The YCT crowd, on the other hand, demonstrates no such consistency.  If the Rosh permits issue "A" but forbids issue "B" then they will hold like the Rosh on "A" and find someone else to justify their permitting "B".  This, they will tell you, is real halachic methodology.
An example of a YCT crewmember who just doesn't get it is Rav Yosef Kanefsky.  Now, I don't mean to pick on the guy so much but he keeps providing the material.  In this particular post he once again attacks another practice in Orthodoxy backed by "soft evidence", ie. this is just the way we do it even though the codes might say there are more options:
Halacha, as our community practices it, excludes women from a variety of public ritual roles. But reading the ketuba happens not to be one of them. Rabbis who have written in opposition to women reading the ketuba invariably open their arguments by acknowledging precisely this point. As one scholarly detractor has written, “If one judges the issue from the perspective of the laws of the marriage ceremony, there’s nothing wrong … The marriage would be one hundred percent valid”. Yet, he and many others would have said “no” in this case.
On what grounds? For one scholar, a woman reading the ketuba violates the laws of personal modesty. But is the reading of a ketuba less modest than teaching a class, or addressing a professional gathering? The latter are activities in which perfectly modest women engage in regularly today. For another scholar the issue is not modesty, but tradition. “Tradition possesses its own power, and why should we deviate from tradition for no purpose?”. But why would anyone assume that a particular women is being chosen to read the ketuba “for no purpose”? Have you ever been at a wedding and thought to yourself that the man who is reading the ketuba was chosen by the couple “for no purpose”?
But it is actually a third objection to a women reading the ketuba that seems to have the most currency. Put forward by numerous rabbinic writers in a variety of contexts, it declares that whenever Orthodox women perform ritual practices that are traditionally associated with men, their motivation is invariably subversive. Women who read a ketuba (or who recite Kiddush or HaMotzi at the Shabbat table, or who take a lulav, or who wear a tallit when they daven) are invariably engaged in an act of religious disobedience, cynically utilizing religious practice as a means of expressing their rebellion against perceived unfairness or injustice in Orthodox life. Thus, not only do their acts lack religious value, they actually constitute sin.
How passionate!  Rabbi Kanefsky, in the spirit of modern secular liberalism, appeals to "fairness" and "justice".  How can a reasonable person resist such arguments?
And then he once again shows he simply does not understand Orthodoxy despite all the learning he's done:
 Is there any lack of fully egalitarian Jewish movements that are open to women who want out of Orthodoxy or out of Halacha? Surely not. But these women have not bolted Orthodoxy. They are engaged in a campaign of religious disobedience?? Are Orthodox women who read ketubot, recite Kiddush and lain in women’s tefilla groups not observing Kashrut? Or Shabbat? Or the laws of Niddah?
Right, so as long as you keep the big three the rest are negotiable.  It's interesting that all the examples that Rabbi Kanefsky brings are those relying of "soft evidence".  This is just what we do.  As I've noted before, the Gemara itself deals with a situation in which Tannaim in a new location practice a leniency that the locals forbid.  When they protest that what they are doing is fine the response is "Lo ra'inu k'zeh" and the objection stands.  If we don't do a certain thing or consider acceptable then a lack of written psak forbidding the practice is not an acceptable reason to permit it.  As Rav Herschel Schechter eloquently notes:
Sometimes the halacha requires of us to act in a public fashion (b'farhesia), as for example to have tfilah b'tzibur, krias haTorah b'tzibur, etc. On these occasions the halacha distinguishes between men and women. We only require and demand of the men that they compromise on their tznius and observe certain mitzvos in a farhesia (public) fashion. We do not require this of women. They may maintain their middas hahistatrus, just as Hashem (most of the time) is a Kel Mistater (Yeshaya 45:15). Of course, if there are no men in the shul who are able to lein and get the aliyos, we will have no choice but to call upon a woman, and require of her to compromise on her privacy and lein, to enable the minyan to fulfill their obligation of krias haTorah. If there is a shul where a woman gets an aliyah, this is an indication that there was no man who was able to lein, and this is an embarrassment to that minyan. This is what the rabbis meant when they said that a woman should not lein - for this would constitute an embarrassment to the minyan.(Megillah 23a.)

And the same is true regarding a woman reading the kesuba in public at a chasuna. Of course the kiddushin will not be affected in the slightest! An animal can also read the kesuba without affecting the kiddushin! The truth of the matter is that no one has to read the kesuba! We have a centuries-old custom to create the hefsek through the reading of the kesuba. Because we plan to satisfy the view of the Rambam that the kesuba must be handed over to the kallah before the nissuin [2], the rishonim thought that we may as well read that kesuba which we're just about to hand over. But nonetheless it is a violation of kvod hatzibur to have a woman surrender her privacy to read the kesuba in public. Were there no men present who were able to read this Aramaic document?
Many of the folks who push this kind of approach have developed a "I want to eat my cake and have it too" approach to Judaism.  They'll be local Orthodox followers as long as none of their secular liberal values are compromised.  Now, there is nothing wrong with many secular liberal values and again, as the Gemara has noted, when goyim develop laudatory practices (like using cutlery, treating people politely, and using toilet paper) it is acceptable to admire them and even use them.  But the first and only litmus test is: does this practice contradict halacha, not the opposite which seems to be the guiding rule for this new philosophy: Open Orthopraxy.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

A New Name For The Movement

Years ago Rabbi Avi Weiss published a long article on his new religious philosophy (in a Conservative journal of all places, I guess the Yated turned him down?) called "Open Orthodoxy".  Since that time the term has been applied to the form of Judaism taught at and practised by YCT graduates and their colleagues.  However, despite the word "Orthodox" it has become quite clear over the last few years that the emphasis is more on Open than on a faithful adherence to Jewish tradition.
Now, there are different levels of evidence for various Jewish practices.  Some have "hard" evidence.  For example, not eating pork or two males engaging in anal intercourse.  It's pretty hard to argue with what is written in black and white in the Torah and to justify contrary behaviours is basically an admission that the Torah is not authoritative in one's life but just a book of stories and potential suggestions on behaviour.  The Reformers, witht their nearly free-for-all approach to Judaism exemplify those who reject all normative Jewish practices including those with hard evidence.
The next level is "pretty hard evidence".  This is the Oral Law which is not part of the Written Torah but brought to us in its present form by the Sages of the Talmud.  For Orthodox Jews this is as much an authority as the Written Torah but for those outside that community the Talmud holds somewhat less authority.  This is typical of the Conservatives who, until recently, were loathe to contradict the Written Torah but were quite happy to dismiss any rules the Gemara might have propounded as being out of date or too inconvenient to observe.
Then there's the "medium evidence" level which consists of the Shulchan Aruch along with the other Rishonim and Acharonim.  Again, for the Orthodox community this level is completely authoritative and comes with complex rules as to how to understand what the psak is in any given case.  Outside the Orthodox community there is no authority given to this level at all.  Tell a non-Orthodox Jew that something is forbidden because the Chasam Sofer said it is and his opinion is accepted as normative and he's likely to stare blankly at you.
Finally there's what I call the level of "soft evidence".  This is the trickiest to deal with because, as opposed to the other three levels for which written materials can be found, there is little to back up practices in this category.  A quick example: the very first paragraph in Yorah Deah states that women can shecht animals for kosher consumption.  However, you'd be hard pressed to find a woman shochet today and, in fact, most reuptable kashrus organizations would never hire a woman to do the job.  Various reasons are brought by the poskim but the bottom line is that women simply don't shecht.
Another example would be women wearing tzitzis or t'fillin.  Again, the legal codes have no problem with a woman putting on either but it is simply not done today and a woman who insists on doing either is crossing a line.
The problem with the "soft" evidence is that anyone can stand up and say "Well it doesn't say anywhere that it's not allowed" or "Well I can show you where it says it is allowed!"  The person saying that would be perfectly correctly from a strictly legal point of view but from a more holistic halachic viewpoint they would be wrong.  If something is not done according to the standards of a group or community then it is not done.
One of the failings of Open Orthodoxy is that it seems not to understand the level of soft evidence.  Indeed, in its zeal to mutate Orthodox practice into something more acceptable to secular liberal standards it seems determined to assault all those practices with soft evidence it finds objectionable on the grounds that "it doesn't say anywhere that this isn't allowed".
Thus a few years ago Rabbi Asher Lopatin announced on his blog that he was changing the morning blessings said in his synagogue to the Conservative versions.  (He recently recycled many of his arguments here and then decided to go with a hashkafic basis to his position instead) Instead of negative "that thou hast not made me" he was promoting the "that thou hast made me".  In that way he saw a more positive expression of gratitude to God and also eliminated the blessing about not making me a woman which has always been a tricky one for those who call themselves Orthodox but wish to be seen by society as enlightened and modern.
At that time I reviewed his arguments and showed how they were all, to the last, based on a selective reading of some poskim or simply based on ignorance as to why the blessings were formulated as they were.  Instead of reflecting deep spiritual concepts as described in the Gemara, they were adjusted to satisfy a liberal guilt at not fitting in well with the amoral egalitarian society around us.
A few days ago Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky went down the same track and then went even further, declaring that the blessing about not being a woman was actually a chilul HaShem in this day and age.  In a piece called "Adieu To 'For Thou Hast Not Made Me a Woman" Rabbi Kanefsky approached the subject, declared his unending distaste for the blessing and then triumphantly announced that he would no longer say it.
Over at Cross Currents Rav Dov Fischer deals decisively and eloquently with the degree to which Rabbi Kanefsky is, far from taking a bold new "Orthodox" position is actually attacking it wholeheartedly and showing great contempt for it.
Such was the storm over the piece that his blog actually pulled the post and replaced it with this to clarify his position.  In the new post he clearly demonstrates Open Orthodoxy's method of decision making, one I call "Pick a Posek".  For example:
We are familiar from our siddur with the blessing “For You have not made me a non-Jew”. In our printed versions of the Talmud however, (see Menachot 43b) the blessing appears not in the negative formulation, rather in the positive language “for You have made me an Israelite” (שעשאני ישראל). While the majority of Talmudic commentaries and Codes nonetheless maintained that the correct version is the one we have in our siddur, two prominent Sages demurred. Both Rosh (Brachot 9:24) and the Vilna Gaon prescribe the recitation of “for You have made me an Israelite” , in accordance with our version of the Talmud.
As I noted when commenting on Rabbi Lopatin's piece, the attribution to the Vilna Gaon is incorrect.  He simply states that he'd seen prayer books with the blessing in that forumaltion, not that he was endorsing it.  No matter, what if he was?  The accepted halacha as demonstrated in pretty much every proper siddur today is "that thou hast not made me a woman".  Is Rabbi Kanefsky suggesting we are allowed to customize our prayer books to fit our personal sensitivities as long as some posek, somewhere, has said it's okay?
 Bach (O.C 46) , while aligning himself with the majority position, rules that if in error you said “for You have made me an Israelite”, then you should OMIT THE TWO BLESSING THAT FOLLOW, including “for You have not made me a woman”.
Again, how is this any proof?  Is Rabbi Kanefsky trying to pasken a l'hatchilahi from a b'dieved?
And his justification for misusing the halachic system in such a blatant fashion?
As I wrote in my original post, I believe fervently that Orthodoxy has yet to grapple fully or satisfactorily with the dignity of womankind.
He "believes".  He "feels".  He "thinks".  He "opines".  All various ways these types of thinkers justify the inner voice saturated by non-Torah viewpoints that feel more instinctively morally comfortable to demand that Judaism change.  Is there a problem with how Orthodoxy treated womenkind (as if they're a separate species from mankind?)?
The answer requires a subtletly that rabbi Kanefsky perhaps lacks.  Orthodoxy does a great many things to accomodate the dignity of women.  Many Orthodox Jews might not, having perverted Orthodoxy in the exact opposite direction from Rabbi Kanefsky and shamefully too many examples of frummer-than-thou types behaving badly towards women grace the news services on a regular basis but there is the messenger and then there is the message.  Rabbi Kanefsky seems not to recognize the difference.  Again, in some of his final statements:
 Our society has accordingly decided to treat both genders with equal dignity, and has opened all professional, political and communal endeavors to both genders equally. I believe that our community however, falls short of this goal in many ways. We are, of course, committed to operating within the framework and rules of halacha. But it is not hard to construct a halachik universe in which women’s physical space in shul and intellectual space in day schools and Study Halls are not lesser, but equal.
This betrays a complete lack of understanding of what Judaism is.  Judaism does not encourage equality between the sexes while noting that inequality does not imply a "superior vs inferior" relationship.  To try and create a model in which equality is emphasized is therefore not Judaism but an unreasonable facsimile of it.  It is, in short, what Conservativism sometimes pretends to be but more openly and blatantly.
It is time for Rabbis Kanefsky, Lopatin et al to realize they have become non-Orthodox in their thinking and beliefs even if they remain nominally Orthodox in their daily practice.  Perhaps it is also time to rename their philosophy.  I would suggest: Open Orthopraxy.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Human Failings

In the last century Western governments have been modeled on one of two major economic paradigms: capitalism and socialism.  Reading the financial pages these days it seems both systems have entered a stage of failure, albeit for different reasons.
As the European Union is discovered, socialism is a lost cause because most people are, at heart, selfish.  While the Communist Manifesto declared that the ideal society would be based on "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" the average person in the West seems to function on a maladaptive version of this credo: "From each as little as he can get away with, to each as much as he can grab".  As the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Green, Spain) are discovering, much to the dismay of the Germans for whom a hard day's work is still a virtue, you cannot indefinitely run a society where no one pays taxes but everyone expects a shortened work week and a generous tray of social services.
As the United States is slowly but surely discovering, unfettered capitalism is failing for a different reason: most people are also, at heart, greedy.  Given a choice between a fast buck and doing right by society at large, they will grab the fast buck and hide behind the doors of their mansion hoping that the consequences of their actions remain out there in someone else's neighbourhood.  "I want" trumps "We need" every time.  As the Americans are discovering, a society where the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor is constantly growing will eventually result in financial turmoil that even the very wealthy cannot avoid.
In a reminder that not everything in Israel is connected to the so-called peace process we are now seeing the result of the mismanagement of both types of systems.  Remember that until the early 1990's Israel had a very centralized, socialist economy.  Dominated by huge unions who claims fealty to the false god of minimal productivity, the society management to stumble along surviving on the need to do something to prevent the enemy across the border from invading and the leftover remnants of the once-proud Zionist work ethic.
In the mid 1990's Israel shifted from a socialist command economy to a free-wheeling capitalist version and, like the Russians around the same time, did it far too quickly and without any checks and balances on who would benefit.  The result is a society in which a vanishingly small percentage of the population (some estimate it at a dozen families or so) hold the vast majority of wealth in the country and see the rest of society as a money-soaked sponge that needs a good squeezing so they can increase their fortunes even more.  The poor are getting poorer and now even the middle-class is getting shoved down by the high cost of living.  Hence the huge protests that are rumbling through society.
Let us be clear: this mess is not the sole fault of the current government.  Blame must be shared by pretty much every government that Israel has had since 1948.  Unfortunately, Ben Gurion and friends are not likely to emerge from their graves to help out any time soon which means this all falls on poor Bibi Netanyahu's shoulders.  One must feel sorry for the guy.  A few months ago he was basking in record approval ratings following his much-needed dressing down of BH Obama, the president who would be philosopher king.
Now he's in the tank as Israelis recall that in the absence of any progress on the so-called peace talks there are lots of other economic issues they're getting screwed by and which the government is doing nothing about.
I'm sure Bibi would like to make things better for the vast majority of Israelis.  Only a hated-filled moron would believe otherwise (and Israel has no small surfeit of those).  However at the same time his party and next election campaign will be fueled by money from those families who are quite content with how the situation is right now (as long as the police keep the rowdies away from their lawns and country clubs).  How to balance the two?
The danger in situations like this is that a new political movement will be formed that will reach out to the two awful middos detailed above.  It will be a party that caters to the feelings of greed that people without wealth feel when they see their aristocratic comrades driving around in their fancy cars.  It will also cater to people's selfishness, insisting that they are right to demand the moon without having to pay for it.
One can only hope that Netanyahu can start to make some sense out of this mess and that the protesters will move beyond petty slogans and work with him to make positive changes in Israel.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

The Best Is Back!

In a world where competition between computers means Windows vs Mac with a tiny but savvy minority using Linux it's hard to remember that back in the early 1980's when home computers were just coming out the competition was between very different names.  Back then the spaces on our desks were reserved for very different machines.  Who remembers the Commodore Pet with its glowing green text on black screen and its interminably slow tape drive?  (And when I say tape drive I mean cassette tapes, not those new-fangled digital things)
Back in the day the two big competitors were the Apple IIe and the Commodore 64.  Together they held the majority of the market with a minority working off the Atari 400 or 800, or the TRS-80.  (The Macintosh also existed back then but it was a computer for the wealthy or very professional, not for the average teenage kid looking to play games on.  IBM also introduced DOS-based computers but who understood DOS?)  The Apple IIe had certain advantages, principally the speed with which it loaded games off its floppy disk drive.  However it also came standard with a green text/black background monitor unless you were prepared to shell out the big bucks for a colour screen.
The Commodore 64, on the other hand, was a truly amazing machine.  Yes the lumbering disk drive, which by itself was larger than many CPU's towers nowadays, was slower than molasses but this did have the advantage of allowing the user to go upstairs, prepare and eat lunch and then come downstairs again while the machine was loading the game.  And anyway, the Epyx FastLoad Cartridge got us around that.  What was more, it could be hooked up to a colour television which meant saving on the expense of a montor.  It also had the largest cachet of games and while the graphics might have been primitive compared to Apple IIe's more advanced card, they were still more than great enough to provide hours of enjoyment.  From Fort Apocalypse to Jumpman and beyond, the Commodore 64 rocked.  And all on a 1 MHz processor and 64K (not M, not G) of RAM.

And then suddenly one day everything changed.  The MacIntosh, now Mac, became far more ubiquitous.  Bill Gates's Microsoft appeared with a Mac ripoff called Windows 3.1 and then Windows 94.  PC's were cheap, powerful and connected to the Internet.  While the computer world evolved around it, Commodore continued to rely on its staple product.  There were spinoffs like the C-128 and the C-16 but they offered nothing new.  It was only when it was too late that it tried to branch out by introducing the Amiga which, while a great machine, was swept away by the new PC tide.
The great news is that the Commodore 64 is back!
No, it's not the original but it seems to be the next best thing.  On the outside it looks almost completely likely the original, beloved CPU.  On the inside it has the guts of a modern computer along with the requisite DVD player, memory card slots and USB ports on the sides.  One can boot up into the native OS or an original C-64 emulator.  The nostalgia!  The joy!
At this time I'm still not ready to purchase.  A careful reading of the site shows that while units are shipping, the eventual native operating system, the Commodore OS 1.0, is not yet ready.  The new C-64 is shipping with a relatively unknown Linux-based OS right now and apparently you could even install Windows 7 onto it if you want to.  Me, I'm going to wait until the new Commodore OS 1.0 is ready.
The only other question I have about the project is whether or not the C-64 emulator will be joystick compatible.  Having used other emulators in the past that relied on keyboards I couldn't quite get into the games the same way.  I'v e-mailed the company and will hopefully have an answer soon.
After generations of 3-D, on-line interactivity and all the other stuff that's come over the last few years, I hope that soon my desktop will be adorned with one of these and I can go back to enjoying the best games ever made for the home computer!