In Search of Holy CHUTZpah

8 Oct

A typical dictionary definition of “chutzpah” might not provide its full array of meanings.

What exactly is chutzpah? Well, to answer that, I refer you the most recent season of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” in which he dedicates an entire episode to defining chutzpah. Actually, he dedicates the episode to defining the American pronunciation “CHUTZpah” and the Israeli pronunciation chutzPAH. CHUTZpah and chutzPAH are worlds apart and our problem is that we confuse the two. 

CHUTZpah generally implies audacity, creativity and grit. Chutzpah has deep Jewish roots. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein notes in his book The Chutzpah Imperative: Empowering Today’s Jews for a Life That Matters, “[T]he Talmud recognized that in every generation, there are certain human beings prepared to stand in the face of any power, even God, to champion life, demand justice, and appeal for compassion. These special souls are said to display ‘chutzpah even in the face of heaven—chutzpah afilu kelapei shemaya’”(See Sanhedrin 105a).

But then there’s chutzPAH. The Israeli-accented version is edgy and bitter. It refers to someone who is unencumbered by shame and has no care about anyone’s life or feelings. “Eizeh chutzpah!” “What chutzPAH! What shameless nerve!” is what an Israeli might say when one driver brazenly cuts off another on a highway. Of course, there is the well known American definition of chutzpah courtesy of Leo Rosten in which a man murders his parents and then at his trial for murder stands before the judge and pleads for mercy because he is now an orphan. Gladwell doesn’t mention that classic scene. It’s too confusing. The shameless murderer who is often cited to explain CHUTZpah is actually guilty of chutzPAH.

Throughout Jewish history our people have lionized CHUTZpah, creative audacity. We reject chutzPAH, shameless nerve and disregard for fellow human beings. In ancient Israel, the prophet played a special role in boldly promoting chutzpah in the face of rampant chutzPAH. The prophet did not wield armies like the monarch, nor control a treasury like the Temple priests. The prophet’s job description and power source were complex. Part oracle, part healer, part messenger, the prophet was endowed with a divine intimacy, able to convey God’s will and sometimes even talk back to God on behalf of the people. 

The prophets who lived during the monarchy drew upon the great prophetic models from the Torah.  Abraham sets the standard when he argues with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah for the sake of the righteous.  Later, Moses stands in the breach and saves the Israelites when God threatened to destroy them for the sin of the Golden Calf. Abraham had the chutzpah to stand up for the righteous; Moses went a step further and protected even the sinners from wanton destruction. And let’s not forget that the very name of our nation, Yisrael, means “wrestle with God,” as Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed.  

The prophet was the arbiter of the covenant between God and Israel. While Abraham and Moses challenge God’s commitment to the covenant, usually it’s the people who need reminders of the terms of the covenant. The prophet’s job is to call out corruption and lawlessness in the priesthood and monarchy because injustice is a breach of the covenant. 

In his 1962 book The Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that the prophet is an individual willing to say “no” to his society, “condemning its habits and assumptions . . . [and] complacency.” The prophet reminds Israel that “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The prophet stands on principle and refuses to be neutral in the face of evil even if it means, as is often the case, living a lonely and deeply unpopular life. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove sums up Heschel saying, “Essentially, the prophet is the voice of dissent.” (From Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, “Something to Say,” 9/7/19) Or, we might say, the voice of chutzpah. Dissent is CHUTZpah, bold action. And against what exactly is the prophet dissenting? ChutzPAH! The Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning is the perfect example of courageous chutzpah calling out the chutzPAH of wanton injustice.

In Isaiah chapter 58, the prophet, channeling the word of God says: 

4. Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.

5.? הֲכָזֶה יִֽהְיֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast, a day when ADONAI is favorable?

In other words, the people’s hypocritical behavior in fasting and beating their chests while at the same time abusing their neighbors is utter chutzPAH. 

The prophet continues: 

6. הֲל֣וֹא זֶה֮ צ֣וֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ֒ No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. 

7 הֲלוֹא פָרס לָֽרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home, when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh. 

It’s not that fasting and ritual behavior are bad. Rather the prophet insists that our ritual behavior be aligned with our ethical actions. When ritual behavior is out of sync with our ethical actions—when we fast and beat our chests on Yom Kippur but we ignore starvation, oppression and injustice in our midst, that is chutzPAH. That is the core message of the Biblical prophets.

The formal time of the prophets may have ended with the close of the Hebrew Bible more than 2000 years ago; however, the prophetic voice continued to be a vital part of the Jewish psyche. Prophetic chutzpah is not located in any one person, class, or generation. It is an essential attribute, part of the life-force of the Jewish people that has cajoled us and sustained us for generations. Rabbi Heschel himself did not just study the prophetic voice; he embodied it. He fought on behalf of civil rights and protested the Vietnam War. He taught the world through his words and deeds how to take a moral stand and refuse to let that era’s abuses become normalized. Heschel wrote: “Dissent is indigenous to Judaism.” (“Dissent,” in Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, p. 106). 

The struggle of CHUTZpah as dissent and creative audacity to prevail over chutzPAH, shameless disregard for decency and societal norms, is never easy. ChutzPAH is often quite vicious. I felt the force of its toxicity several weeks ago when the American President pressured the Israeli Prime Minister to prevent two US Congresswomen from entering Israel after which the President tweeted that any Jew who supports the Democratic party is disloyal. This rhetoric was blasphemous and divisive, not to mention utterly false. The incident epitomized chutzPAH. 

ChutzPAH barked at CHUTZpah and accused CHUTZpah of disloyalty. But what if we, as heirs to a long tradition of holy CHUTZpah, leaned in to that disloyalty? What if we reminded the world and ourselves that we have a proud history of disloyalty exemplified by the prophets? I worry sometimes that American Jews have lost our historic Jewish chutzpah of courageous audacity while destructive chutzPAH rages around us. 

Furthermore, let us not forget that America has its own proud tradition of dissent and chutzpah that has cried out against tyranny and oppression. It was rebellion that led to the birth of our nation. Dissenters demanded the abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, rights for Native Americans, for Latinos, for African Americans, reproductive rights, and gay rights. Martin Luther King said about his era: “History will . . . record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” In other words, when we are silent, we lack holy CHUTZpah, and the tyranny of shameless chutzPAH prevails. 

As Jews and as Americans, it is neither unpatriotic nor disloyal to voice dissent regarding our government or the government of Israel. Whether it concerns our family, our country, or the State of Israel, to voice dissent from a place of loving CHUTZpah is arguably the most Jewish, most loyal, most Zionist, and most important thing an American Jew can do.

In closing, Elie Wiesel taught “To be human is to doubt. The Hebrew word for ‘question,’ shelah, contains the word for ‘God,’ El. God is in the question.” (Ariel Burger, Witness, p. 100).  God is in the question. God is in the dissent. God is in our holy CHUTZpah. 

On this Yom Kippur, I invite us to seek atonement for any times in the last year when we were silent—when we neglected to muster the appropriate bold CHUTZpah to counter the domineering chutzPAH in our midst. On this Yom Kippur, let us lean in to the voice of the prophet. Let us challenge ourselves to hear the prophetic voice of our tradition and to be inspired to find our own prophetic voice. Let us be inspired to close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, and may we be blessed with abundant holy CHUTZpah.


(With appreciation for Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove’s sermon “Something to Say,” 9/7/19, from which some key content in this sermon is adapted.)

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