June 11, 2024
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Few words in the Yiddish language can compete with the term “chutzpah.” In fact, it would be incredibly chutzpadik for other Yiddish words to even try to compete with the term “chutzpah.”

Strangely, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary offers a relatively positive definition of “chutzpah”: supreme self-confidence. That is like defining a “yenta” as supremely informed, a “nudnik” as supremely inquisitive and a “mashugana” as supremely unique.

Other dictionary definitions of “chutzpah” are less positive, such as “conspicuous or flagrant boldness.” This definition comes closer to the colloquial meaning of “chutzpah,” which often is associated with words like temerity, audacity and gall. Some legal scholars might argue that the test for “chutzpah” is like the United States Supreme Court’s test for obscenity, i.e., you know it when you see it (see, Jacobellis vs Ohio, 1964). For example, when you see an extremely garrulous congregant complaining about the length of the rabbi’s sermon, you know that it’s chutzpah.

The Supreme Court, on at least two occasions, has actually used the term “chutzpah” in its decisions. In 1998, Justice Antonin Scalia, in the case of National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) v. Finley, noted: “It takes a particularly high degree of chutzpah for the NEA to contradict this proposition, since the agency itself discriminates … in favor of artistic (as opposed to scientific or political or theological) expression.” The term “chutzpah” was used again by Justice Elena Kagan in her dissent in the 2011 case of Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett: “But the candidates bringing this challenge [instead claim] that Arizona violated their First Amendment rights by disbursing funds to other speakers even though they could have received (but chose to spurn) the same financial assistance. Some people might call that chutzpah.” In both cases, the Supreme Court was not using the term “chutzpah” to compliment the parties for their supreme self-confidence. It was chastising them for their audacity. Other examples of this usage of “chutzpah” might include chastising a (i) coal miner who complains about global warming, (ii) confectioner who complains about obesity and (iii) schlemiel who complains about a schmendrik.

The term “chutzpah” also has been used by a United States President. In December 2015, President Barack Obama sent out a Democratic Party fundraising email blasting Republicans for their ongoing efforts to defeat Obamacare: “You may not be able to point to a lot of legislative accomplishments with this group of Republicans in Congress, but you’ve gotta give these folks credit for their chutzpah.” In this case, the then-Commander in Chief was using the term “chutzpah” passive-aggressively and backhandedly. Similar usage of “chutzpah” might include an email giving “chutzpah” credit to a (i) butcher who complains about animal cruelty, (ii) summer camp director who complains about traffic on visiting day and (iii) Jewish parents who complain about guilt-tripping.

You will not find the word “chutzpah” in the Torah or Talmud but you will find the chutzpah concept. For example, the Talmud notes Bilaam’s chutzpah (impudence) in Parshat Balak: “Impudence is effective even toward Heaven. How so? Initially, it is written that Hashem said to Bilaam: ‘You shall not go with them,’ and ultimately after Bilaam persisted and asked, it is written: ‘Rise up and go with them.’ Rav Sheshet says: Impudence is monarchy without a crown, as it is an assertion of leadership and lacks only the official coronation as king…. ” (Sanhedrin 105a). It also could be said that sometimes chutzpah is confidence without self-awareness, as it is an expression of assertiveness and lacks only the social graces of a mensch.

The Talmud also uses the “chutzpah” (impudence) concept in explaining the lack of precipitation: “The rains are withheld only due to impudent people, as it is stated: ‘Therefore the showers have been withheld, and there has been no last rain, yet you had a harlot’s forehead, you refused to be ashamed.’” (Taanit 7b). Another example of such chutzpah (impudence) might include someone who has a klutz’s hands and refuses to be cautious.

The Talmud also uses the chutzpah (impudence) concept when providing a general description of the Jewish People: “The Gemara considers another aspect of the character of the Jewish people. It is taught in a baraita in the name of Rabbi Meir: For what reason was the Torah given to the Jewish people? It is because they are impudent, and Torah study will weaken and humble them.” (Beitzah 25b). An example of chutzpah (impudence) might include a shul president who seeks to amend the shul’s constitution so that only the president is honored at every shul dinner.

Final thought: What is the most chutzpadik organ in the human body? The “gall”bladder.

By Jon Kranz

 

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