Chutzpah

The Yiddish word that means nerve...and a million other things.

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Chutzpah is arrogance, impudence; a Talmudic word that made its way into Yiddish from which it was adopted into American slang and has now entered the English language and is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as an English word. It comes from a root meaning 'to peel' and hence 'to be bare'; chutzpah means barefacedness, sheer cheek. The classical definition of chutzpah is given in the story of the boy who killed his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he was an orphan.

chutzpahChutzpah is seen on the whole as as undesirable trait. The Talmud, interpreting events in its own day in Messianic terms, observes that just before the advent of the Messiah chutzpah will be found in abundance--the young will show no respect to the old. In a later Talmudic source, when a boy was exceedingly disrespectful to venerable rabbis, the rabbis concluded that since he had so much chutzpah it was obvious that he was a bastard. In another Talmudic passage chutzpah is said to be royalty without a crown; it possesses regal power even though it has no regal backing and can prevail even against kings.

Yet, as in other cultures, there is often a grudging admiration for chutzpah in the Jewish tradition. The rabbis ironically remark that chutzpah seems to be effective even when directed against God Himself in the case of Balaam, who was at first told by God not to go on his mission to curse Israel, but when he persisted was told by God to carry on (Numbers 22: 12, 20). Chutzpah is particularly admired when it consists of standing up bravely against the powerful or when it is an expression of sheer determination to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. The many tales of the saints arguing with God on behalf of their people, with their basis in the story of Abraham bargaining with God on behalf of the men of Sodom (Genesis 18:22-32), have been seen as a kind of holy chutzpah.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.