What is Chutzpah and Why Do Jews Have It?
Do you know the classic story of Chaim, who topples from a mountaintop and becomes ensnarled in a tree branch? Dangling above the abyss, he calls out, “Help! Help!”
A great voice from above booms out, “My son, do you have faith in me?”
“Yes. Oh, yes, God,” avers Chaim.
“Then let go of the branch,” bellows the voice.
“What did you say?”
“Let go of the branch,” repeats God.
A pause, then Chaim asks, “Is there anyone else up there?”
Joking about God takes a lot of chutzpah, a quality never in short supply among Jews. As the Yiddish saying goes, a Jew is 28 percent fear, 2 percent sugar, and 70 percent chutzpah.
For anyone unfamiliar with the term, it’s difficult to find an exact English translation for chutzpah, but among the contenders are audacity, insolence, impudence, gall, nerve, effrontery, guts, presumption, and/or arrogance. Guy Kawasaki, marketing manager for Steve Jobs, defined chutzpah as “calling up tech support to report a bug on pirated software.”
One classic chutzpah joke tells of a grandson playing on the beach when a huge wave sweeps him under. His horrified grandmother shrieks, “Oh God. I can’t bear to live without him. Send Hymie back to me.” The grandson miraculously washes upon land unharmed. Bubbe grabs him by the arm, brushes off the sand, looks to the sky, and yells, “He had a hat.”
Bubbe hails from a long line of chutzpadic Jews, starting with Abraham, who had the audacity to argue with God over plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.
Why have so many Jews continued in the chutzpadic tradition? One theory is grounded in the Jewish cultural make-up. According to social psychologist Ryan P. Brown, societies are either honor cultures or dignity cultures. Honor cultures require members to earn their reputation through acts or words. Dignity cultures, on the other hand, automatically extend respect to all societal members. Believing that all people are created in the image of God, Judaism fits the definition of a dignity culture.
According to this theory, members of dignity cultures imbibe inherent self-worth, resulting in a sense of entitlement and self-assuredness. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert calls it “the arrogance of belonging,” but rather than self-absorption or egotism, it’s “a good kind of arrogance.” Those possessing this quality exhibit sturdy assurance and confidence.
Others credit the ubiquity of Jewish chutzpah to the Jews’ possession of what sociologists call “human agency.” A fancy way of saying “Power to the People,” the term refers to the belief that an individual’s or a group’s action can improve a situation. Jews must “choose life” – in the broader sense, choose action over anguish.
As Swedish academic and philosophy lecturer Barbara Lerner Spectre explains, a core principle of Judaism is that the world does not have to be accepted as is. When weighted down with crushing burdens – situations all too familiar to Jews – tradition demands they keep going.
Clinging to hope over despair requires abundant heaps of optimism, another quality that Jews as a whole have never lacked. As Jewish thinker George Steiner sees it, “Jews have signed a pact with life.” When this optimism is compounded with confidence, the result is one chutzpadic crowd of Jews.
While in the individual arena this trait can sometimes be off-putting – “Who does she think she is, telling my daughter to be quiet?” – collectively chutzpah has been “good for the Jews” and I would add “good for humankind.”
Starting from this position of protest, Jews believe that people – not God – must act to address the wrongs of the world. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas L. Friedman sees it, God gives this very message to the first humans in the Garden of Eden. “From the first day of the world, God entrusted Adam to make the right decision about which fruit to eat. We are responsible for making God’s presence manifest by what we do.”
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner calls it “a theology of the ‘not yet’”: a demand that we see all that is wrong with the world and refuse to accept this status quo.
In short, Judaism demands that we act to bring about tikkun olam – healing, repairing, and transforming the world – beginning with the recognition that something needs changing, followed by a good dose of chutzpah.