VAYERA, Genesis 18:1-22:24
Question: What is a Jew? Answer: Someone with a lot of chutzpah. What is chutzpah? I'm tempted to answer: How dare you ask?
Webster's Dictionary defines the word as insolence, others as impudence, still others as bravado. Sigmund Freud didn't actually define it, but he did allude to it by recording his "favorite Jewish joke" in one of his books. (Remember, for Freud, jokes were serious business.)
Here's a tale: A schnorrer grovels to a wealthy man, begging for money, and is given a considerable amount. The next day, this same man finds the schnorrer feasting on delicacies in the town's most extravagant bistro. When rebuked by his patron for prodigal behavior, the beggar replies, "You mean to tell me how to spend my money!?"
I'm not certain if Freud qualified such behavior as the workings of the "id" (that part of the psyche that is instinctual), but one might argue that the attitude is befitting of a "yid" (a Jew).
Let me explain. Two weeks ago, we encountered the birth of Abraham, last week we encountered the birth of Isaac, and this week, we encounter the birth of chutzpah. Abraham had the real chutzpah to care — and demand.
Recall Sodom and Gomorrah? Two corrupt, perverse cities slated for divine retribution. Abraham, in his first conversation with God, pleads for them. And after each concession, he dares to argue again. In fact, no less than six times does he go back to the negotiating table demanding more, which may make him the very first social activist.
He essentially argues, "God, how dare you act unjustly. Will the judge of the entire world act this way?"
In the words of our talmudic sages, Abraham displayed chutzpah k'lapei sha'mai'ya — "audacity toward the Heavens." The rabbis don't employ this expression pejoratively, but rather, as a compliment.
Chutzpah, when invoked ardently, continues the Talmud, m'hanei, "works." But for this chutzpah to be efficacious — or at least heard — it must be other-directed. It must be chutzpah for the "thou," and not just for the "I."
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes about another great Jewish leader displaying chutzpah.
When Moses beseeched God to allow him to enter the Land of Israel, he was shut down. His argument wasn't heard. Why so?
The midrash suggests that Moses prayed 515 prayers upon ascending to leadership. He was answered each time — except for this last request — because it was only for him and about him. Chutzpah meant for others is altruism; for oneself, it's egoism.
A Definition, Please!
So what is Jewish chutzpah? Allow me to paraphrase the sentiments of Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, as they appeared in Judea Pearl's collection of personal essays, I Am Jewish.
Even though we're a people that's withstood perhaps the worst crime in all of human history, we've had the chutzpah to respond by reviving a land, culture and language; rescuing Jews the world over; rebuilding Jerusalem; and proving as courageous in the pursuit of peace as in the prosecution of war.
What is chutzpah? It means being an active member of a people that views human history as a sacred endeavor.
What is chutzpah? It means that we take seriously the name Israel, which means "to struggle with God and man, and to prevail."
What is chutzpah? It means that in the face of it all, we, the Jewish people, have never lost our sense of purpose, hope and humor.
Question: What is a Jew?
Answer: Someone with chutzpah.
May we then have the continuing chutzpah to build a rich, percolating and dynamic Jewish community together.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.