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What Is Chutzpah?

What Is Chutzpah?

And is it good or bad?

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Guy Kawasaki was Steve Jobs’s original marketing man—the guy who invented “corporate evangelism.” He started his career working in the Jewish-dominated New York garment industry. He defined chutzpah as “calling up tech support to report a bug on pirated software.” Guy believed chutzpah was a vital element in successful marketing, a key to Apple’s success.

Aside from marketing, the term “chutzpah” has been used 231 times in American legal opinions. Standard translations include audacity, insolence, impudence, gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible guts, presumption and arrogance. Judges need to be very precise in their terminology, so chalk that up as evidence that none of the above translations could be used to describe the attitude these judges were looking to describe. It’s a word that demands some cultural context.

So what is chutzpah? It’s a kind of acosmic attitude, as though there’s nothing really there stopping you from doing whatever you want.

That’s why chutzpah can be real bad and chutzpah can be real good. Bad chutzpah is something we all know about. But good chutzpah is one of the first rules of behavior cited in the Shulchan Aruch—the classic codification of Jewish Law. Citing the words of the Mishnah, “Be fierce as a leopard,” the code tells us that this means that when you go about doing all those Jewish things that Jews do, you shouldn’t feel the slightest embarrassment before those who ridicule you. You don’t have to call them names, you don’t have to react at all. Just keep on doing what you have to do as though they don’t exist.

Like I said, that’s at the very beginning of the book. The implication is that if you have no chutzpah inside of you, everything else in this book from this point on is going to be very shaky indeed.

So, to be a good Jew, you need two opposites: A sense of shame that prevents you from acting with chutzpah to do the wrong thing, and a sense of chutzpah that prevents you from being ashamed to do the right thing.

Abraham had a lot of chutzpah. He argued with G‑d over His plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

Moses had a lot of chutzpah. He, too, argued with G‑d to save His own people, even when they were undoubtedly in the wrong.

King David had enormous chutzpah. He couldn’t fathom how anyone could be afraid of a giant warrior who was deriding and embarrassing the Jewish nation.

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, had no sense of fear of anyone or anything other than G‑d Himself. Those who knew him said that if a lion would jump out at him, he wouldn’t flinch.

Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch defined the kind of chutzpah that the leaders of Chabad implemented in their fight against Czarist oppression, and later, Bolshevik anti-religious persecution: “Just go over it.” Meaning, no matter what they do, no matter how ominous it looks, just keep your locomotive steaming straight ahead as though there’s nothing in your way.

In our own times, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, several times insisted that we need that leopard’s fierceness and locomotive “just go over it” power when dealing with the world. For one thing, we need to walk right over the challenges that confront a Jew living his heritage in a secular world, pushing us from all sides to “just be like everyone else.” Yet aside from that, we also need the chutzpah to demand from G‑d the end of our exile and the long-awaited era of enlightenment, “the times of Moshiach.”

Yes, that’s chutzpah. But with all our people have been through in history, it’s a chutzpah to which we have a right.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
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Discussion (6)
February 20, 2012
I recently read a very funny joke about this.
What is chutzpah? An elderly Jewish woman sold kishkes on the street for 25 cents. Every day, the same man would come and give her 25 cents but not take any kishkes. For ten years, he did this every day. She never said a word. Then, one day, he came and gave her a quarter, and she spoke up. "The price has gone up to $1.25", she said. Now that is chutzpah!
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, CA, USA
September 2, 2011
I love that word!
It gives you the freedom to express yourself in many situations and it represents Jewish values. Like it says, it can be positive or negative depending how it is used. Positive way is daring to face challenges, enemies, competition or defending yourself against all odds and not giving up. Negative way is taking advantage of a situation or someone, being rude and inconsiderate. Chutzpah is what keeps us Jews going for thousand years, we dare to survive despite our enemies and that’s Chutzpah in a positive way unlike other people daring to exterminate human beings because of their religion, that’s negative Chutzpah.
Feigele
Boca Raton, Florida
August 31, 2011
What is Chutzpah? etc.
I was born into a Christian family and raised that way. I am very grateful for all the articles, such as this one, that are available to me. I am learning so much since I discovered your site several months ago. Thank you.
Vivian Scheffler Locklin
Troy, Mt, SA
August 31, 2011
chutzpah
As a recent olah to Israel I find it hard to think of good examples of chutzpah except for the obvious one of Jews returning to their homeland despite the tremendous obstacles faced and ones we continue to face. When I see some of the examples of bad chutzpah I try to remember that Israelis and Jews all over the world need to be stubborn to keep them going in the world that we live in today. Chabad helps Jews all over the world take pride in being Jewish.
Lynn from Rechovot
Rechovot, Israel
August 31, 2011
Awesome! INCREASE!
Wow. I identify so much with this one. Thank you so much!

(BTW, I read Kawasaki's The Macintosh Way, too. Great book! I just didn't realize that what Kawasaki said was already in the Shulchan Aruch - until you pointed it out!)
Chaim-Leib Halbert
Berkeley, CA
August 25, 2011
Omayn.
Omayn. Great article/response ! We should not forget Joseph who also displayed G-dly chutzpah when saying to the King of Egypt: It is not Me that shall reveal to you but the G-D of Heaven and Earth.
Can't wait to see Moshiach's humble chutzpah.
Anonymous
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