Chutzpah is a Hebrew word that has been adopted into Yiddish and then English. Chutzpah has been defined as audacity, insolence, impudence, gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible guts, presumption and arrogance. Yet something essential about chutzpah is missing from all these words.

Chutzpah can be destructive and ugly or vital and fantastic, but never in-between.

Chutzpah in Business and in Law

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 described 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. 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.

Chutzpah to Do Good

So what is chutzpah? Chutzpah is a kind of acosmic attitude, as though there’s nothing really there stopping you from doing whatever you want.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 only be real bad or 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.

Jews and Chutzpah

You couldn’t get more explicit than the words of the Midrash:

“There is no nation with more chutzpah than the Jews.” Rabbi Yizchak Ben Redifa said in the name of Rabbi Imi, “You think this is derogatory? It's actually nothing but praise! A Jew says, ‘Let me be a Jew or let me be crucified!’”1

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.

Great Leaders Have Great Chutzpah

Abraham had a lot of chutzpah. HeAbraham, Moses and David all had enormous chutzpah. 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.

Why We Need Chutzpah Today

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.