Having a little bit of holy chutzpah can make a big difference

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Numbers 25:10-30:1

I Kings 18:46-19:21

“Chutzpah” is one of those wonderfully expressive Yiddish words that has made its way into the English language. Originally a Hebrew word meaning aud-acity or boldness, “The Joys of Yiddish” defines chutzpah as “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts.’ ”

Chutzpah can be used negatively, to describe the arrogance of over-stepping an appropriate boundary, or it can be used positively to express admiration for one’s gutsiness.

We all know that chutzpah is commonly used in pop culture, movies and literature, but chutzpah also has a spiritual meaning in the Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great Chassidic master, taught that azut d’kedushah, holy boldness, is necessary to be able to pray or study Torah because courage and daring are required for us to push through the barriers to draw closer to God. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach called it “holy chutzpah” when it takes a certain gutsiness to pursue the path of holiness, righteousness or love. And the holy chutzpah required of us in the civil rights movement was what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “spiritual audacity.”

Holy chutzpah is part of our Jewish inheritance, evident in our strong representation in activism and movements for social change throughout history. This tradition goes all the way back to the first Jew, our patriarch, Abraham, who had the chutzpah to argue with God and challenge God’s morality with regard to the destruction of the innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Holy chutzpah is key to the central narrative of the Torah, the Exodus, in which God instructs Moses to go boldly to Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites be freed from Egyptian slavery. And this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, tells a lesser known but equally extraordinary story of the textual origins of holy chutzpah.

After a census of the Israelite tribes in preparation for entering the Promised Land, God instructs that the land of Canaan will be apportioned according to those tribes, but apparently only to the males. Five sisters, the daughters of Zelophehad — Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah — step forward and come before Moses and the leadership at the Tent of Meeting. They explain, “Our father died in the wilderness … and has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he has no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Num 27:3-4)

Moses, in turn, brings their request to God, who replies, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just.” Not only does God give them their father’s land, but God amends the Torah’s law so that whenever a father dies without sons, his property will now be inherited by his daughter.

This episode may not seem so radical to us today, but viewed in its biblical context, this is perhaps the Torah’s most stunning example of holy chutzpah.

First, we have a group of disenfranchised young women, the least powerful members of the community, who dare to step forward and publicly demand greater equality before Moses, the chieftans, the high priest, and the whole assembly. Their language, like their action, is bold; they don’t ask politely, but, rather, they use the imperative, “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”

The Torah says they “came forward” — what courage it must have taken to leave their tents and their assigned place in the tribe to go to the center of the camp, to the place of male leadership and authority to demand justice.

Besides this demonstration of chutzpah, the second remarkable thing about this story is God’s response. Rather than balk at the audacity of the daughters’ demand, God agrees with their proposal and changes the Torah! This is the only time in the entire Torah in which one of God’s laws is proposed by people — and by young women, no less.

That this story appears in the Torah says something extraordinary about our tradition: that the possibility for change is built into the Torah itself and that the evolution of Torah law comes out of a Divine-human partnership.

Moreover, the daughters of Zelophehad offer us an important message: holy chutzpah can change the world.

Rabbi Chai Levy
is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Rabbi Chai Levy
Rabbi Chai Levy

Rabbi Chai Levy is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.