Chutzpah (// or //) is the quality of audacity, for good or for bad. The Yiddish word derives from the Hebrew word ḥutspâ (חֻצְפָּה), meaning "insolence", "cheek" or "audacity". Thus the original Yiddish word has a strongly negative connotation but the form which entered English through Ameridish has taken on a broader meaning, having been popularized through vernacular use in film, literature, and television. The word is sometimes interpreted—particularly in business parlance—as meaning the amount of courage, mettle or ardor that an individual has.
In Hebrew, chutzpah is used indignantly, to describe someone who has overstepped the boundaries of accepted behavior. In traditional usage, the word expresses a strong sense of disapproval, condemnation and outrage.
Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as "gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible 'guts', presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to". In this sense, chutzpah expresses both strong disapproval and condemnation. In the same work, Rosten also defined the term as "that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan". Chutzpah amounts to a total denial of personal responsibility, that renders others speechless and incredulous ... one cannot quite believe that another person totally lacks common human traits like remorse, regret, guilt, sympathy and insight. The implication is at least some degree of psychopathy in the subject, as well as the awestruck amazement of the observer at the display.
Chutzpah in Rabbinical literature
Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis distinguishes the meaning of chutzpah as stubbornness and contrariness from what he calls a tradition of "spiritual audacity" or "chutzpah klapei shmaya":
- We are conventionally raised to believe that Jewish faith demands unwavering obedience to the law and the law-giver. That attitude tends to cultivate a temperament of compliance and passivity, For conventional thinking, "talking back to God" smacks of heresy. But a significant genre of religious, moral and spiritual audacity toward the divine authority—"chutzpah klapei shmaya"—finds a place on honor in Jewish religious thought.
As an example, Schulweis cites a case where Moses argues with God about the justice of His commands:
- For Moses, that God should "visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation" (Exod. 20:5) is an unacceptable form of group punishment akin to the morally indiscriminate punishment of Sodom. Challenging God's pronouncement of the punishment of the sons for the sins of the fathers, Moses argues with God, against God, and in the name of God. Moses engages God with fierce moral logic:
- Sovereign of the Universe, consider the righteousness of Abraham and the idol worship of his father Terach. Does it make moral sense to punish the child for the transgressions of the father? Sovereign of the Universe, consider the righteous deeds of King Hezekiah, who sprang from the loins of his evil father King Achaz. Does Hezekiah deserve Achaz's punishment? Consider the nobility of King Josiah, whose father Amnon was wicked. Should Josiah inherit the punishment of Amnon? (Num. Rabbah, Hukkat XIX, 33)
- Trained to view God as an unyielding authoritarian proclaiming immutable commands, we might expect that Moses will be severely chastised for his defiance. Who is this finite, errant, fallible, human creature to question the explicit command of the author of the Ten Commandments? The divine response to Moses, according to the rabbinic moral imagination, is arresting:
- By your life Moses, you have instructed Me. Therefore I will nullify My words and confirm yours. Thus it is said, "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers." (Deut. 24:16)
Judge Alex Kozinski and Eugene Volokh in an article entitled Lawsuit Shmawsuit, note the rise in use of Yiddish words in legal opinion. They note that chutzpah has been used 231 times in American legal opinions, 220 of those after 1980.
In the movie Haider (2014) by Vishal Bharadwaj, a modern-day interpretation of Hamlet set against the backdrop of Kashmir in the midst of political conflict, the protagonist uses the word chutzpah which they pronounce as /'tʃʊtspə/ instead of /ˈhʊtspə/ or /ˈxʊtspə/ to describe India's way of treating the people of Kashmir since the beginning of the conflict. This pronunciation sounds more like Indian slang.
The polish word "hucpa" (pronounced the same way) is also derived from this term, although its meaning is closer to a "scam" than a description of someone's audacity.
- "חוצפה chutzpah". dictionary.reference.com.
- "chutzpah". thefreedictionary.com.
- Wehr, Hans (1994) . J. Milton Cowan, ed. Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Urbana, Illinois: Spoken Language Services, Inc. ISBN 0-87950-003-4.
- Harold M. Schulweis, Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey (2008), p. 10.
- Harold M. Schulweis, Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey (2008), p. 11.
- Kozinski, Alex; Eugene Volokh (1993). "Lawsuit Shmawsuit". Yale Law Journal. The Yale Law Journal Company, Inc. 103 (2): 463. doi:10.2307/797101. JSTOR 797101. Retrieved 2007-06-24.
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