Do Jews need more chutzpah? Does Judaism?

I began reading Rabbi Edward Feinstein’s “The Chutzpah Imperative: Empowering Today’s Jews for a Life that Matters” (Jewish Lights) with two conflicting emotions — admiration and skepticism.
November 19, 2014

I began reading Rabbi Edward Feinstein’s “The Chutzpah Imperative: Empowering Today’s Jews for a Life that Matters” (Jewish Lights) with two conflicting emotions — admiration and skepticism. Every time I have been in the presence of Feinstein, I have learned something — large or small. It is not only his mastery of Jewish tradition, but also his ability to tell a story, his understanding of contemporary American Jews, and his willingness to ask important questions and demand significant answers, even for the unanswerable. Valley Beth Shalom in Encino is blessed to have him as a rabbi; the Los Angeles community is enhanced by his presence, enlarged by his vision.

And yet, as I approached this book, I thought the last thing the Jewish community needs is more chutzpah. I grew up in New York, where chutzpah is expressed in every conversation, whether by the titans of Wall Street or the taxicab drivers stuck in traffic wondering aloud just how close their cab can come to a jaywalker. And one of the pleasures of L.A. is that we encounter some courtesy and consideration from one another. We mask our chutzpah.

“Chutzpah” is a Yiddish word and a Jewish trait. American Jews may have many faults, but meekness is not one of them.

But I had underestimated Feinstein, as he soon demonstrated he had something larger in mind, something bolder. Shaped by three of the greatest Jewish religious teachers born before World War II — Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, Rabbi David Hartman z’l, and Feinstein’s mentor, predecessor and colleague Rabbi Harold Schulweis — Feinstein wants Jews to have the chutzpah to ask tough questions of themselves, their God, their lives and their Judaism, and to not be satisfied with less than suitable answers.

The virtues of this book are many. One is the clarity of Feinstein’s writing. Example: I am currently teaching a course on 20th-century Jewish thought and the great existentialist thinkers Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joseph Ber Soloveitchik. In 10 short pages, Feinstein captures the essence of their thought — Buber’s sense of the personal and the intimate, his critique of modernity’s depersonalization, Soloveitchik’s distinction between the majestic man of power and the covenantal man of faith, and Heschel’s awe-inspiring and inspired radical wonder. Concise, precise and learned, Feinstein engages their thinking, and yet he brings it forward to our day, our time and applies it to our questions.

Feinstein is writing for liberal Jews, not liberals in the narrow political sense, but Jews who have accepted the terms of modernity with its individuation and its empowerment, with its loss of a sense of absolute authority. These Jews ask the question why — not just how — and are willing to confront God and their rabbis as God’s symbolic exemplars. Successful pulpit rabbis know their Jews, they listen to them, and Feinstein has the wisdom to elevate those Jews’ needs and deepen their questions before he responds.

He begins by celebrating not the Wise Child of Passover who asks how to observe, but the seemingly Wicked Child, who is looking on as an observer before committing to asking why? What, Feinstein asks, does this mean to you?

For a thinker who is advocating chutzpah, Feinstein is naturally attracted to Abraham, who argues with God over the fate of Sodom, and not to the submissive Abraham, who hastens to offer up his son in sacrifice. Feinstein admires Job, who contends with God, but he is disappointed that, in the end, Job is so overwhelmed by the revelation of God’s power that he ceases to question. When he cannot understand God, he ceases to try. 

My understanding of Job is a bit different. In the end, God’s presence is manifest — with presence there is the possibility of an answer, without it the universe is moot, devoid even of the possibility of meaning.

Feinstein also offers a marvelous understanding of the politics of Purim, the situation of the exilic Jew with limited power. His takeaway reinforces his ethics. Evil will find a way to power unless people of good are sufficiently aggressive, resourceful to stop it and committed heart, soul and body to the fight — not a bad reading of the megillah.

Feinstein is a rabbi, through and through. He presents the wisdom of the vision of rabbinic Judaism that, in the aftermath of destruction of the Temple and expulsion from the land, created a Judaism that was portable and did not depend on geography, and that was prepared to place the Torah at the center of the synagogue, the house of study and the community and willing to give authority to the rabbis who found a means of interpretation that enabled the Torah to sustain Jewish life and advance Jewish integrity for centuries. 

He also understands the price that they — and we — paid. Power was ceded. Jewish political aspirations would await divine action, and in the interim, Jews were dependent on the power and good will of the sovereign. Modern Jews rebel at that passivity; Zionists and supporters of Israel have rejected it, but according to Feinstein, its effectiveness as a survival tactic cannot be denied.

The Holocaust scholar Richard Rubenstein would challenge its effectiveness as a tool of survival. Post-Holocaust Jews and Greenberg, Feinstein’s teacher — and mine —would also reject it, even while he challenged the rest of Rubenstein’s thought. 

It is remarkable that in this entire work on chutzpah and the modern Jew, there is a curious omission — the State of Israel, which may indeed have exercised it to excess. But let us ponder Feinstein’s goal. Perhaps his omission is saying something quite important: For some Jews — perhaps even many  — Israel, however important to them personally and politically, may not be central to their quest for a life that matters.

Like his teacher Hartman, Feinstein turns to Maimonides, the greatest of our Jewish philosophers, seeking a religious life that integrates mind and body, philosophy and Judaism, reason and revelation, and a religious life that embraces truth. Similarly, he writes with clarity of the Jewish mystical tradition and turns to the teaching of Rabbi Isaac Luria to understand the urgent task of tikkun — mending, healing, reuniting — in the aftermath of destruction.

Feinstein’s interpretation of “Fiddler on the Rooftransforms the great musical into an exploration of the challenges of modernity. For Tevye, tradition is authoritative; it gives him roots and provides substance to his meager existence. Yet, that world is falling apart. Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel, refuses the matchmaker and chooses to marry for love — one nail in tradition’s coffin. Her sister Hodel chooses a world of social activism that ripped through Eastern Europe — Zionism, socialism, communism or Bundism, each of which offered a strange but recognizable path to the moral idealism of tradition — the second nail. The youngest daughter, Chava, uses freedom to intermarry and set out on her own. Whether Judaism can survive freedom is the inescapable question of 21st-century Jews.

For many Jews, most especially the Jews Feinstein embraces, Anatevka no longer exists, even though one can catch a glimpse of that world in pockets of Jewish life even in L.A.: Chabad has very successfully appealed to that return. Secular, non-observant Jews regard it as an authentic — perhaps the authentic — expression of that tradition. And still, Chabad is deeply American and radically contemporary in its marketing strategies and even in its form of succession, as the charismatic leader has been replaced by institutional management.

What, then, is the chutzpah that Feinstein so admires? We are called upon to embrace Judaism’s conception of creation, the divine human partnership to bring creation forward to redemption or at least toward it.

We were in Egypt, therefore we know that evil is real and undeniable, but so, too, is redemption. He writes, “Only when we know the brutality of suffering will we be consumed with the divine demand for justice.” So it was for the generation that journeyed from Egypt into the desert and their children who made it to the Promised Land; so too, for the generation now passing from the scene, who saw not slavery but mass murder, and survived to enter lands of freedom.

For Feinstein, the chutzpah of the Torah is the unyielding faith in the power of human transformation. Each mitzvah is a step from Egypt and Eden, and the Sabbath a foretaste of Eden. And every Jew must demand of Jewish tradition and of Jewish religious leadership that they bring us forward. 

Abraham Joshua Heschel once spoke of that chutzpah with a smile. “I am an optimist,” he said, “against my better judgment.”


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his blog at jewishjournal.com/a_jew.

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