Holy Chutzpah

Elie Wiesel once said that “One can be a Jew with G-d, or against G-d, but not without G-d.” What I think Wiesel meant by this, is that spiritually, the most important thing for a Jew to do, is to be religiously engaged, to grapple with G-d. One can “agree” with G-d, disagree with G-d, anything is better than apathy towards Heaven. This perspective is already encapsulated in our people’s very name and destiny. After all, the name “Israel” means: “The one who wrestles with G-d and with people, and prevails (Genesis 32:29).”

Abraham, the first Jew, was also the first Jew who wrestled with G-d, as he challenged the Divine decree to destroy the vicious inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. Distraught by the prospect of the innocent perishing alongside the wicked in this divinely orchestrated calamity, Abraham famously challenged the Almighty with the following words: “Will the Judge of the entire earth not act justly [by also killing the innocent]?”

This theological sport of challenging the world’s current moral and spiritual state of affairs is known in Rabbinic Hebrew as “Chutzpah klapey Shemaya (Chutzpah towards Heaven).”
Like Abraham, King David was also no stranger to chutzpah toward Heaven: “Until when will the wicked rejoice?” rhetorically asks the poet-monarch in Psalm 94.

Jeremiah, a prophet who prophesied on the eve of the destruction of the First Temple some 27 centuries ago, also engaged in the theological sport of “chutzpah towards Heaven.” Jeremiah was particularly disturbed by the idea that children sometime inadvertently suffer due to the misdeeds of their parents. As befitting a towering prophet, Jeremiah expressed his dismay with poetical allegory. Why is it, asked Jeremiah, that when “fathers eat sour grapes, it is their children’s teeth that are set on edge (decay)?” In other words, asks the prophet, why is it that sometimes children suffer the consequences of their parents’ wrongful action?

In our parashah, parashat Korach, we see yet another illustration of the tendency of the greatest Jewish leaders to challenge a Divine decree, to engage in “chutzpah toward Heaven”, when it pertains to the plight of the innocent and the sanctity of life. When Hashem is set on annihilating the entire congregation in the aftermath of Korach’s rebellion, Moses and Aaron “challenge” Him by saying “If one man sins, shall you [really] pour your wrath upon the entire congregation?” Dutifully, the Almighty “obliges”, accepts the beseeching words of Moses and Aaron, and instructs them to tell the people to stay away from the homes of the instigators of the rebellion, lest they perish with them.
What can we learn from all this?

That Judaism is a “difficult freedom” and a “religion for adults”, as the 20th century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught us. That we would do well to emulate our ancestors’ “almost fanatical love of justice” (as Einstein put it), and that we too should challenge the injustices of the world, and protest the death of the innocent by any means necessary. Holy chutzpah is kosher. Some would even say that it is an imperative, a veritable mitzvah, a holy deed.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sessler

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