Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Exodus, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern
Chutzpah – A Religious Analysis*
Our tradition paints a very gloomy picture of the frightening and catastrophic days preceding the coming of the Messiah. In addition to all the world upheavals and bloodshed and immorality expected in the ikveta deMeshiĥa, in the era preceding Mashiaĥ, our Rabbis (Sota 49b) predicted that “chutzpah yasgei,” that chutzpah will abound, that there will be an unnatural increase of brazenness and effrontery and arrogance. And one may well wonder if the excessive haughtiness and obnoxious chutzpah we find so common in our world today is not the very thing our Sages were talking about. Perhaps if indeed chutzpah is to herald the coming of the Messiah, then the Golden Age cannot be far off.
What is chutzpah? It is a universal quality, but a uniquely Jewish word. It is essentially untranslatable. You might say: boldness, effrontery, arrogance. It is all these things but more too. Chutzpah, a great sage of the Talmud once said (Sanhedrin 105a), is “malkhuta beli taga,” “kingship without a crown”; it is authoritativeness without authority, dominion without dignity, ruling without right, arrogance without warrant, dogmatic opinionation without basis – in short, a man acting the part of a king when he has never been entitled to the crown, “malkhuta beli taga.”
Chutzpah is, of course, an unpleasant characteristic. When we speak of a man as a chutzpahnik we pass an unfavorable judgment upon him. And yet chutzpah has a positive side too. Our Rabbis meant to praise Israel when they attributed to it the greatest amount of chutzpah from amongst all nations. There are times that chutzpah makes for survival, times that it expresses a profound loyalty to values which transcend ordinary politeness and courtesy, and even life itself. The chutzpah of the Jew in refusing to settle down and assimilate, his insistence that Torah must survive at all costs and in all environments, his persistence in the face of great odds that he is a member of God’s chosen people – that is a constructive and desirable chutzpah.
How then are we to understand chutzpah, and discriminate between its legitimate and illegitimate uses, between its positively offensive aspect and that quality which is not necessarily objectionable?
The answer is that in Hebrew we have two terms that correspond to the two component parts of effrontery or chutzpah, and each one must be treated differently for they mean different things. These two are called azut metzaĥ and azut panim, being strong-headed and being bold-faced.
Azut metzaĥ literally means “strength of the forehead” or headstrongness. This is an intellectual or ideological chutzpah, an effrontery of the mind. It means that I am totally convinced of the rightness of my opinion and that I will therefore not yield one inch to your argument no matter what you do or say. It is a most irritating quality – but it is restricted to the realm of ideas, and involves no sneering or mocking or scoffing. It can be good or bad. When a young man is headstrong and refuses to yield to the pressure of his friends who see nothing wrong with immorality and looseness as long as everyone else is doing it – that is azut metzaĥ; an annoying and frustrating headstrongness, but a wonderful and admirable kind of chutzpah. But when a man sees God’s miracles and goodness before his very eyes and refuses, unreasonably, to be convinced that “Hashem hu haElohim” – that is the wrong kind of azut metzaĥ, a negative and sinful headstrongness.
Azut panim, however, is always and forever a detestable and obnoxious feature. Literally it means “strength of face” – bold- facedness or brazen-facedness. This is more than ideological stubbornness. It involves more than metzaĥ, the head or mind. It is azut panim, the boldness of the whole face, the effrontery of the whole personality – the supercilious glance of the eye, the haughty sniff of the nose, the sneer of the lips, the vulgarity of the mouth, the closing of one ear to all reason and the opening of the other to all malicious tale-bearing. That is azut panim – the boldness of the face, the vulgarity and detestable arrogance of the warped personality. This azut panim is what makes chutzpah so chutzpahdik.
And that is why our Rabbis said, on the one hand, that “im ra’ita kohen ba’azut metzaĥ, al teharher aĥarav” (Kiddushin 70b) – azut metzaĥ in a kohen should not shock you. For a religious leader, be he a kohen or rabbi or scholar, must be a source of ideological strength and firmness which may at times be irritating towards others. But this is the azut metzaĥ aspect of chutzpah, and it is therefore above suspicion. On the other hand, azut panim deserves no such consideration. “Azut panim nikra rasha” (Numbers Rabba 18:12) – it is a sign of wickedness. Headstrongness is not always to be condemned, while bold-facedness is always an evil.
That is why on Yom Kippur we include in the list of sins for confession, “al ĥeit sheĥatanu lefanekha be’azut metzaĥ.” To be headstrong against God and Torah is a sin, for which we apologize and hope to be excused. But in the preface to that very viduy, we say “ein anu azei panim…” We may be gossips and thieves and liars and azut metzaĥ; but God, azut panim – that we never are, for we know that that is unforgiveable. Hold us guilty for anything, God, but not for azut panim.
Until now, we have defined the two types of chutzpah, and attempted to illustrate them and clarify their differences. Now let us proceed to a further analysis of this objectionable aspect of chutzpah called azut panim. Why should Judaism place so much weight on it? Why, in the very confession of the greatest sins do we deny that we are guilty of this one fault? Why does our great tradition react so violently to this one specific character flaw?
The deeper understanding of this quality of azut panim may be found not in the great ethical works of our sacred literature, but in the Halakhah. The Talmud (Ketuvot 18a) discusses the prosaic and mundane problem of modeh bemiktzat: Reuben appears before a court and demands that Simon pay him back the $100 he lent him. Simon concedes in part – he is modeh bemiktzat, he says: yes, I owe him money, but only $60. What is the decision of the Halakha? The $60 to which Simon admitted must, of course, be returned to Reuben. But the other $40, while it cannot be collected without witnesses, nevertheless requires Simon to take a solemn oath before Bet Din. Simon must go through the extremely serious procedure of denying loan of the extra $40 under oath. Why is this so? Why do we not say that if Simon were a liar that he would deny the entire $100, and that therefore if he admitted to $60, to miktzat, that he must be telling the truth? Here the great Rabba explains: Because “ein adam me’iz panav bifnei ba’al ĥovo,” no man will ordinarily be that bold-faced, that much of an azut panim, that he will deny the entire amount to the face of the creditor. That is why he feels forced to admit to the $60.
Whatever the legal ramifications of that statement, and whether or not we are able to follow the short explanation that I have just given, this fact emerges clearly: no ordinary human being will ordinarily act with azut panim against one to whom he is indebted. If I feel that someone has done me a great favor, if I feel beholden to him, then I will never exercise azut panim towards him. This is the Halakha’s psychological principle with regard to azut panim. One who feels beholden and indebted will hold his peace and act respectfully. Otherwise, he is guilty of the most brazen, arrogant, inhuman, and detestable kind of azut panim – chutzpah. There can be no worse.
What we learn from the Halakha, therefore, is that a man who acts brazenly, with azut panim, towards his fellow men, he who is not only headstrong but vulgar and unreasonable and arrogant and mocking towards all they are and stand for – such a man acts that way because he does not recognize a power to whom he is indebted; such azut panim can be explained only as a feeling of complete independence, of being a self-made man. When a man recognizes the fact that there is no such thing as complete independence, that his clothing comes to him by grace of God, that his food and his health and his money and his family are all temporary gifts granted to him by God, and that he is therefore indebted to God for his very existence, that God is his ba’al ĥov, then that person will never develop azut panim of any kind in any situation. It is only when a man has deluded himself as to his own powers and greatness and self-sufficiency and forgotten his essential weakness and inadequacy and helplessness, when he has forgotten that he owes many a debt to God, that he becomes an az panim. That is why Judaism is so concerned with the quality of azut panim. It is because the az panim rejects God offhandedly. Bold-facedness is rebellion against the Lord. Brazenness against anyone is automatically a denial of all religion. “Haughtiness against men,” wrote the great Ramban in his letter to his son, “is rebellion against God.” Certainly, for “ein adam me’iz panav bifnei baal ĥovo” – to accept God is to be indebted to Him; and to be indebted and to know it is to make azut panim impossible.
Where can we find the cure for azut panim? Surely in the synagogue, if no place else. The mikdash me’at, the miniature sanctuary, not only should be a place where azut panim is never practiced, but should be the place where people learn to rid themselves of this scourge. In today’s sidra we read of the construction of the very first synagogue – the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. And if you read carefully the measurements the Torah prescribes for the holiest part of the Mishkan, the aron, you will notice that in all three dimensions the measurements are not full units, they are not integers or complete numbers. Instead they are partial numbers: the length is two and a half cubits; the width one and a half cubits, and the height is one and a half again. Why so? Because, answers the saintly Rabbi Nathan Adler, the teacher of the famed Ĥatam Sofer, the Torah wanted to teach the people of the aron, the people of the synagogue, that they must never consider themselves complete – they are always to believe themselves only half-done. Their pride must be broken in half. They are never to imagine themselves complete and sufficient and independent. And people who remember that they are only ĥeitzi, only half of what they should be, people who recognize their great indebtedness to the Lord of all creation, such people will never be guilty of azut panim, for such vile chutzpah comes about only when one thinks he is complete in and of and to himself.
We who are close to the aron hakodesh, to whom the synagogue is meaningful not only as another organization but as the place of Torah and the sponsors of the study of Torah, we must ever remember the debt we owe God Almighty, and thus forever remain free of the ineradicable taint of azut panim. If we are to use chutzpah, then let us make the proper use of azut metzaĥ, for the greater glory of God and Torah. But let us never be guilty of azut panim, of the sin of spiritual vulgarity for which our tradition did not even provide an al ĥet on Yom Kippur. Let us always say “ein anu azei panim,” say what You will God, You cannot accuse us of that crime.
May our association with our beloved synagogue bring us that moral sensitivity and nobility of character, which, based on our indebtedness to God for our very lives, will cause us to become ambassadors of God to an unreconstructed world, bringing the light of Torah to all Israel and all the world, so that, in a manner of speaking, God will say to us: My children, now I am indebted to you.
*February 2, 1957