1. Impudence; effrontery; rude behavior showing a lack of respect that is surprising because the person behaving badly is not embarrassed.
On April 4th 2012– three days before Passover – Gunter Grass, widely regarded as Germany’s most famous living writer, penned a political prose poem published in several European newspapers which caused quite the stir in political and literature circles (many of them, however, completely missed the point).
Herr Grass, the recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature, is a novelist [one even has an anti-Nazi plot], poet, playwright, illustrator, graphic artist, sculptor, and has visited Israel numerous times.
In his poem titled “What Must Be Said,” Grass expressed concern that an Israeli military strike against Iran “could wipe out the Iranian people” and threaten an already fragile world peace.
chutz·pa [khoot-spuh, hoot-]
1. the quality of audacity, for good or for bad; nearly arrogant courage; behavior, or a person’s attitude, that is rude or shocking but so confident that people may feel forced to admire it.
“April 11, 1945. Buchenwald: Hungry, emaciated, sick and weakened by fear and terror, Jewish inmates welcome their sudden freedom in a strange manner: they do not grab the food offered by their American liberators. Instead, they gather in circles to pray. Their first act as free human beings was to say Kaddish, thus glorifying and sanctifying God’s name.” – (Elie Weisel in Sages and Dreamers)
And then they went on to rebuild their shattered lives.
The word “Chutzpah” has crept its way into the English vernacular but it is a distinctly Jewish word – one which describes a distinctly Jewish characteristic.
In the wake of the sin of the golden calf Moses pleaded with G-d to forgive the Jewish people:
And [Moses] said: “if I have found favor in your eyes, my Lord, let my Lord now go in our midst; for they are a stiff-necked people, you shall forgive their iniquity and our sin.”
The Midrash (Shemot Rabah 42:9) comments: it is not despite their being ‘stiff-necked’ that the Jews should be forgiven, rather, because of it. Granted, their stubbornness was not used for a good purpose when the Jews insisted on following the golden calf, but on balance, Moses argued, over the course of thousands of years of persecution, it would serve them well.
It would be this stubborn Chutzpah that would allow them to cling to G-d and His Torah, despite the grave hardships they would endure.
I do not personally believe that Mr. Grass’ comments are necessarily anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel, although, perhaps, there is a tone of subtle resentment implicit in his words. A tone which is not unique nor is it revolutionary in its critical attitude towards Am Israel.
The Jewish nation has forever been a thorn in the side of humanity ever since they arrived on the scene. Irritating pagan and G-dless societies with their very existence, for their existence embodied the message of an Ancient G-d – of truth compassion and justice. The Jews were a pesky nuisance; the world’s persona non grata.
They also refused to disappear.
Humanity did not know why, but they deeply resented this small nation, and had the gall to try and rid the world of them – but to no avail. Despite the countless attempts by humanity, the Jew had the Chutzpah to not ‘go away’. “But as much as they would afflict them, so did they multiply and so did they gain strength.” (Exodus 1:12)
It is interesting to note that Grass chose the time immediately preceding Passover to share his thoughts, for it is the Passover Haggadah that we read a short, stirring, passage titled “VeHi She’Amdah”
Vehi SheAmdah: “And this [covenant] is what stood for our fathers and for us. For not only one rose to destroy us, rather in every generation they try to destroy us, and G-d delivered us from their hands.”
Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Dr. Warren Goldstein shared in a holiday message:
People often say “I wish I could live in times of miracles”. Just imagine living in a time when you see the ten plagues, the splitting of the red sea, the Manna falling from heaven, G-d’s voice on Mt. Sinai. Incredible! And yet, Rabbi Yakov Emden – a great sage who lived in Germany some two hundred and fifty years ago – says that we live, today, in a time of greater miracles than all of those described in the Torah.
And what miracles is he talking about?
The miracle of the Jewish people’s existence.
“When I consider the miracles of the existence of the [Jewish] people, it is greater in my eyes than the Exodus from Egypt, and all the miracles G-d did.” – Introduction to Yakov Emden Siddur
How is that a greater miracle than all others described in the Torah? Yakov Emden directs us to the above mentioned ancient passage: VeHi SheAmdah.
“And this [covenant] is what stood for our fathers and for us. For not only one rose to destroy us…”
The very existence of the Jewish people is a miracle. We should not be here. By any of the normal laws of history and sociology we should long have been gone.
What’s left of the ancient Greek empire and the mighty Roman Empire?
And yet, we are here today.
These words of the Haggadah are a remarkable prophecy, and let us see how they have been fulfilled: There has been a relentless, savage pursuit by enemy after enemy to eradicate the Jewish people. Whether it was the Babylonian or Greek empires, the Persian or Roman empires, the savagery of Europe, the Spanish inquisition, the Chmielnicki massacres, the pogroms, and of course culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust.
And after all that, here we are.
This is why Yakov Emden said that to see the Jewish people alive and well, even thriving, is to witness an even greater miracle than the splitting of the sea.
“…and G-d has delivered us from their hands”
G-d has looked after and protected us, and ensures that we have outlived and outlasted and out-survived each and every one of our enemies.
In our own lifetime we have witnessed some of the most remarkable miracles of all of Jewish history. After the devastation of the Holocaust when a rational observer could have said “that’s a death blow for the Jewish people – they’re finished. What sort of future can there be?” And yet, within three short years Jewish sovereignty is reestablished in the land of Israel.
1948, a tiny strip of land, 600,000 Jews – many of them holocaust survivors – had to ward of ferocious attacks from enemies from all sides, and did so with one military victory after another – with great miracles and wonders. The reunification of Jerusalem and the recapturing of the temple mount. – And in the midst of all these military dangers we witness the amazing ability to absorb millions of immigrants from all over the world. – Building a thriving economy, becoming leaders in technology and medicine and all fields of human endeavor.
What a remarkable and divine miracle from G-d before our very eyes.
And in our times also, we face new enemies. Iran in pursuit of nuclear weapons – together with its terror proxies, Hamas Hezbollah – seeks the total destruction of the Jewish people. The world listens with silence and equanimity and once again, we the Jewish people, face mortal enemies.
What should our response be?
We have a choice: on the one hand we could pretend that these genocidal threats and dangers are all just part of the blind laws of history, coincidence – just happened. Or, we can see them for what they are: part of the Divine plan, and sweep of Jewish History and Jewish Destiny – and to respond accordingly.
Our response should be to embrace our gift of “Chutzpah” and challenge the gall of adversaries with the bold, timeworn banner of “VeHi She’Amdah”.
The very Chutzpah with which Abraham faced Nimrod and which Moses stared down Pharaoh is lifeblood that sustained Am Yisrael through their darkest hours. Passed on from generation to generation like a sacred torch, its proud bearers defiantly sang Ani Mammain as they are were hauled off in cattle cars to the gas chambers.
Ani Mamin…I have the chutzpah to believe…that we will one day be free…home… safe…united in our land…in a prefect world – a world filled with peace and happiness, free from tyranny and persecution.
It is this Chutzpah – the “audacity of hope”- that is the secret to Jewish immortality. It is this courageous Chutzpah that will fortify us as we counter the insolence of humanity until the most glorious chapters of our history are written.
And they will be written. May it be speedily in our days.
Mr. Grass, there is indeed something which must be said:
Am Yisrael Chai! The People of Israel live!
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)