Review of The Chutzpah Imperative: Empowering Today’s Jews for a Life That Matters by Rabbi Edward Feinstein
“Chutzpah” is one of those wonderful Yiddish words that have multiple meanings, defying straightforward dictionary definitions like audacity, nerve, gall, and so on. There is Alan Dershowitz chutzpah. And there is also George Costanza (Seinfeld) chutzpah.
In his book The Chutzpah Imperative: Empowering Today’s Jews for a Life That Matters, Rabbi Edward Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a synagogue in Encino, California, employs chutzpah as a tool of empowerment to urge readers to help reshape our world for the better. Citing examples from the Bible and beyond, his book offers more than a history lesson: It is a call to action, directed to Jews — young Jews in particular— but certainly applicable to all people.
Rabbi Feinstein’s previous books include Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century: Human Responsibility, the Presence of God, and the Future of the Covenant. In The Chutzpah Imperative, he writes that the chutzpah of Judaism insists on the significance of human life, the possibilities of human goodness, and the depth of human responsibility to the world.
As Rabbi Feinstein points out, there is irony in his version of chutzpah. Jews have long viewed themselves as a light unto other nations, upholding the ethical and moral tenets of Torah and spiritually elevating everyday human life and actions. “Yet this tiny people who have known more suffering, persecution, and humiliation than any other people in human history—the very people who have been oppressed by the darkest evils promulgated by humanity—mustered the irrepressible courage to assert that human life is not absurd, that human dreams are not futile, that we yet possess the power to redeem our world.”
While Torah —the Bible—accounts for much of the reason Jews persevered, Rabbi Feinstein makes a bold pronouncement. “The Bible is not our book about God. The Bible is God’s anthropology—God’s understanding of human beings.” The revolution of the Bible is not its concept of God, Feinstein asserts, but its conception of the capacities and possibilities of human existence.”
Even though God is the central character of the biblical narrative, Feinstein continues, the Bible tells us very little about God — for example we do know God’s origins or backstory. “All we know is that God dreams. And what is God’s dream? A world of wholeness, a world that is one. The Bible is the story of God’s dream.”
Motivating, powerful insights like this permeate The Chutzpah Imperative and provide a solid foundation for Feinstein’s call to action. Chutzpah’s God is not a ruler who makes demands of his subjects and then walks away. In Feinstein’s rendering, God wants a partner to enjoy this world, to share it and care for it.
Thus, Rabbi Feinstein cautions us not to wait for redemption. Even in the wake of the inexplicable destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (In Exodus, God commands the Israelites to “make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them”), a reimagined Judaism emerged that essentially replaced the physicality of the sanctuary with a sense that holiness dwelled within each of us.
Rabbi Feinstein presents no detailed roadmap on how to partner with God to reshape our world, but I suspect that Feinstein respects his readers’ ability to find their own paths. “We are free and responsible actors in the world because God granted that freedom by withdrawing to make room for us,” he says.
“The Torah is not a story about our faith in God,” declares Rabbi Feinstein. It is about “God’s faith in us.” Now that’s a chutzpah we should all be happy to relate to.