According to my friend and teacher Rabbi Lior Engelman, “Chanuka is a story of chutzpa.” Since Jews in general and Israelis in particular are known for their chutzpa, which in its most positive connotation means “brazenness,” I thought it appropriate to freely translate below Rabbi Engelman’s thoughts on this matter.
When a person is not prepared to recognize their own weaknesses or to know their own “place,” we say that that person has chutzpa. The chutzpadik person always thinks of themselves as much greater than the object of their chutzpa, even if the latter is objectively stronger and more powerful. In the story of Chanuka, two types of chutzpa struggle against each other: Greek chutzpa versus Jewish chutzpa.
Greek chutzpa enlarges a person beyond their true dimensions. It gives absolute exclusivity to the human being’s understanding of the world. In its rejection of the Creator of the world, Greek chutzpa wishes to free the human being from a faith in what is beyond and above them in order to maximize human strength. Through a rejection of the existence of the Lord of the Universe and through turning G-d into a statue, Greek wisdom wants to crown the human being as the greatest living power on earth.
Greek chutzpa is opposed to Jewish chutzpa. In the face of a chutzpa that wants to defile the world and to turn it into something small, there stands the chutzpa of the flask of oil. This flask, which to the naked eye seems to contain enough oil to light for just one day, is emboldened to go beyond what meets the eye, and this chutzpa serves it well in its time of need. Just like the small number of Maccabee fighters against the sophisticated Greek war machine, the small flask symbolizes Jewish chutzpa. The Maccabees are a symbol for people who are bold enough to think big, people whose dreams are as high as the sky and who will not settle for a wingless, earthbound realism.
Chanuka is the story of the best chutzpa that there is—the chutzpa of Jewish faith. It is precisely the chutzpa of faith in G-d that reveals to us that the human being is truly great, for G-d put the human being in charge of the world and put within them an infinite, heavenly soul.
We know from the Talmud that the world will see an increase of chutzpa in the days leading up to the Messiah (see Sota 49b). Perhaps the Talmud is speaking about the type of chutzpa that we learn from the Maccabees: the chutzpa to dream big, to believe big, to see the world through the eyes of faith, to know that we are bigger than what we might think, and to become as bold as a leopard to carry out the will of our G-d in Heaven. Happy Chanuka.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.