Chutzpah is a Yiddish word with no exact English translation. The closest English equivalent would be “audacity” or “boldness.”
But chutzpah also contains an element of passion, social concern and self-confidence. Someone with chutzpah knows what he believes, and knows that he is right.
Chutzpah Makes a Pope Impossible
Perhaps the embrace of chutzpah has doomed any effort to appoint a Pope-type figure for the Jewish people. There have been periodic attempts throughout history to do so, and even today certain communities have “chief rabbis.”
Yet, the power of any one individual in Judaism is determined by influence, not law or regulation. One can only earn influence, and not simply obtain it by virtue of position.
The nature of Judaism itself also makes the appointment of any “infallible” leader impossible. Here’s why:
1. A group carries more weight than an individual: In Jewish tradition, a majority of scholars determines the law. No one individual–even God–can determine what one must do and believe.
The classic example of this truth comes in a talmudic story in which a group of rabbis determines that a certain ritual item is kosher, even when God says it is not. The rabbis answer God by saying, “You’re in Heaven. We’re on earth. We need to figure this out!”
2. What we do matters more than what we believe: In Judaism doctrine is seconary to behavior, and the proper behavior has already been determined in Biblical and talmudic law. The role of contemporary religious leaders is to interpret those laws, and not to mandate new ones.
3. Disagreement is a religious value: Judaism has always seen debate and discussion as a means to discovering truth. The notion of an infallible leaders does not fit in this worldview.
4. Judaism has no sacraments: Catholicism is built around the belief that priests have certain functions no one else can fill. Only a priest can conduct a mass or perform the last rites. In Judaism, rabbis have no distinct privileges. Any educated layperson can perform a wedding, lead a worship service or teach Jewish law.
5. It wouldn’t work: About 120 years ago, a group of Jews in the New York wanted to appoint a Chief Rabbi for America. They paid a great deal of money to bring over a famous rabbi from Europe. They set him up in a big office with the title “Chief Rabbi.”
He immediately began issuing laws and opinions. People got angry. They challenged his views. They stopped going to his synagogue. They said the only reason he was chief rabbi was that somebody painted those words on his office door.
Within six years, he was out of the job. Since then no one has tried to fill it.
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