Thursday, December 20, 2012

Chutzpah! "Inappropriate Talk"

"Tell the tall buildings in Mahattan, I am a Lubavitcher"
shouted Y at a late night "Farbrengen"/debate mocking the
idea that young idealists can tell the big world anything

This week began with the news of the terrible murder and loss of innocents in Connecticut. May their families find some measure of comfort and their souls find peace.
One confronting immediate response to these deaths on social media was to complain about the coverage of a western tragedy and calling attention to the violent or preventable deaths of children in other countries. Was it proper to use the opportunity to make that point at that time? Can there ever be a wrong time and can there ever be considerations of propriety that are more important than the life of a child?

On a far more trivial level, the other morning I had the slight discomfort of being in the same small room as a man I will call B., who won’t talk to me on principle.  He objects to my working together with Muslims or Arabs or Christians as a matter of religious principle. On one level is it hurtful, we have known each other a long time. I think there might also be some ego involved. B has not had the opportunity to study the Torah in depth yet he thinks it is his place to rule me, a Rabbi, out of order. I don’t see myself superior just because of a bit of extra knowledge, yet in this case I had a passing though of indignation. “Is it his place to issue Halachic rulings against what I do?!” It’s not serious but it ties into my topic, Chutzpa, which can be loosely translated as impudence.

As a rule, Chutzpah, which is modern slang is seen as kind of spunky and cute, is traditionally seen as a bad thing. Yet, the other side of the argument is that some notions of propriety and good manners may result in silence in the face of injustice.  Jewish law requires a student to reproach even a teacher if the teacher is doing something wrong ([i]). This past Sunday I was at a book launch about the protest against the Holocaust by Aboriginal leader William Cooper. I learned that the protest was completely ignored at the time, no record of it remains, it was never sent to Berlin, nor does it feature in the diary of the German Consul in Melbourne or his superior in Sydney ([ii]). The Nazis would have seen it as “inappropriate” that black Aborigines would dare tell them what is right. Yet his protest continues to inspire and challenge us today.

In our Torah reading this week we have a touching example of disregarding propriety when the wellbeing of a child is at stake.  Judah approaches ([iii]) the Egyptian viceroy who is threatening to enslave his younger half-brother Benjamin. The body language implied in the approach is, at least according to one commentator, to be one of “war ([iv])”. He disregards the normal conduct of the world which is to ask permission first and only then to enter, Judah approaches first and ask for permission later ([v]). Another commentator has Judah “break down the door and come before Joseph with his brothers ([vi])”.

Judah’ begins by saying “please my master, may your servant speak words in the ears of my master and let my master not be angry with your servant because you are like Pharaoh ([vii]).  On one level we have the deferential language about servant and master, in fact in this one monologue Judah refers to himself, his father and brothers as Joseph’s slaves eleven times ([viii])! Yet commentators draw many inferences that paint a much more aggressive posture. Asking Joseph not to get angry is taken as proof that he plans to speak harshly ([ix]) that is likely to provoke the ruler. His comparison of Joseph to Pharaoh is interpreted by some, not as flattery but as a suggestion that just Pharaoh lusted after Sarah because of her beauty, Joseph’s interest in Benjamin was also based on desire for Benjamin’s beauty ([x]). Judah takes the view that when the wellbeing and safety of a child is a stake, restraint based on polite protocols must be disregarded.

The theme of disregarding protocol can also be seen earlier in Joseph’s story. After Joseph successfully interprets the king’s dream, he oversteps the boundaries and goes beyond his brief as dream interpreter. Rather than knowing his place and not “speaking before one who is greater than himself” ([xi]) as a slave and recently released prisoner in front of a king he proceeds to offer Pharaoh unsolicited advice about how to manage his economy and save his country. Even more audaciously, Joseph might have been angling for a senior government position as a prospective manager of the Egyptian economy ([xii]). “Now, Pharaoh should see (to find) a man, understanding and wise and put him in charge of the land of Egypt ([xiii])”.  Hint, hint… here Joseph broke with protocol and appropriate conduct, yet this breach saved the country from terrible starvation in a famine with the elevation of Joseph.

In the rich tapestry of views the same situations have alternative interpretations. Rather than Joseph seeking appointment to the position he suggested, he was merely doing his duty as a prophet who cannot keep back the prophecy ([xiv]). This experience of prophecy is described by Jeremiah as if “in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones and I weary myself to hold it but cannot ([xv])”.  We also find Pharaoh repeating his intention to appoint Joseph to the position as if Joseph did not believe it ([xvi]). First Pharaoh tell Joseph: “after God has made all this known to you, there is no one as understanding and wise as you (therefore) you will be (in a position of authority) over my house and according to your mouth will my nation be sustained, only in (occupying) the throne will I be greater than you ([xvii])”.  The story continues with Pharaoh speaking to Joseph again, “look, I have put you over all of the land of Egypt ([xviii])”. No Chutzpa here. Similarly, there are interpretations of Judah’s approach to Joseph that highlight his respect for the ruler and a more pleading and conciliatory stance ([xix]).

I think Chutzpa is a tool for exceptional circumstances. Perhaps the more typical stance is the one taken by Jacob when he blesses Pharaoh when he first meets him and when he leaves him ([xx]) to teach us proper conduct about how a person should enter to see the face of royalty ([xxi])”. So I defend the right of B, to ignore me if he thinks he is standing up for what is right and the “tweeters” to be insensitive to the time of mourning of some people in the sincere hope of saving others.  May we all have the wisdom to know when to be civil, proper and polite and when to scream and break down some doors with chutzpa!

[i] Talmud Bava Metzia 31a
[ii] Talk by Konrad Kweit and the book launch at the Sydney Jewish Museum 9/12/2012
[iii] Genesis 44:18
[iv] Bereshit Rabba 93 according to the view of Rabbi Judah
[v] Midrash Habiur, from a manuscript cited in Torah Shlaima p.1635
[vi] Sefer Hayashar
[vii] Genesis 44:18
[viii] Genesis 44:18-34
[ix] Rashi
[x] Daat Zkainim Mibaalei Hatosafot, and with variation in Bereshit Rabba 93 and other sources cited in Torah Shlaima p.1636
[xi] Pirkey Avot one of the seven definitions of the wise
[xii] Ramban to Genesis 41:33 
[xiii] Genesis 41:33 
[xiv] Abarbanel, cited in Leibovitz, N. New Studies in Bereshit p.448
[xv] Jeremiah 20:9
[xvi] Midrashei Torah by Anselm Astruc, cited in Leibovitz, N. New Studies in Bereshit p.447
[xvii] Genesis 41:39-40
[xviii] Genesis 41:41
[xix] Rashi, Bchor Shor, others
[xx] Gnesis 47:7 & 10
[xxi] Lekach Tov cited in Torah Shlaima p.1708

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