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Shape of Tomorrow Depends on Moral Courage Today

Hutzpah, said Rabbi Sharon Brous, means embarrassingly nervy behavior, unencumbered audacity, overentitledness and shamelessness “as in ‘there are not enough lox at a free lunch.’ ”

“I first heard the phrase ‘Holy Hutzpah,’ said Batman-style, from Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein,” Brous said. “It is the kind of clear-headed, deep insistence that things are not what they should be and we should fight for our core values.”

Brous was preaching at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday Ecumencial Worship in the Amphitheater. The title of the sermon was “Holy Hutzpah: Our Inheritance of Willful Opposition,” and her scripture text was Genesis 18:17-33.

This kind of hutzpah started in the Bible and through the generations has become “our standard bearer for a life of faith,” she said.

In the Genesis text, the Lord was contemplating destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, and wondered if he should tell Abraham what he was about to do.

“The Lord cannot do what he is about to do without informing Abraham or asking permission,” Brous said. “The Lord needs human permission.”

Brous then asked: How could Abraham be a moral leader if God did not give him the opportunity to lead when it mattered most? The sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were well known to God and they caused God great pain.

“In Jewish tradition, the sins of the cities were cruel inhospitality,” Brous said. “They had a stingy spirit and would not share the abundance they had been given.”

Abraham accompanied the men he had entertained at Mamre as they moved toward Sodom and this encounter with God. When the men heard what the Lord intended to do, they went on to Sodom and left Abraham alone with God.

“How often are we more like those men?” Brous asked. “Fear led them away; not everyone is up to the task of Holy Hutzpah.”

Abraham asked God if he would sweep away the innocent with the guilty, an act which is fundamentally unjust. “Have we not asked why bad things happen to good people?” she said.

What if there are 50 innocent people; would God overrule the punishment? Abraham said to God, “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

“How many of us would speak like that to our boss, much less to the boss of all bosses?” Brous asked. “Abraham is telling God ‘you are better than this; the judge is behaving unjustly.’ There is a justice beyond even divine law and that is moral law by which even God must abide.” 

God ceded to Abraham’s moral intuition, and so Abraham spoke again and again, bargaining down to 45, then 40, then 30 then 20. How far would Abraham go? He got God to agree that if there were 10 innocent people, God would save the city.

“It was a successful negotiation, but why did Abraham stop there?” Brous asked. “The number 10 is the origin of the prayer minyan, the number needed to let holy power flow, but it might reflect Abraham’s lack of imagination. Or perhaps there is still work we need to do, to exercise our own moral intuition.”

God departed and Abraham “returned to his place.” But maybe Abraham was out of place, Brous said.

“We need to step out of place for what is right,” she said. “This was a classic act of hutzpah, the ultimate spiritual audacity, and the Holy One was charmed.”

This “successful negotiation” came because God and Abraham were in a relationship, his requests were made with humility and love.

Brous cited Moses as another practitioner of Holy Hutzpah who would not let go of God’s cloak until God changed his mind about destroying Israel after the Israelites built the golden calf.

Hannah, in the Book of Judges, is accused by the priest Eli of being drunk in a holy place. Hannah told him that if a holy place could not hold her brokenness because she could not bear a child, it was not holy.

“Imagine Hannah in a synagogue or church today,” Brous said. “She would not sit or stand when told. She would scream and protest and shatter the gates of heaven. We cannot allow our sacred ritual to become passive and devoid of heart.”

Holy Hutzpah, the refusal to accede to social norms, is ubiquitous in sacred literature.

“A life of faith, lived in obedience to God, will claim its inheritance against unjust systems and even God,” she said. “We have to find our Holy Hutzpah, our moral courage. The shape of tomorrow depends on exercising moral courage today.”

Brous talked about her trip to Liberia and meeting Leymah Gbowee, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to end the Second Liberian Civil War. She gathered women in prayer to end the war, and they kept praying until they won peace.

“God stands with the righteous,” Brous said. “Every social movement has one person who takes one crazy step forward. The time is coming that we will not be able to stomach cruel and heartless policies that harm families yearning for something better.”

She told the story of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his family trying to cross the Rio Grande River. From El Salvador, they had tried to migrate to the United States and were stopped in Mexico. Tired of waiting to present their case for asylum, he swam his daughter, Valeria, across the river and left her safely. As he swam away to bring his wife across, Valeria jumped into the water trying to follow him. He saved her by putting her inside his shirt, but they were both swept away by the current as his wife Tania watched. The photo of their bodies, seen around the world, shows Valeria with her arm around her father’s neck, out of love.

When we see the picture of Oscar and Valeria, “what will we do?” Brous asked. “Turn away, wish that we could do something more? Holy Hutzpah will make us rise up until our policies actually reflect our values.”

“This is not an action plan,” she said. “If we used just one-tenth of our spiritual and material resources we would find a solution.” Abraham stood up to God; all we need to do is stand up to elected officials, she continued.

We, she told the congregation, are called to lead by moral intuition, to live with hutzpah that will fuel social movements to make change and peace possible, to claim the audacity that is the birthright of the descendants of Abraham.

“That might be what we were placed here for, to use our Holy Hutzpah to fight for the change that the world so desperately needs,” Brous said.

The Rev. George Wirth presided. Lynn Stahl, who co-leads the Chautauqua Dialogues program, read the scriptures. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, led the Motet Choir in “The Lord Is My Shepherd” by Will Todd. The Edmund E. Robb – Walter C. Shaw Fund supports this week’s services.

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the morning worship column. This past winter she made her acting debut as Miss Maudy in To Kill A Mockingbird at the Lucille Ball Little Theater in Jamestown. She edited the forthcoming history of the Jewish presence at Chautauqua and wrote the history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd for its 125th anniversary this summer. She is a member of the Chautauqua Lake Central School Board and lives year-round in Chautauqua with her dog, Max.