Forward Thinking

Lance Armstrong and the Meaning of Chutzpah

By Robert Zaretsky

Two confessions: I am neither a speaker of Yiddish nor a fan of professional cycling. But as we hover in the halftime break of Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, I can’t help but wonder if the televised confession has implications for the meaning of chutzpah.

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Lance Armstrong

Most of us are familiar with Leo Rosten’s classic definition: chutzpah denotes “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery…presumption plus arrogance as no other language can do justice to.”

As an illustration of the word’s usage, Rosten famously offered the man who, having murdered his parents, then seeks the court’s mercy because he’s an orphan. There is decidedly a dark element to chutzpah, one that smacks of the ineffable, the awesome, even the amoral. There is nothing cute to chutzpah, though there may well be something sublime.

Can Lance Armstrong’s cheating be justified under Jewish law? Read Micah Kelber’s assessment.

But one needn’t be a lexicographer, much less a Jew, to notice the word has changed. We have moved from the sublime to the slick. Passing through the Cool Hand Luke or Sky Masterson type we now seem mired in the bog of Disney heroes, where chutzpah morphs into pluckiness.

I think about my kids who ask to be paid for doing their homework. I chuckle in admiration before I send them packing to their rooms.

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