Word of the Day

Bitahon: Have Faith in God - and the Defense Ministry

Trusting that something out there - whether a deity or an army - will save you can be reassuring.

“O Israel, trust [b’tah] thou in the Lord! He is their help and their shield!” reads a verse from Psalms 115 that Jews traditionally recite as part of the Hallel service on holidays and at the beginning of each new Hebrew month.

Trust in God – described in traditional Judaism as bitahon – is the theme of that psalm, and of many a sermon or rabbinical recommendation for dealing with hardship. What Jews “need more than anything else in order to worship God Almighty” is “bitahon in him in all things,” states “Hovot Halevavot” (“Duties of the Heart”), one of the major classic Jewish works on mussar, or improving one’s character.

If bitahon had only this narrow meaning of “trust in God,” then Israel’s minister ofbitahon would presumably be in charge of strengthening religious faith. Instead, the sar habitahon is the defense minister, and Misrad Habitahon is the Defense Ministry, not the Ministry of Faith.

While bitahon gets translated as “defense” in connection with the ministry, in other contexts “defense” is haganah in Hebrew (as with the Israel Defense Forces) and bitahon means “security” (as in the United Nations' Moetzet Habitahon, or Security Council). Bitahon can also mean “certainty” and, of course, “trust” and “faith” (as in bitahon atzmee, meaning “self-esteem” or, more literally, “faith in oneself”).

While it may seem like something of a leap (of faith?) to go from trusting God to Defense Ministry, the meaning may not have shifted as much as it appears.

If Jewish leaders told their followers to trust God as a way to help them get through pogroms and expulsions in past centuries, Israelis today are expected to have faith in the strength and capabilities of the army to get through rocket attacks, bombings and wars.

In effect, this is actually one of the ultra-Orthodox arguments against serving in the military: We have faith, they say, that God will save us, not the army (as if the two were incompatible).

Trusting that something out there – whether a deity or an army – will save you can be reassuring, but as with all kinds of blind faith, it can also obscure flaws with myths. After all, Israelis are expected to just believe that the treasury needs to throw more and more money into the bottomless barrel labeled ma’arekhet habitahon, or “security establishment,” even if the money would actually be funding outsize pensions or a radio station. And why should we need to know any more about government actions as long as we are reassured that sibot bithoniyot, or “security considerations,” were involved? In the ma’arekhet habitahon we trust.

Perhaps “minister of faith” is not really that bad of a description for the defense minister after all.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.