Interview by Yael Assor
Yael Assor: The book first came out in Hebrew and was then translated to English. I was wondering why did you decide to publish this book first in Hebrew, and why publish it in English at all? Are there any prominent differences between the Hebrew and English versions?
Yoram Bilu: All my books first came out in Hebrew. Since I find it easier to write lengthy texts in my mother tongue, it would have been awkward not to look first for a local publisher. But there is also ideology behind it. Studying phenomena pertinent to Israeli society, I always felt obliged to give priority to local readership (papers are a different story). This holds for this book as well, as It sheds light, among other things, on the peculiarly Israeli face of Chabad and on significant processes within Israeli society (for example, Mizrachim joining Ashkenazi-based Hasidic groups). At the same time, The messianic surge in Chabad is a golden opportunity to study fundamental issues of religious belief and experience, and this justifies publication in English (e.g. the role of culture in shaping basic cognitive processes through which the Rebbe becomes manifest). The English version is a bit tighter.
Yael Assor: On page 259, you write, “Believers experience the Rebbe directly and do not perceive the media that bears his image as standing between the Rebbe and themselves. The ethnographic writing of the anthropologist is a similar kind of mediator; he or she can also vanish from the reader’s consciousness.” Indeed, throughout most of the book, story after story, we read of the Rebbe’s miraculous presence, and to some extent become witnesses of his continuous presence. At the same time, your presence as the ethnographer who mediates these stories to us gets backgrounded. Can you elaborate on your choice to take up this style? Would it be correct to say that by engaging this style, your Chabbad interlocutors were right about your own contribution in disseminating the belief in the Rebbe?
Yoram Bilu: My uncritical perspective in showering the readers with miraculous stories was not unintended. I wanted them to be immersed in the enchanted world of the Meshichistim, in the messianic ecology they constitute, which I find all-encompassing and at times overwhelming. By doing so I myself embodied the dialectics of the mediation process. I agree that some parts of the book can be read as if written from a credulous perspective, though others account for the miracles using social science explanatory models. Aligning my reply with your next question, I have to qualify the “very experience-near book” designation. While I sought to depict the inner worlds of the radical messianists, I relied on texts (probably edited thus adding more layers of mediation) more than on interviews and observations. By doing so, I left unexplored the darker side of experiential worlds of the Meshichistim, where allegedly conflict, frustration, and doubts also reside. Focusing on these aspects would have called for a very different book.
Yael Assor: Relatedly, in the Introduction, the two last chapters and the Conclusion, you still take a more distant point of view, discussing your researcher position, contextualizing this study in contemporary theoretical debates and parallel phenomena. Why did you decide to still incorporate this tone in this otherwise very experience-near book?
Yoram Bilu: See above. Also, my tone has to do with my attempt to calibrate the not-so-compatible fields of psychology and anthropology, which are my combined disciplinary background. Note, for example, that I use theoretical models from cognitive psychology, such as dissonance reduction or signal detection, as departure points in explaining how the absent Rebbe becomes present. My critique of these theories in the book is not designed to supplant them but rather to supplement and enrich them by staying attuned to contextual noises which these theories usually discount. Lastly, I consider myself a modernist at heart, still viewing anthropology as a scientific project (admittedly by stretching the definition of science) and thus necessarily as a comparative one.
Yael Assor: A concept the book centrally engages is “virtual Rebbe.” You argue that “virtual” is not the opposite of “unreal,” but a different form of realness. Can you expand on how you think this concept contributes to current discussions about “religious imagination,” a term broadly utilized to discuss non-physical dimensions of the cultural life (including subjective and intersubjective experience) of religious movements?
Yoram Bilu: Clinging to virtual worlds is in fact at the heart of each and every religion. The sustenance of the virtual Rebbe in messianic Chabad is in this sense just an illustration, albeit uncommon and extreme, of the horizons opened before 21st century believers in cultivating the religious imagination. The rapid development of virtual realities through new technologies may bolster this imagination – as my book shows. Does it mean that a contemporary believer enjoys an epistemological edge over a first century believer? I am not so sure. One could claim that human imagination – free floating, not bound by technology – could expand rather than curtail the religious horizons shaped by the new technologies.
Yael Assor: Throughout the book you offer a very nuanced analysis of how the Rebbe’s presence is maintained with the help of technological means and in correspondence with contemporary world events and global trends. All this made me wonder about the role of American neoliberal ideology in informing this dynamic. I was thus curious about your take on this: do you see such connection between American neoliberalism and the Meshichists’ manner of making the Rebbe present?
Yoram Bilu: Yes, I do see such a connection. After all, Chabad was reshaped in the 1940s and 1950s in America, with its epicenter in NYC. Its technological adeptness is but one expression of adopting aspects of the American ethos and style. In a globalized world Chabad could be viewed as a very successful transnational firm. Note that Harold Blum called Chabad an American Religion. There are some parallels, I think (with all due differences) between Chabad’s expansion and the growing popularity of Evangelical Chrisianity in various parts of the world – and these similarities are not unrelated to a capitalist, neoliberal theology.