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“We Want to See Our King”: Apparitions in Messianic Habad


  • Yoram Bilu


Reports of apparitions of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last leader of the Habad Hasidic movement, have been spreading among the radically messianic Hasidim (meshichistim) in Israel, who maintain that the Rabbi, the designated Messiah, has not died. Expanding on the cognitive model of source misattribution, I seek to account for the apparitions by unpacking the messianic ecology cultivated by the meshichistim to make the absent Rabbi present. Habad's dialectical mysticism and anguish over the Rabbi's disappearance are likely to provide the mindset and motivation for sightings, but it is the rich array of icons and traces of the Rabbi, and mimetic practices in which they are embedded, that constitute the perceptual field where he can be seen. This cultural décor is particularly evident for apparitions in ritual arenas, while apparitions in mundane settings are often triggered by acute distress. Comparing the apparitions to visions in Christianity, I account for the lingering ambivalence toward apparitions in messianic Habad by highlighting the epistemological constraints imposed on them by the denial of the Rabbi's death. [apparitions, Habad Hasidism, signal detection theory, messianic ecology, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneeerson]