The Power of Words: Healing Narratives among Lubavitcher Hasidim

Abstract

The debate concerning the relation between magic and religion has a long history. Instead of separating religion and magic as separate domains, recent work on ritual examines how symbolic and pragmatic acts interrelate. After discussing current theories of religious healing and, specifically, the power of words in healing, this article examines how a group of Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews deals with sickness and the relation between the group’s use of biomedicine and religious healing. According to the group’s mystical text, Tanya, there is an intrinsic link between the physical and the spiritual and between religious words and the body. At times of sickness Lubavitchers communicate with the Rebbe, who instructs them to examine their religious texts. The manipulation of religious words mediated by the Rebbe results in bodily healing. The data confirm the Malinowskian hypothesis that symbolic measures come into play when pragmatic actions fail. Can Lubavitchers be characterized as holding a well-defined model of the healing process?