Doth My Redeemer Live?

Like other Orthodox Jews, members of the Lubavitcher Hasidim pray daily for the Messiah to come. But they do so with a difference. According to their 250-year-old tradition, there is in each generation at least one righteous Jew who is worthy of being the Messiah. In this generation, the Lubavitchers believe, that man is readily identifiable: he is their own rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the international Chabad movement, the best-known, most influential and aggressive Hasidic sect.

Last week, as Lubavitchers around the world celebrated Schneerson's 90th birthday, pressure grew among his estimated 250,000 followers to do for the rebbe what he has so far refrained from doing himself: reveal his Messianic identity. In some 70 cities from Canada to Israel, rabbinical judges (most of them Lubavitchers) issued a joint declaration calling on all Jews to recognize Schneerson as "the Rabbi of all Israel" and to beseech God "that this generation should merit that he be revealed as the Moshiach [Hebrew for Messiah]." But in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where the rebbe is recuperating from a stroke, many of the Lubavitchers saw no need to wait for further confirmation. "I believe the rebbe is the Moshiach," says Shifra Hendrie, who initiated a dinner for 3,000 Lubavitch women last January to help promote that belief among Jews and Gentiles alike.

Most Jews do not share that conviction - or welcome the Lubavitchers' provocative "Messiah is on the way" publicity campaign -although millions respect the rebbe himself. "Of course he is not the Messiah," says Avraham Ravitz, leader of the ultraorthodox Degel HaTorah Party in Israel. "They push the Messiah like they're promoting a product. That's not the way it's supposed to be." But David Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi and head of the Shalom Hartman Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies, in Jerusalem, is more tolerant. "While the idea of the rebbe as the Messiah has enormous significance for the Lubavitcher community," he says, "it hasn't changed anyone's plans for the summer."

Jewish history, not surprisingly, is strewn with false messiahs. The warrior Bar Kokhba, who led a disastrous revolt against the Romans in the second century, was considered by some Jewish sages of his era to be the anointed one. So was the mesmerizing Sabbatai Zevi, a wealthy Turkish Jew whose eventual apostasy to Islam in the 17th century traumatized the Jewish communities of East Europe, where the Hasidic movement was born. Partly in reaction to the Zevi debacle, the Lubavitcher Hasids (the word means "pious ones") developed a highly sophisticated theology-at once rational and mystical in which the rebbe is regarded as more than just an ordinary man and thus a candidate for Messiah. Above all, he is a tzaddik, or righteous man, whose "collective" soul can elevate other human beings in the cosmic process of redemption.

The final stage of this redemptive process, Schneerson has told his adherents, is now at hand. The gulf war, whose outcome the rebbe predicted, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the return of Jews to Israel, are all signs, the rebbe insists, of the Messiah's arrival in this "generation." If Schneerson is the Messiah, he's going to be busy. According to ancient tradition, he'll rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, return all the Jews to Israel, establish universal peace and usher in the resurrection of the dead. How he'll accomplish all this is unclear but the faithful are certain that it's all possible. "He symbolizes God to his generation," says Rabbi Simon Jacobsen, head of Chabad's massive publications program. "He has the capacity to heal the world and unite Jew and Gentile. Maimonides, the medieval scholar whom all Jews accept, says that when we see a man who has these qualifications, we must follow him as the Messiah."

Although the rebbe is not well and has no heir to assume his mantle, Lubavitcher officials insist that he will not die before the Messianic era begins. They can hasten that moment, they firmly believe, by awakening Messianic hope on a worldwide scale. Last week's birthday bash was designed to let the world know that a man capable of bringing about the final redemption is among us. On the streets of Manhattan, bearded Lubavitchers pressed literature on Jewish pedestrians. In Washington, D.C., Nobel laureate Elie Weisel and other non-Lubavitchers paid homage to Schneerson without, however, hailing him as the Messiah. In Crown Heights, families like the Rivkins gathered under his portrait to study and recite blessings in honor of their rebbe. " When the redemption comes, there will be no more death, no more suffering, no pain in childbirth," says Chana Pinson, a Crown Heights mother of eight, who is pregnant again. "This," she says, patting her abdomen, "is my redemption baby."