Israeli Jews like to tell an old fable of a Russian Jew who goes to his rabbi in search of a job. The rabbi instructs him the man to stand at the village gate each morning and wait there to greet the Messiah when he comes. For this, the rabbi offers the man a ruble an month. "The pay is so low", the man complains. "Yes," says the rabbi, "but the job security is excellent."
That mythological gatekeeper would be scanning the want ads today, according to a group of ultra-orthodox Jews. Israeli members of the large and powerful Hasidic movement Habad are convinced that at any moment, the Redeemer will arrive in Jerusalem. In a burst of fervor, they have erected yellow billboards across Israel, instructing passersby to "Prepare for the coming of the Messiah." bumper stickers carry the same message, as do electrified signs atop Habad cars.
A full page ad announcing "The Time for Your Redemption Has Arrived has run in the New York Times and Habad speakers have been crisscrossing the US to deliver their message. And who might that Messiah be? Easy, say Israel's Habadniks: their leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 89, of Brooklyn, NY.
Utter blasphemy is what many other religious Jews say. Critics of Habad, which is also known as the Lubavitch movement, after the Belarussian village of its founding, are both angry and worried. Believer Schach, one of Israel's leading Ultra-Orthodox rabbis has publicly called Schneerson "insane" and "infidel" and a "false Messiah". The local papers carry Schach's outrageous charge that Schneerson's followers are "eaters of trayf", food such as pork that is forbidden to Jews Other detractors fret that Habad's Messianic passions will provoke a schism in Judaism or lead to mass disillusionment, driving believers from the fold. Says philosopher Rabbi David Hartman: "The outpouring of Messianic fervor is always a very disturbing development."
Within Habad, a well-financed organization with 30,000 followers in Brooklyn and at least 100,000 worldwide, the expectation of the Messiah's coming has been building since Schneerson in the past few years began exhorting his disciples more and more to actively prepare for the day.
The crumbling of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union's demise, explains Habad spokesperson Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, "lead one to think that these extraordinary, shattering events are a precursor to something even more cataclysmic.
Anticipation sharpened after the gulf war, whose impact on Israel Schneerson supposedly predicted. Before the fighting began, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, or spiritual leader, declared that Israel would be the "safest place in the world". Actually, 74 Israelis died, all but six of them from heart problems caused by the terror of 39 Iraqi Scud-missile attacks. Still, the loss of so few lives seemed to many Lubavitchers the result of divine Providence.
Last month the rebbe gave permission to one of his flock to begin building a house for him in Kfar Habad, the movement's village in Israel. Schneerson has never set foot in the Jewish state, and his followers believe he will only do so at the moment of Redemption. The ground breaking was seen as a sign that the time is near. "The Messiah will come any day," declared Moshe Kruger, standing on the plot for Schneerson's house.
It is not an official tenet of Habad's belief that Schneerson is the Messiah, but many of his followers say outright that he is, and some have petitioned him to "reveal" himself. The rebbe has on a few occasions denied that he is the Redeemer but he has done little to discourage speculation. Two weeks ago, Schneerson received a vote of confidence from renowned Talmudic scholar Adin Steinsaltz. Though a Lubavitcher himself, Steinsaltz has a reputation for sober erudition, so it caused a small stir among non-Habad Orthodox when he said Schneerson was the "most likely person on the scene now" to become the Messiah.
Steinsaltz, who points out that Messianic expectation is a fundamental tenet of the Jewish faith, believes that each generation produces a candidate and that ordinary people can speed his coming by creating an atmosphere for Redemption. Other scholars reject Habad's active campaigning for the event. Followers of Rabbi Schach, a longtime rival of Schneerson's, believe the arrival of the Messiah is God's business not man's. "When he comes, he comes," says Avraham Ravitz, a member of the Knesset. "It's crazy to force the Messiah to come by selling him like Coca-Cola, with jingles and stickers and billboards.
Habad's critics also say the group may be creating the conditions for large scale spiritual disillusionment. "If you convince people that the Messiah is coming and he doesn't," says Amnon Levy, author of a book on the ultra-Orthodox, "a whole generation may lose its faith."
Concern that Schneerson might disappoint his devotees was heightened earlier this month when the rebbe suffered a mild stroke. But even the leader's death would not disprove his Messianic potential, argues Steinsaltz, who believes the Redeemer will be a mortal, an have successors. In the meantime, the rebbe's adherents are praying he will recover in time to bring a happy denouement to the drama they have been so eagerly anticipating.