The great Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha’am, who understood probably better than any other early Zionist thinker the tensions between the movement’s aspirations and the Jewish tradition, wrote that the medieval theologian Moses Maimonides “did not recognize any value to the principle of nationhood.” Examining Maimonides’ speculations about the messianic era in his legal magnum opus, known as the Mishneh Torah, James A. Diamond concludes that Ahad Ha’am was “flatly wrong.”
Maimonides’ messianic vision [should] resonate deeply across the spectrum of Zionist ideologies. [It] is purely political: “There will be no distinction between the messianic period and the present except for a relief from foreign subjugation.” History will not end, and it will not be fundamentally transformed. Neither will nature. . . . Maimonidean messianism did not depend on supernatural intervention any more than secular Zionism did. Indeed, Maimonides had already rejected what would become the main traditionalist argument against modern Zionism: it was a blasphemous affront against God for not relying on Him alone to effect a return to Zion.
And what of Maimonides’ call for a monarchy that appears closer in form to the one he served under Sultan Saladin than to a modern liberal democracy? Even here, a careful reading of Maimonides’ construct of the messianic king really amounts to an ideal non-king. According to Maimonides, what motivates rabbinic messianic longing is the unfettered freedom “to pursue Torah and its wisdom.” It is decidedly not driven by a desire “to rule the entire world, and not so that they would subjugate the nations, and not so that the nations would exalt them.”
[Moreover], the kind of God that Maimonides’ messianism contemplates as eventually consuming the thinking of all human beings is precisely the God who is revealed, incrementally, and daily, in modern Israel. Israel’s profound advances in all the disciplines required for understanding the creation across the spectrum of both the sciences and the humanities is Zionism’s realization of Maimonides’ messianic dream. Only the practical end of exilic existence enabled the astonishing scope of this intellectual explosion, for, as Maimonides asserted in his Guide of the Perplexed, the misery of living under the domination of foreign powers squelches Jewish potential.