Before going on with the topic, a word in response to some of the comments on the previous post. The Rambam is still a shitas Rishonim which can undoubtedly be defended from attack. The question here is not “How do I answer up a shverrer Rambam” – the question is “Which of the varied approaches to ta'amei hamitzvot is most philosophically satisfying and/or fits best with the presentation of Chazal”. I wouldn’t start puting band-aids on the Rambam before hearing out some of the opposing views. And on that note, moving on.,.
The Ramban bases his approach on a Midrash which asks the rhetorical question whether it makes any difference to G-d whether an animal is killed by having its neck cut (kosher shechita) or some other means – of course not. The purpose of mitzvos, says the Midrash, is to perfect human behavior. It is not because G-d is concerned with the cow’s welfare that he commanded shechita, or because he is concerned with a bird’s welfare that he commanded shiluach hakan. Rather, the reason for these commandments is because if one becomes accustomed to killing animals in an inhumane way, it desensitizes one to cruelty and leads to human moral failing.
Ramban still suffers from some of the difficulties raised earlier. For example, if the purpose of the mitzvah of shechita is to inculcate humane behavior, why the exceptions for ben pakua or melika? There is still a reductionist element to the whole approach, and there is still the difficulty of why not say “ee efshi” when behavior is inhumane or unethical. Nonetheless, the Ramban gets us out of other jams. It is far easier to argue that kosher laws are designed to create a psychology of restraint from gluttony than to argue the health benefits of refraining from pig. I think most of the rationalists writing blogs (no, I have not done a formal survey) who align themselves with the Rambam end up veering into the Ramban’s territory when they address ta’amei hamitzvot.
I think the best illustration of the difference between Rambam and Ramban comes from the mitzvah of tzedakah. A Rambam-centric view would claim that the reason for charity is G-d’s love for the poor. As the gemara itself asks, one could reasonably ask why a G-d who is benevolent to the poor created poor people in the first place! The Ramban’s approach avoids that pitfall. G-d’s will is a gezeirah – an unfathomable decree. We cannot say about G-d that he has cares, like, dislikes, wants, etc. However, what we can say is that G-d gave mankind the opportunity to achieve perfection. Instead of focusing on the benefit to the recipient of charity (Rambam view), the Ramban would focus on the giver – ethical people act with benevolence, and therefore G-d gave us a mitzvah of charity to perfect our ethical character. Mitzvos are didactic; they are designed to teach people a baseline of morality upon which the ethical person will build (Ramban on ‘v’asisa hayashar v’hatov’).
What I see as the biggest shortcoming to this whole approach (again, see Maharal) is that it is inconsistent with practical law. If mitzvos’ ultimate meaning stems from the didactic lesson they impart, why do mitzvos have any value if one is unaware of that didactic lesson? To take one example, “bala matzah yatzah” – if matzah is shoved down a person’s throat on Pesach night willy-nilly, he fulfills a mitzvah of achilas matzah even if unaware of the lessons of freedom behind the deed! According to the Ramban, isn't this awareness the raison d'etra of the mitzvah, the most crucial ingredient to fulfilling the commandment?