Blumenthal notes that according to Kellner,
(1) In discussing which attributes can be properly ascribed to God and, again, in dealing with the purpose of the commandments, Maimonides takes a firm nominalist and instrumentalist position: all language about God is metaphor and all commands from God are for the purpose of allowing humans to improve themselves. Kellner follows this position and applies the same nominalist and instrumentalist approach to Jewish law / halakhah (ch. 2); to the idea of holiness as applied to God, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel (ch.3); to the concepts of purity and impurity (ch. 4); to the Hebrew language (ch. 5); to terms that describe God’s physical presence such as Kavod and Shekhinah (ch. 6); to the distinction between Jew and non-Jew (ch. 7); and to the term “angels” (ch. 8).
Thus, on the subject of Jewish law, Kellner writes: “[H]alakhah may be understood … as constituting or creating a social reality in the world in which humans live and interact. Understood in this fashion, halakhah is nothing other than an expression of God’s will, which could in principle have been differently expressed” (36) and “Had Abraham, for example, been a Navajo and not a Hebrew, the Torah would have been written in the Navajo language and the specific histories, laws, customs, and ceremonials would have reflected Navajo, not Hebrew, realities” (41-42). And, on the subject of holiness, Kellner writes: “Given Maimonides’ nominalism and his insistence upon the absolute transcendence of God, he could not attribute extra-mental existence to a general term like ‘sanctity,’ and he could not have held that there is any property shared by God and humans…. [P]eople, places, times, objects are sacred ‘only’ in an institutional sense” (89).
(2) Kellner very consistently contrasts Maimonides’ nominalist and instrumentalist view of the Jewish sources with the ontological, essentialist view of other Jewish thinkers. In this view, holiness, purity, etc. reside ontologically in the universe, and institutions like law, the Jewish people, ritual rules, and so on are but manifestations of that inherent holiness. Also, in this view, observing the commandments is beneficial to the soul of the person doing the commandment and, according to some, even to the universe, and disobeying the commandments actually causes harm to the soul and, according to some, to the universe itself. The ontological, essentialist position allows for “the multifarious denizens of the universe so beloved of ancient Jewish mysticism: angels and demons, forces, powers, occult properties, all those aspects of the cosmos which we today would lump together under the rubric ‘supernatural’” (12). It also allows for “the manipulation of God’s name and the use of amulets and charms” (22) and astrology, as well as the physical manifestations of the Divine: the Kavod, the Shekhinah, and the Created Light. In this view, these entities are real; that is, they have extramental existence.
Kellner consistently identifies the ontological, essentialist tradition as the view of the Heikhalot literature, Sefer Yetsirah, Sefer HaRazim, Halevi, Nahmanides, the Zohar, and Lubavitch hasidism as well as that of “his rabbinic colleagues in North Africa and the Middle East” (29). Insofar as this view precedes Maimonides, Kellner labels it “proto-kabbalah” (18-30 and elsewhere). It was against this stream of proto-kabbalah that Maimonides fought. It was this ontological essentialism that Maimonides struggled to eradicate (5-11, 287). He did this, not by frontal attack, but by “ignor[ing] the opposition wherever he can, stating, or at least, hinting at the truth as he sees it” (4); by “offer[ing] an alternative, carefully presented so as to arouse the least possible opposition and resentment” (17). The refocusing of the Maimonidean oeuvre on the proto-kabbalists is Kellner’s chief contribution to Maimonidean studies in this book.
Blumenthal argues against this understanding of Rambam, but be that as it may, I find these words beautiful, in and of themselves, regardless of who holds by them. If Rambam didn't hold by them, then even so, I myself will.
Note the following words of Dr. Nachum Klaftner's, in the comments to http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2007/12/grave-of-onkelos.html:
First, I said,
As for reading the Zohar like Midrash: Rav Hirsch is instructive in this respect. It has been remarked that he was not antagonistic to Kabbalah, for he studied Zohar (Rabbi Klugman's biography, Dayan Grunfeld's introduction to Horeb, Rabbi Elias perush to 19 Letters). However, this claim misses the fact that Rav Hirsch read the Zohar totally different than everyone else. In his 19 Letters, he decries the "magical mechanism" and "theosophical worlds" of Kabbalah. An example of how he reads Midrash is found near the beginning of his Chumash Bereshit: he says that man's deeds influence the heavens (so to speak), for G-d takes cognizance of what we do and He responds accordingly. Notice how Rav Hirsch hav removed all "theosophy" of upper worlds and "magical mechanism" of our deeds mechanically causing spiritual forces to rain down.
Dr. Klaftner replied to me,
Yes, I think what you are saying is exactly correct. Rav Hirsch removed the "theurgic" efficacy of mitzvoth from his theology. Mitzvos are efficacious and tranformative only as they impact the mind, soul, thinking, feelings, and personality of the observer of the mitzvot.
Dr. Klaftner then replied to someone else,
But the mitzva in Hirsch's (and other rationalists') views the mitzvos do not push buttons in the cosmos which create automatic consequences in ruchniyus [spirituality]. The spiritual consequences of mitzvos are mediated by their impact on our relatinship with HaShem. To use kabbalistic language, "Yichudim" [unifications; Kabbalah holds by certain theosophical and theurgic divisions and unifications in G-d's metaphysical essence] (according to Hirsch and other rationalists) only occur in the kavana [intent] of the person performing the mitzva. The level of the kavana and the internalizations of the meaning of the mitzva is, by definition, synonymous with the "yichud" [unification].
Hirsch, in terms of kabbala, was a nominalist, as far as I understood him. Meaning, that "spirituality" is an internal experience inside the Jew, and not an external reality with its own metaphysics. (Nominalism is written about at length in Menachem Kellner's book, Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, though I think some of his attributions to Maimonides are inaccurate and unfair, particularly in his chapter on Maimonides' nominalist philosophy of the halakha.)
The impact on the world around us by mitzvos according is profound according to the rationalists, but not via magical mechanisms. Rather via influence on other people (teaching Torah, giving tzedaka, serving as a role model, creating and supporting institutions and schools, etc.), or directly in the physical world (ve-asisa me'akeh le-gagecha, etc.). The influence of the mitzvos on others, according to rationalists, takes place in the social and interpersonal realm, not in a magical realm. The interpersonal and social realm for a rationalist like Hirsch IS SPIRITUAL, and the language of kabbala is a metaphor for it. There is not a "mystical world" separate from the social sphere. It is a subset of the social sphere. For a mystic it is a superficial representation of a deeper and independent spiritual world and reality.
Anyway, that is my understanding. Others will disagree strongly.
In short, the mitzva is NOT magical at all according to rationalists. Not in any way. It is a symbolic enactment of a truth, idea, etc. which when internalized properly in its performance enhances our knowledge of and relationship with HKBH [G-d]. But it does this via normal, social, psychological, conceptual, and cognitive modes of activity, and not through anything metaphysical entities like angels or sefiros. The sefiros, according to Hirsch, and a way of describing HaShem's interactions in the world, but are mostly a heuristic and moshol [parable] and not an independent reality. That is my understanding anyway. I'm not a big baki [expert] in Hirsch.
I would add that Rav Hirsch isn't the only one with his shita [ideology]. If you read God Man and History by Rabbi Berkovits, or The Faith of Judaism by Rabbi Isidore Epstein, and other similar works of modern rationalist rabbis, they all follow a philosophy of mitzvot (a) creating sociological effects bein adam l'havero [between man and man], (b) creating a relationship between you and Hashem, (c) impressing certain ideas and lessons into your mind. Check Horeb and read what the six categories of mitzvot are; they all fit into these three I have said. What these rabbis all reject is that mizvot have a pushbutton effect.
For example, I cited Rav Hirsch (somewhere in parshat Bereshit) that our deeds affect heaven, because God sees our deeds and behaves towards us accordingly. This is obviously related to the idea of our deeds affecting the upper worlds, but see that Rav Hirsch has removed all theurgy and theosophy. This is an aspect all commentators I have seen have missed - they all take pains to show that Rav Hirsch was not opposed to the Kabbalah, but they miss that his Kabbalah was different from everyone else's Kabbalah.
Another example: Rav J. H. Hertz to Avot chapter 3, where it says the Torah was used to create the world, says that this teaches the world was created with a spiritual purpose underlying it, AS IF the Torah had been used to create it (cf. Rav Hirsch to that same mishna). Rav Hirsch within the first page or two of Bereshit, says that the Torah preceded the world SO TO SPEAK, for the same reason Rav Hertz gives. Rav Hirsch to the Mishlei about the Torah being the blueprint for creation, says that natural laws and Torah laws are similar, because just as nature does what God tells it to, so should we, and so Torah for us is like natural law for the world (this is a common theme in his writings). In all these, all theosophy has been expunged.
The point is that they [mitzvot] DO have an effect on the world - a real world effect! When I give tzedaka, the poor guy isn't hungry anymore! I didn't pull any spiritual strings - I had a real-world physical effect on the world, right before your eyes.
Now, obviously, this doesn't mean nothing happens if I walk into the Temple holding a sheretz [impure lizard]. It simply means that the lightning I'm hit with [I'm being whimsical], isn't due to an intrinsic interaction between the lizard and the holiness; rather G-d sees that I am doing a lav [prohibition], and He strikes me down with a giant disembodied hand from heaven [I'm being whimsical].
There is a Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah, [in which a gentile asks Rabbi Yochanan how the red heifer can cleanse from spiritual impurity, and] that Rabbi Yochanan gets rid of the gentile by saying that the red heifer is magic, pure and simple, hocus-pocus. He then says to his students that the dead do not defile and the ashes do not cleanse [i.e., he lied to the gentile; it is NOT magical]; [rather] it is all a "chok" [decree from G-d]. obviously, "chok" CANNOT mean that it is all a "magical" or spiritual phenomenon in the upper worlds or the like, because he just lied to the gentile and said it was davka [precisely] this! Instead, I'd interpret "chok" as meaning it is a practice with ethical or moral or symbolic significance to be impressed into our consciousness and to learn a lesson from, but no actual reality in the world.
See also Rabbi Shelomo Danziger describing Rav Hirsch's view of Kabbalah here and again here. Rabbi Danziger shows that Rav Hirsch stripped the mystical theurgy and theosophy from Kabbalah; Rabbi Danziger concludes there is "no doubt that what Rav Hirsch is offering is not mystical kabbalism but rational Rambam, pure and simple!"
So whether or not Rambam holds by the philosophy that Kellner sets forth, I personally find it a quite beautiful one for myself.
See also Maimonidean Rationalism: Part 2.