Early on in the days of this website, I had a post defining rationalism, which is linked on the right. However, since many readers have joined since then, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss it again - this time in a little more detail, and to contrast it with its opposite. My goal with this description is to leave the definition of rationalism sufficiently vague to include both medieval rationalists and contemporary rationalists; in a future post, I plan to spell out the differences between the two. Note that my use of the word "rationalism" is not identical to the dictionary definition, but I feel that my definition (adapted from that of Rabbi Dr. David Berger) is more useful in a Jewish context. Note too that I am using the antonym of "mystic"; it's not ideal, but it's the best I could come up with. And remember that these represent two ends of the spectrum, but there is a vast range of possibilities in between.
The differences between rationalists and non-rationalists fall into three categories:
Rationalists believe that knowledge is legitimately obtained by man via his reasoning and senses, and should preferably be based upon evidence/reason rather than faith, especially for far-fetched claims.
Mystics are skeptical of the ability of the human mind to arrive at truths, and prefer to base knowledge on revelation, or – for those who are not worthy of revelation – on faith in those who do experience revelation.
Rationalists value a naturalistic rather than supernatural interpretation of events, and perceive a consistent natural order over history - past, present and future. They tend to minimize the number of supernatural entities and forces.
Mystics prefer miracles, and believe them to be especially dominant in ancient history and the future messianic era. They tend to maximize the number of supernatural entities and forces.
• THE SERVICE OF GOD
Rationalists understand the purpose of mitzvos, and one’s religious life in general, primarily (or solely) as furthering intellectual/moral goals for the individual and society.
Mystics see mitzvos as primarily performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual or celestial forces, with their reasons being either to accomplish this or ultimately incomprehensible.