One difference between the rationalist and non-rationalist/ mystical approaches to Judaism is in avodas Hashem, the service of God. Rationalists understand the purpose of mitzvos, and religious life in general, as furthering intellectual and moral goals for the individual and society. Mystics agree that mitzvos provide intellectual and moral benefits, but see their primary function as performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual or celestial forces.
In the past, I have mentioned several examples of this. One is the mitzvah of mezuzah. For the rationalist Rishonim, mezuzah serves only to remind one of one’s duties to God; whereas with the rise of mysticism came the idea that it also serves as a metaphysical protective device for the home. Another example is netilas yadayim. For the rationalist Rishonim, the mitzvah of washing one’s hands in the morning serves only hygienic and psychological purposes, whereas with the rise of mysticism came the idea that one is removing harmful spiritual forces. A third and potent example is the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, sending away the mother bird before taking the eggs. For the rationalist Rishonim, this was all about practicing compassion, whereas with the rise of mysticism came the idea that it is all about engineering a celestial process involving angels and God.
But there is another mitzvah in which the difference between the two schools of thought is reflected, and it's perhaps the most significant of all: the mitzvah of learning Torah.
For the rationalist Rishonim, learning Torah serves to increase one's knowledge, and to refine one's character, via moral lessons and learning the commandments. (See my post on The Rishonim on Torah Study.) That is it, and that is all. Which is not, of course, to trivialize these functions - from a rationalist perspective, this is of immense importance!
With the rise of mysticism, on the other hand, came a new and primary function of Torah study. As expressed by R. Chaim of Volozhin in Nefesh HaChaim, the primary function of Torah study was now seen as being to metaphysically sustain the universe, via the creation of spiritual "worlds." (See my post on The Goal of Torah Study.)
The ramifications of this difference are vast and far-reaching, affecting everything from one's study curriculum to the value and role of kollel. I plan to explore this in future posts. Meanwhile, chag same'ach, and for readers in Canada, here is my schedule over the next week:
Shavuos - Beth Zion in Montreal
Shabbos - Zichron Yisrael in Toronto
Sunday morning, 9am - "The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought" - at Shaarei Tefillah
Monday evening - Parlor meeting, relating to the Encyclopedia and Museum - please email me if you are interested in attending.