Defining Rationalism Vs. Mysticism
After considerable thought, I've decided to update my description of the differences between the rationalist and mystical schools of rabbinic thought. This is because I think it's important to add another category, that of supernatural entities. So, I would like to present the differences between rationalists and non-rationalists as falling into four related areas:
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.
(This relates to how, as we shall now discuss, rationalists see the universe as essentially following a natural order, and hence we can understand it via our senses and reasoning. According to mystics, the supernatural order is dominant, and thus truths about existence require revelation.)
II. NATURAL LAW
Rationalists value a naturalistic rather than supernatural interpretation of events, and perceive a consistent natural order over history, past present and future.
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.
III. SUPERNATURAL ENTITIES
Rationalists minimize the number of supernatural entities and forces, seeing them as threatening monotheism. They believe in God, and depending on where on the rationalist spectrum they fall, they may believe in a small number of other supernatural entities or none at all. Discussions of apparent supernatural entities in classical literature are reinterpreted or rejected.
Mystics tend to maximize the number of supernatural entities and forces. They can be either forces of holiness, or forces of evil. These include all kinds of angels and demons, astrological forces, sefirot (emanations), olamot (spiritual worlds), and an infinite number of other metaphysical entities.
IV. THE SERVICE OF GOD
Rationalists understand the purpose of mitzvos and one’s religious life in general as furthering intellectual and/or moral goals for the individual and society. Even chukkim serve to accomplish these functions, albeit in a way that is not immediately obvious.
Mystics accept that mitzvos serve intellectual and moral goals, but see the primary function of mitzvos as performing mechanistic manipulations of spiritual metaphysical forces. The reasons for mitzvos are either to accomplish these manipulations, or are ultimately incomprehensible.
(In related news, my book Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought is nearly finished!)