Mysticism and Rationalism

A lot has been said on-line about Mystical (e.g. Qabbalah) and Rationalist (e.g. the Rambam) approaches to Judaism.

In this post, I aspire to propose clear definitions of these terms. Because much of the existing discussion suffers from a lack of precision to the point of inconsistency. For example, the Rambam was a Rationalist by the standards of his day. But after the invention of science, scientific method, and checking things empirically, would we today use the term “Rationalist” for someone who followed untested worldviews that stood unquestioned for 1,500 years, the way the Rambam did Artistotle’s Natural Philosophy?

So what do we mean by “Rationalism” that is seems to fitting for the Rambam but not for a Mequbal who spent his life trying to ascend to higher worlds and experience the Divine?

My proposal:

I think that rather than talk about Rationalism vs Mysticism in terms of what one believes is true or how one reaches one’s conclusions, I think the only way the terms can be used with clear definitions is in attitude and inspiration.

A rationalist is inspired by the design he can see in how the world works. He therefore looks for the explainable, and will favor parsimonious explanations that don’t require too many assumptions beyond what accords with common experience.

The mystic is inspired by how much beyond his ken everything is, the emotional experience of getting glimpses beyond his reach. He will therefore look for explanations that cover more ground than the rationalist will, that require a far greater body of received knowledge. (“Received [knowledge]” being the literal translation of the word “qabbalah“.) And that emphasize the emotion-experiential relationship with the Divine rather than a comprehensible path to one.

This also explains why, even though it’s not inherent to Mystical philosophy, people who pursue Mystical paths in hashkafah are also more likely to believe the maximalist version of midrashim, those that make the most miraculous claims. The Rambam sides with Shemu’el’s version of the messianic vision in which nothing changes but “subjugation to [foreign] kingdoms”. The Ramban or a Chassid is more likely to speak of how shuls and batei medrash flew to Israel. Did the Red Sea “just” split, or did it split into 13 channels with food and even delicacies if you just reached into the walls? And so on. The miraculous satisfies the Mystic’s desire for a world beyond comprehension, but it strains the Rationalist’s need for a G-d Whose Brilliance overawes us.

And while Qabbalah normally is more appealing to someone of Mystical inclinations, that isn’t always to. Rav Aryeh Kaplan taught on very rationalist terms, and his books were popular because of how much his work made hard things logical from first principle. And then we have schools of thought like the Maharal’s, which tend to go mystical, but don’t draw from the Zohar or the Ari za”l, the sources we tend to associate with Qabbalah.

And so, I think that there has been too much confusion about what Mysticism and Rationalism are, primarily because we’re looking in the wrong venue. They aren’t defined by sets of beliefs, or by different kind of ways to reach one’s beliefs. It starts earlier — with what kinds of beliefs one finds inspiring. That division will create tendencies in various issues, but only that — tendencies. If you try defining these terms by those issues, you end up trying to work with inconsistent data.

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  1. RAM says:

    Where do you put Ramchal in the mystical-rational spectrum? He seems to show aspects of both mindsets. putting mystical concepts in a rationally ordered framework.

    • micha says:

      Well, I agree that he seems to show both mindsets, but not in the way you describe.

      Being a systemic thinker doesn’t make you a rationalist. The Ari’s addition to Qabbalah was nothing if not a framework to give a more consistent system to understanding tzimtzum with the whole sheviras hakeilim model, and how the sefiros interact by systemitizing the concept of partzufim.

      So here’s my problem labeling him.

      If we look at biographical data, such as R Yaakov Feldman’s notes here , the Ramchal was clearly trying to experience the Ineffable Divine.

      But if we look at his Qabbalaistic writings, eg Qela”ch Pischei Chokhmah, he really focuses on unpacking metaphors into a system that makes sense from first principles. That is where I see his Rationalism; he is trying to show the brilliance of the system and how much it makes sense.

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