One of my favourite showdowns between the Rambam and the Ramban (can you imagine them meeting after t'chiyas hameisim?) comes in last week's parasha. In short, the Rambam believes that the entire encounter between Avraham Avinu and the three malachim was a prophetic vision, that it never really happened. The Ramban furiously takes him to task for this because the implication is, as Ramban states, that then the whole story of Lot's rescue and the destruction of S'dom were also merely prophetic visions, yet the Torah describes them as historical fact. How, asks the Ramban, can the Rambam simply dismiss the whole thing as a vision?
In truth, the Rambam is being true to his style by suggesting that the encounter was a vision. After all, he was the consummate rationalist. It's not rational for people to run into angels and have conversations with them, therefore the need to explain it as a vision. He does a similar thing later on when Bilaam converses with his talking ass... I mean donkey. Further, he quite controversially describes the entire ma'aseh Bereishis as being an allergory not to be taken literally, again in opposition to the Ramban who takes the entirely opposite approach.
In our day and age we are also seeing this conflict played out between different factions in the frum world. On one side there is Rav Nosson Sliffkin who has taken up the banner of the Rambam and attempted to create a completely rational approach to all things Jewish, most famously the first chapters of Bereishis. Rav Sliffkin's approach leaves nothing to faith or chance. Through precise elucidation of the text and with the support of various sources from a wide range of backgrounds, he is able to piece together a completely logical way to understand what the Torah is telling us about how the world was created. Unfortunately he didn't quite stop there and, like Ramban's accusation against Rambam, he has gone on to extend his rational approach to much of the first fifth of the Torah, something even many of the supporters of his earlier works are not comfortable with.
On the other side there are his opponents who reject the rational approach entirely and who insist on understanding the Torah in as non-rational a way as possible, the strictly literal one. They too have their supports in the authoritative literature and have some philosophic arguments to support themselves. However, in their strident attempt to silence their disputants, they have created a serious of positions that independently thinking people find hard to support and have distanced many from Torah through their "it's our way or you're a kofer b'ikkar" approach.
In my opinion, neither side has a complete lock on the truth and I think a careful understand of the Rambam shows this. It is the Rambam, after all, who codified the currently definitive list of what we consider articles of faith, the 13 ikkarim. A look at this list demonstates one unusual finding: none of them are rational. From unconditional belief in an invisible all-powerful God to accepting the integrity and unity of the text of our Torah to expecting the dead to return to life in the (near) future, his ikkarim all fly in the face of what we known about our normal, logical and rational world. They are all based not on cold reason but on passionate faith. One might have expected a list like this from the Ramban, but from Rambam, the great rationalist?
Yet this shows that Rambam himself accepted that there are limits to rationalism.
There is a reason the gemara tells us that it is not advisable to investigate the matters of Creation and what came before. The reason is that these matters involve the deep mysteries of the Divine essense itself, something no human being can properly understand. The rationalists, by explaining everything away, remove this essence from recordable history. The anti-rationalists tell inquiring minds not to inquire. Neither approach is satisfactory.
Rather we as believing Jews must inquire but at the same time recognize that there are limits. We cannot know what creation was truly like. What was it like to live in a universe suffused by the primeval light created on the first day? Who can possibly answer that question? What did Adam and Chavah look like before eating from the Etz HaDaas? What exactly was the Etz? We can surmise and guess but we cannot know, despite our best attempts.
So then what is the best way to approach the text? We must recall that the purpose of the Torah is not to teach us history or archeology. It is to teach us moral truths. If God chose to reveal the Creation of the world in the manner that He did, the point is not to try and resolve its contradictions with science but to concentrate on the moral lessons that the story gives us. We must redefine the world "rational" to understand it the way we understand "truth". Just as God is "truth" itself, so He is "rational" and if we wish to be as well we must second our understanding of reality to His.