Thursday, November 01, 2007

Historical Prejudices in the Commentaries

Rabbi Kanarfogel brought up something fascinating in class yesterday; it was wonderful because I learned something completely new and I love days like that. He mentioned the fact that sometimes a commentary on the Torah and certainly a commentary who writes his own sefarim can be read to apply his own personal history or strongly held beliefs due to his historical surroundings to the verses in question. He specifically referenced The Kuzari, saying that one must wonder how much of this book ought to be read as pure Jewish thought, how much of it as an anti-Christian polemic, how much as an anti-Karaaite polemic, and so on and so forth. He also referenced Ibn Ezra's commentary to the Torah.

It's amazing that I've always preferrred to see the characters and protagonists of the Torah as human and yet have never thought of the commentaries as human. Of course they would bring their own pasts and their own time periods to the text. Of course one could read their commentaries and based on what they've written, perhaps discern or determine a reaction to their time period. At the same time, it perturbs me. In literature, there are different forms of interaction with the text. One form is objectively trying to determine what the author said. The other is simply understanding the text as it appears to me (although one still needs textual support.) And then there is this idea of understanding the text within its historical context, and more importantly, understanding the commentaries through that lense as well.

It feels problematic to me, however, because if some commentary were to read Jacob and Esau in a contemporary light (for them, I mean) or better yet Isaac and Ishmael and then launch into an entire diatribe against Ishmaelites due to their own personal historical circumstances, is that fair? That's probably not what the author of the text intended and one is biased, one is injecting their own historical point of view into the characters of the Bible. It feels somehow human to me, very limited, almost problematic. I brought the question up to Rabbi Kanarfogel, but you see, he has such reverence for the commentaries that the way he answered was to say, "You think that they are unmasking the supermen? But that's the thing, when the masks are pulled off, they're still supermen!" He explained that if these commentaries couldn't stand up to the criticism, as it were; if they simply fell apart after one took out the historical remarks, then sure, that would be problematic. It would be someone writing a polemical diatribe and couching it within the text of a commentary to the Torah. But in these cases, brilliant analysis is still involved; it is only that it is sometimes reflective of historical time periods.

Someone mentioned R' Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary to the Torah and claimed that it was obviously influenced and written as a reaction to the Englightenment and Reform movement of that day. I haven't studied the commentary carefully enough but at the same time this revelation intrigues, fascinates and concerns me. It's amazing how much power God granted us over his text. This is the Torah and yet commentaries upon the Torah that view it through their own historical time period with their own historical biases are completely fine and they too are Torah- they are not to be dismissed. Of course, it's amazing in general that God grants so much power to us- Lo bashamayim hi- the Torah is not in heaven. Some of the most fantastic gemaras are those where a Bas Kol or various miracles still do not prove the correctness of a sage's point of view; God is in effect taken out of the equation and the reasoning of the sages is given precedence- even though the theoretical point is to come to these decisions to better explicate the Torah of God!

I still feel a little shaken, though, because now I have to understand that all the commentaries were intensely human and had human pasts, lives and experiences and it's necessary to understand their backgrounds to even begin to understand what they wrote about the text. Of course, it's not that every commentary has glaringly forced his history onto the text, but it still confuses me...we have so much power over the very word of God! We interpret it through our own prejudices and biases and that is somehow considered to be okay....hard for me to wrap my mind around that.


Madd Hatter said...

I, for one am glad to have support for the idea that Hashem doesn't expect us to be mindless robots. The people who act as our role models and leaders have to be human or they couldn't relate to us and vice versa. It means more thought and consideration has to be involved when reading or listening to their thoughts and interpretations, but ultimately, we're not penalized for listening to our gedolim even if they end up being "wrong" and isn't that what being a Jew is all about? Free choice. Thinking through things, and making decisions we hope follow in the path of Hashem and the Torah.

Ezzie said...

What the Madd Hatter said, basically. It's important to acknowledge that all people use their historical prejudices to interpret - heck, we do it all the time. You do it all the time. It's only human, and it's the most logical way to think.

Anonymous said...

Isn't one interpretation of the idea that no two prophets prophecy about the same topic in the same language that every individual has his own unique outlook and interpretation of the world, even when given a message directly by God?

One form is objectively trying to determine what the author said.

So you're not a postmodernist, then...

then launch into an entire diatribe against Ishmaelites due to their own personal historical circumstances, is that fair?

What about the reverse, if they wrote an apologetic for Yishamael; would that be better?

This doesn't really bother me. Maybe it's because my academic background is in history. We never find "the past" in an unmediated state. We see it filtered through the perceptions of the people who were there at the time and then through the perceptions of other historians. Yes, it takes skill and hard work to arrive at a fairly accurate, balanced view of the past, and, yes, it's more of an art than an exact science, but it's still possible.

Anonymous said...

It does bother me when something in the commentaries seems directly a reaction to historical events or based on the science of the times and people treat it like it has the status of the Torah itself. If they quote a scientific belief of the medieval era, we can't be expected to assume they knew it by way of prophesy, right? They learned it from society around them. Their commentary process is Torah, but not every detail cited is.

G said...

This has always fascinated me about different commentators and thinkers within Judaism and really every area of thought/study. How there environment and historical context plays a roll.

The only fear, as I see it, is if this impacts baseline halacha.

G said...

D'oh - *their* environment

SJ said...

You're right, it's a mind-blowing idea. When I was first introduced to it in R' M. Cohen's class, it totally revolutionized my learning. It changed the way I learned and viewed the commentaries, and I found that for me it made them more understandable and accessible. It doesn't detract from the brilliance of the commentary, but gives us a means of understanding their approaches more thoroughly.

Anonymous said...

I think that there is a delicate balance between the way we must view the words of the commentators.
If someone is commenting on a pasuk on Chumash, we have to believe that they are trying to give "pshat" to the best of their ability. Yet we must also consider the possibility that their opinion was influenced by their environment and historical context.
Some historians, especially many of those who study the history of halacha, are much too eager to ascribe almost everything to historical context. Then again, it seems almost foolish to ignore the possibility completely. Our sages and commentators were influenced by the culture around them, and their worldview was inevitably shaped by their environment.
For example, I think everyone would agree that the Rambam was heavily influenced by Aristotelian rationalism. The Moreh Nevuchim certainly reflects this. Because the Rambam believed the words of Aristotle to be empirically correct, he had to find some way of making them fit with Jewish thought. This is not really very different from the phenomenon you are describing.

Lubab No More said...

This line of thinking can be a slippery slope. Question the incidental writings in Chazzal isn't far removed from questioning their core meanings.

Anonymous said...

Lubab no more,

Questions aren't a problem; it's answers that are tricky. Not that the person asking the questions is immune to societal influence either...

Seriously, it depends on whether you think rabbis have a supernatural connection to God or one that comes purely through using the intellect to understand sources - to put it crudely, whether you're Charedi or Modern Orthodox.

If you think rabbis are infallible, then acknowledging any societal influence is problematic. However, if you think they are simply human beings working out problems by applying reason to halakhic sources, then finding influence from their background is not surprising, and, as long as their reasoning is still sound, not problematic either.