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.