Theology or exegesis.
One of the most contentious issues in interpreting midrash is the place that theological and philosophical disagreements play in determining the differing opinions of Midrashic sages. On one hand, these matters clearly play a role in at least some disputes, especially in homiletical midrashic passages; on the other, recourse to theology is at times too easy and convenient and avoids the hard, necessary work of struggling with the exegetical issues in the text. In addition, this method is often misused by those who wish to read contemporary reality into the ancient text. All too often, one finds snippets of political science, psychology or existentialist philosophic ruminations discovered in passages that can hardly bear the meaning assigned to them. This I find greatly troubling for it partakes of "ziuf hatorah", falsification of Torah truth, which should greatly discomfit those who are committed to Torah study and love and value its teachings. The fact is that such approaches partially derive from the work of scholars such as Finkelstein (The Pharisees) who sought to explain Talmudic disagreements as reflections of political and social factionalism. On the other hand, we often do find commentators such as the Netsiv, Meshech Chokhma, R. Meir Dan Plotsky and others explaining disagreements on theological grounds - only they use views found elsewhere in the Torah literature, not in the contemporary sphere of thought.
A well known Sifri allows us an opportunity to consider the interplay between theology and exegesis in investigating opinions of Tannaim.
Devarim 17, 14-16
When you come into the land that Hashem, your G-d gives you and make it available and dwell in it. You will say "I shall place over me a king , like all the nations that are around me. Place, place over you a king that Hashem, your G-d will choose..."
R. Nehorai said: The verse speaks of the shame of Israel, as in Shmuel I, 8: ... for not you did they reject but Me they rejected from being a King over them. R. Yehuda responded: Is it not a Torah commandment to ask for a king, as stated " place, place over you a king"? Why (then) were they punished in the times of Shmuel? Because they rushed it. R. Nehorai said: They asked for a king so that he will lead them to idolatry, as it says: "we will also be like all the nations and out king will lead us and fight our wars."
It is tempting to see this passage as a disagreement regarding desirability of monarchy versus other forms of government, especially in light of well-known comments of Abarbanel ad loc. Careful considerations of the wording of the passage will, however, lead us to a different conclusion.
Within the verses themselves, there appears a contradiction. First, the Torah seems to present the choice of a king as a voluntary act, albeit subject to certain restrictions. "If and when you desire a king, these are the parameters - he comes from within you, not foreigners, he is subject to limitation on his power, and he must study Torah". Right after that the Torah expresses selection of a king as an emphatic obligation "place, place over you a king." If this is a commandment, the preceding verse must be merely a prediction. Our only choice is to favor one of this implications and explain or. At the very least, severely limit the other.
R. Nehorai points out that in Shmuel choosing a king seems to be a bad thing. If so, the Torah could not have really commanded it; instead, the Torah grudgingly permitted it when at a future time that Jews will rebel against G-d as King and ask for a mortal to lead them. "You will say I shall place over me a king, like all the nations that are around me" is a prediction of what is to take place. If so, it is to be understood as " shame of Israel" that is yet to come in the book of Shmuel. R. Yehuda, however, favors the reading of the commandment as obligation. "At some future time, when you are ready, ask for a king." There is a problem with this interpretation, however. The verses in Shmuel, use the same expressions found in Devarim, "like all other nations" and there it is clearly criticized. What could be wrong with their request if they were fulfilling what the Torah commanded? The answer is that they should have waited until Shmuel passes from the scene. (Perhaps Hashem told Shmuel that they rejected not only him but G-d himself solely in order to spare his feelings as we find in the case of Rabbon Gamliel in Berachos 28a.)
What does the second R. Nenorai contribute? He apparently proposes another solutions - that the expression: "like all the other nations" means something altogether different in Shmuel than in Devarim. As such it does not influence how we read the Devarim passage. In Devarim, it modifies the phrase "You will say I will place over me a king" and that is why I put a comma after those words in my translation of the passage. It means that you will ask for a king as do all the nations around me. You do not ask for the same kind of king, however. Your king will follow different rules than their kings. His powers will be limited as will be his religious authority. In Shmuel, on the contrary, the people asked for a king who judges (functions) "like all the other nations." They wanted a monarch who will lead them in the same fashion as do all other sovereigns. The Kings of other nations doubled as High Priests for national deities - so will our king. The flow of the narrative in Shmuel certainly bears out such a reading. Understood in this way, Shmuel has nothing to say that could bear on how we approach the verses in Devarim.
You might ask: "Still why do the tannaim disagree? Is there not a philosophical difference at the root of their variant interpretations?" Perhaps so, but which one? Is it political theory, historic sensitivity or a difference in willingness to criticize the Jewish people. We will never know. What we do know is that they do not explicitly discuss anything other than the exegetical issue. So also we should focus on that kind of issue, turning to theology or philosophy only after all due consideration of interpretative questions does not provide an acceptable explanation.
1 The question of whether disagreements between Chazal can be explained by recourse to the differing personality types of Talmudic Sages is complex. There are those, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, for example, who vehemently criticized that appraoch on haskafic grounds. Others, citing passages from the Zohar, R. Tsadok Hakohen, Chasam Sofer and others, defend ascribing paradigmatic representations (a Sage's personality reflecting a quality or inclination, often of Kabbalistic origin) of a similar sort. In our own day, such methods are found in the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, M. M. Shneerson Z"L and R. Nachman Kohen (Torah Lishma Institute).
2 See for example He'emek Davar, (Herchev Davar) to Devarim 33, 12
3 The Netsiv in his commentary to Sifri demonstrates that R. Nehorai did not necessarily refer to the same Tanna, more of a title than a name. In their respective generations, the title was used for both R. Nechemiah and R. Eliezer ben Arach. See Eiruvin 13b.