An Orthodox Approach
Dr. Deena Grant, a recent addition to Barry’s faculty, asks students to follow her lead in delving deeply into faith and scriptures
Dr. Deena Grant is pictured outside of her synagogue, the Beth Israel Congregation, in Miami Beach.
By Elizabeth Hanly
After musing for some time with her thesis advisor about topics for her doctoral dissertation, Deena Grant, an Orthodox Jew, finally said, “I want to study God.” And so she did.
Dr. Deena Grant is a biblical scholar who joined the faculty this academic year, and some students have already written to her department complaining about the workload in her classes. Far more students have written the Rev. Mark Wedig, chair of The Department of Theology and Philosophy, to express profound gratitude for Grant’s presence. “She knows so much, and I have so much to learn,” said one note from a graduate student.
Biblical studies have gone through a sea change since World War II, noted Wedig. “Deena is part of a new wave,” he explains. “The history of biblical scholarship has not always been pretty. For far too long, too much was undertaken by those who had approached it from an anti-Semitic point of view. What Deena offers the Barry community is a chance to truly grapple with and understand the teachings that are the basis of its own faith. Her students can work with those teachings on their own terms, not as the texts have customarily been interpreted or even expropriated by Christianity.”
Daniel Fleming, who served as Grant’s thesis advisor at New York University, remembers his initial conversations with Grant. “We spoke about what it might mean to study God. We moved from that question to asking how the biblical persona of God is portrayed. It became immediately apparent to Deena that looking at the emotions of the biblical God might be a very good way to move to the heart of the matter. She soon went further, focusing her work on divine wrath.”
Grant explains it this way: “I wanted to compare the biblical sense of divine wrath to our sense of human anger. I wanted to see at what point they converge, at what point not. I wanted to look at the similarity between humanness and the divine.”
At first glance this may not seem particularly revolutionary. However, Fleming explains that although many people have focused their work on the anger of God, it has almost always focused on the theological problems of that anger. Grant’s approach was very different, Fleming notes. She focused on the phenomenon of divine anger in itself.
Grant discovered that anger, as it is portrayed biblically, is typically linked to loss of authority. “There are almost no biblical references to the anger of the oppressed. For the most part, a servant will not be shown to be angry in the Bible, nor for that matter would a woman,” Grant explains. Divine wrath is similarly connected to authority but goes further; divine wrath is quintessentially persuasive.
“Considering that the Israelites were in power for such a brief time at best,” Grant says, “it makes sense that the issue of authority might have special resonance to them. It makes sense that they could use [it] to try to persuade others of their unique viability.”
Suddenly Grant is walking on a tightrope for she is suggesting that human authorship may be at play in the Torah. But Judaism’s Orthodox position is clear: one of the 13 major tenets of the faith is that the Torah was presented to Moses on Sinai – no ifs, ands or buts. Meanwhile, as Grant points out, “an academic perspective presupposes human authorship.”
Grant was born and raised within Miami’s Orthodox community. Her father is a rabbi. She attended Yeshiva Day School here. Like many of the young people in her community, after her graduation from high school, she went to Israel for a year of intensive study of The Talmud, ancient writings that make up the heart of Jewish law. Then she attended Brandeis University outside of Boston, the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college or university in the country.
It wasn’t until Grant became acquainted with Brandeis’s Department of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies that she decided to rethink her plans to become a psychologist and to instead pursue an academic examination of her faith. Grant says she felt she needed to live both approaches to Judaism: the confessional as well as the academic. “As a child I wondered what God wanted from me,” she adds. “As an adult, I seem to have chosen a profession in which I can continue to consider this question, though now, from an academic perspective.”
Grant’s family supported her decision to ask hard questions of her faith, and of faith in general. “My father was especially supportive,” Grant says. “He’s interested in my questions. Often he tells me, ‘Well, human authorship and all the rest: You make me think.’ ”
If anyone does doubt her commitment to her faith, a closer look at what else was occupying Grant’s time while she worked on her doctorate might be informative. In addition to her teaching assistance work at NYU, she was teaching biblical Hebrew literally from morning to night in a range of settings, including the Drisha Institute, a New York center created primarily as an open space for Orthodox Jewish women to explore their faith. Psychologist Shuli Sandler, who taught with her there, recalls the number of women who came from all over the tri-state area to study with Grant. “Some of the classes that Deena taught – biblical grammar for instance – were not exactly classes you would expect to be wildly popular. But Deena’s approach was so engaging that they were.”
Scholarship in Practice
Next it was on to teaching at Hofstra University on Long Island. However, as Grant put it, “Many universities have a prejudice against including a confessional approach, any acknowledgement by a professor of his/her actual religious practice, within an academic study of religion or indeed any field.
“So when an offer came from Barry, I thought, ‘Wow, I could have it all: academic biblical scholarship within a confessional context.’ Barry is, after all, a religious institution. Confessional context is not by nature suspect here.”
Still, Grant is an Orthodox Jew in a Catholic university. “So far most students seem to love the opportunity to compare these religions. They seem to welcome the opportunity to recognize and to understand the struggle for faith within different traditions.”
Grant retains a professional presence in her Orthodox community as well. These days, besides teaching at Barry and caring for her family which includes two small children, Grant lectures at Miami’s Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education and its affiliated adult education project, The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School.
“When one imagines an Orthodox woman,” says Director Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar, “Deena Grant isn’t what usually comes to mind. I love it when people’s expectations are challenged. Then they have to think through why they had those expectations to begin with.”
Elizabeth Hanly is a professor of journalism and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post among many other newspapers and magazines.