Prof. Jonathan Grossman: Transforming Ambiguity into Academic Excellence

Prof. Jonathan Grossman, a senior lecturer in BIU’s Zalman Shamir Bible Department, loves ambiguity. He thrives on exploring double meanings in texts, uncovering hidden narratives, and probing the interface between religious interpretation of Judaism’s holiest books and modern biblical criticism. This expertise has made Grossman, at only 42, one of Bar-Ilan’s most prolific young researchers, with tens of academic papers published in top scholarly journals since his graduation in 1997 with an MA in Jewish philosophy from the Hebrew University and a PhD in bible from Bar-Ilan in 2006. He is one of seven academic stars absorbed into BIU’s Faculty of Jewish Studies during Academic Year 2011/12, within the framework of the University’s innovative Faculty Recruitment initiative.

The best way to understand Grossman’s work is via example. In one of his more recent papers, Grossman looked into the story of Absalom’s revolt as described in the Second Book of Samuel. In it, a distant relative of King Saul named Shimei ferociously appears to curse David and even throws rocks at him for the latter’s role in replacing the former king. That’s the usual, literal, interpretation, says Grossman, but “a syntactic analysis of the sentence reveals that the curse also reflects God’s anger at David.”

This dual meaning repeats itself in numerous places in the bible – including Ruth’s interaction with Boaz, in the Book of Esther, and in particular with how to understand the long litany of sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus in the Torah. Indeed, it has formed the backbone of much of Grossman’s academic research. Other papers and publications he has authored on the subject include “Structural Ambiguity in the Book of Ezekiel,” “Two Double Narratives in Genesis: Hagar’s Departure and the Announcement of Isaac’s Birth,” and “Repetition in Biblical Narrative as a Basis for the Assimilation of Ambiguous Expressions.”

While Grossman is religious, his approach is eminently worldly. Rather than dismiss modern biblical critics, as he says many traditional rabbis do, Grossman embraces their work. “The approach of the biblical critics is often completely contradictory to traditional analysis, and that makes harmonizing the discrepancies between the two quite a challenge,” he says. But those same rabbis ought to be “the first to seek to use every means that contributes to a better understanding of the bible. Why ignore the tremendous significance of the tools that were developed by the more recent biblical critics?” he asks.

Grossman also finds that the unique mix of religious and secular students in his Bar-Ilan classes adds significant value. “The religious students generally have an advantage in that they are quite familiar with the bible and the ancient commentaries. However, the secular students come to the text from a ‘neutral’ perspective, without any prescribed positions,” he explains.

Grossman’s interest in biblical studies is not surprising; his father, Prof. Avraham Grossman, taught the history of Israel at the Hebrew University and was an Israel Prize laureate. The younger Grossman has also received a fair share of recognition, including Hebrew University’s Award of Excellence, the Council for Higher Education’s Nathan Rotenstreich Fellowship, and an off-the-beaten-track fellowship from Japan’s Beit-Shalom on “Outer Narrative and Hidden Reading.”

Grossman was part of BIU’s Doctoral Fellowships of Excellence program in 2003. His PhD advisor at Bar-Ilan was one of the University’s top bible studies professors - Moshe Garsiel. Beyond his academic work, Grossman was on the committee that was charged with creating a new curriculum for bible studies in Israeli religious high schools. “We did a broad survey and discovered that students find studying the bible boring and unnecessary – even in religious schools,” Grossman reports. The committee recommended that teachers move past memorization (the all too “standard” way of teaching the bible in Israel) and allow students to engage in more interactive and personal discussions of what they are reading in class. And “we wanted students to learn the books of the bible in the context of history, rather than randomly as it is done today,” he adds. If implemented, such changes represent a radical departure from the last 50 years of secondary school instruction. But for Grossman, it would be in keeping with a career that has never shied away from asking tough questions and promoting out-of-the-box thinking. And, after all, there’s nothing ambiguous about outstanding scholarship.
For more on Prof. Grossman click here.