February 7, 2023

Bible Scholar Dr. Hillel Mali Brings Worlds Together at Shalem

In the Mishnaic tractate Ethics of the Fathers, a disciple of the great sage Hillel said to “turn the Torah over and over, because everything is in it.” That, perhaps more than anything, is the lesson that students in Dr. Hillel Mali’s course “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible” are learning—and which Mali is delighted to learn anew.

“We just had a class on criminal law as described in Vayikra (Leviticus), which involved a discussion of the concept of hierarchy in religion and the application of justice in a modern Jewish state,” explains Mali, who joined Shalem’s faculty as a member of the Core Curriculum Department this fall. “I say to my students at the beginning of the semester, ‘I’ll bring the sources and the questions to stimulate discussion, and then I’m just another participant, seeking out the wisdom in the text.’ And at Shalem, I’m always surprised by where that journey leads.”

Given Mali’s academic background, that is no small compliment: The recipient of a PhD in Talmudic and Halachic studies from Bar-Ilan University, Mali went on to pursue postdoctoral studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before spending the next five years as a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow at New York University, a lecturer in the Program in Judaic Studies at Princeton University, and a Gruss Scholar in Residence at New York University’s School of Law, respectively. Yet Mali insists that a large part of what makes Shalem such an exciting place to teach stems from the similarities to what he calls “the other half of my personality.”

Dr. Hillel Mali

“Today I’m at home in academia, but I grew up in the beit midrash,” explains Mali. “In the Jewish study hall, the emphasis is on open, dynamic discussion. Shalem is unique in that its seminar format manages to combine the best of both worlds: On the one hand, uncompromising academic excellence, and on the other, spirited, stimulating dialogue and a desire to find the relevance of subject matter to one’s own life.

At Shalem,” he concludes, “there is a palpable sense that what we’re studying matters, to our individual lives and the life of the nation.” As proof of his observation, he points to the fact that at the end of every class, “at least 10 students stay behind to keep talking about the subject or to relate to a new one that came to mind.” They’d rather do that, he laughs, than give their active minds a break.

This emphasis on forging connections between classroom learning and action “outside” is also familiar to Mali, who, throughout his academic career, always managed to keep one foot in the field. Often quite literally: A passionate lover of his native Jerusalem, Mali has lectured on the archaeology and history of Jerusalem for Yad Ben Zvi, an education-and-research institute devoted to the study of Israel’s history, and even edited an interdisciplinary journal for teachers and tour guides aimed at enhancing the study of the city. He is also the founder and musical director of Nigun Yerushalmi (“Jerusalem Melody”), an ensemble for which he is also the lead flutist.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Mali chooses to describe his experience at Shalem as a “perfect harmony” of his wide-ranging interests and areas of expertise.

“That Jerusalem now has a top-tier academic institution at which students learn the founding ideas and texts of both the Western and Jewish traditions is both wonderful and critical. It is,” Mali state, “a privilege to be part of this project.”

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