By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for

Mark Twain once joked that man was created just a little bit below the angels, and just a little bit above the Frenchman.  The Alter of Slabodka (Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, 1849-1927) would have disagreed. Both are above the angels.

It has often been said that the Alter of Slabodka’s concept of Gadlus HaAdam was merely a philosophy conceived in order to battle the appeal of the Haskallah movement.  It is this author’s view that this statement is incorrect.  It may be that it was a fortuitous by-product of the practical implementations of Gadlus HaAdam, but an examination of the Alter’s discourses on the topic [culled from Sichos HaSabba MiSlabodka which the author hopes to bring to print in the next few months] will reveal that it was an underlying theme of his world-view.


Man is greater than the angels in that he has freedom of choice, bechirah – something that the angels do not possess.  In this, man reflects the Creator Himself (SHM p. 231).  In a similar vein, only man truly perceives the idea of Kavod Hashem, the Honor of Hashem – angels do not (p.654).  We recite the Kaddish in davening every day – this is the something that the malachim cannot do, and they wait in careful anticipation for man to recite it (345).


Man was created with a Chailek Elokah mimaal – a Divine portion from Above. Even a Rasha, an evil-doer, possesses this in his possession of free choice (75). Indeed, the world was created even for Rashayim – evil-doers – since they can choose to do Teshuvah by exercising their free will (288, 579).


The world was both created and continues to be renewed – for each and every individual.  In other words, one of the underlying themes of the Alter that were repeated many times was that even for the sake of each individual person – this world have been been created (222, 521, 530).  He created the world for the ideal of freedom of choice; Hashem knew that Adam HaRishon would sin – but He created it for this point of bechira (231, 274, 604).


The Alter was of the position that even after Adam HaRishon’s fall, mankind can still be on a very lofty, Divine level (636, 656, 573, 713).  Indeed, he held that it was still possible for man to reach the lofty level of Adam haRishon – before his fall (275, 900). Man’s greatness is still retained, and man will be punished for not having realized this greatness (428, 796).

Man has remarkable kochos – unimaginable strengths and abilities (879).  This is why there is an obligation of emulating Hashem – because we have such a capacity. Man has the capability of seeing from corner of the universe to the other (p. 240).  That is why the Gemorah tells us: Just as He is merciful, so too must you be merciful. Just as He is kind, so too must you be kind.


Someone noticed that the Alter used to fast frequently, and discovered that he would fast whenever he saw a student not succeeding in his learning and growth. When asked why he did so, the Alter responded, “If one truly understood that each student is a ben melech – there is no other choice.” (Darchei Mussar p.221)

There is no question that the topography of today’s Torah world would have been vastly different were it not for the vision and hard work of the Alter of Slabodka and his conception of Gadlus HaAdam.  It is clear that this was not just a means of providing a different option – other than Haskallah.  It was a hashkafa that rebuilt the Torah world.  There are hundreds of Yeshivos across the country and across the world, that are institutional descendants of the Alter of Slabodka.  A major component of his influence upon the world was his conception of Gadlus HaAdam.

The author can be reached at


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