Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Most Fascinating Rabbi You've Never Heard Of

Rabbi Dr. Baruch Yaakov Placzek (1835–1922), rabbi of Brno and chief rabbi of Moravia, is probably the most fascinating rabbi you've never heard of.

As the last Chief Rabbi of Moravia, Baruch Placzek succeeded his father Rabbi Avraham Placzek (1799–1884), who in turn succeeded Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Like Hirsch, the senior Rabbi Placzek was a staunch opponent of Reform, although his gentle disposition and peaceful nature enabled him to be respected by all. The junior Rabbi Placzek was curator at the Rabbinical and teachers' seminary in Vienna. He was described as "a man of wit and humor... one of the best orators of his time." He was honored with the title "Knight of the Order of Franz Joseph."

Rabbi Placzek wrote a novel and other works that were translated into English, French, and Hebrew. But the only writings of his that I have been able to obtain are several articles on natural history. Rabbi Placzek was fascinated by the natural world, and conducted his own observations and experiments in ornithology and botany. His articles include the results of these observations, as well as drawing extensively upon rabbinic writings. In the words of Rabbi Placzek: "The most ancient literature of the Hebrews is eminently a rich and inexhaustible treasury of observations of nature and inquiries into it."

In an article entitled, "Why Birds Sing," he is remarkably anthropomorphic in his answer to this question:
"While we may regard the ordinary vocal utterances of birds as expressions of their moods and wants, signals of intelligence, notes of warning, or calls for help, their song proper must be supposed to describe their more deep-felt emotions and anxieties, and to be related to their common expressions of sound as art is related to the handicrafts that minister to the necessities of life... The majority of ornithologists agree in ascribing an erotic character to the songs of birds; not only the melting melodies, but also those of their tones that are discordant to the human ear, are regarded as love-notes. Darwin finally, saving some reserves, came to accept this view. To be able to speak critically of the love-song, one should pay especial regard to the love-life of birds. It would be to throw water into the sea to add to what ornithological writers have advanced concerning the exceeding vital worth and cosmical significance of love. Nevertheless, I venture the opinion that the origin of the song-habit is to be found in other sources as well as in this important factor, among which is the joy of life, manifested in an irresistible determination to announce itself in melody..."
Rabbi Placzek describes how he once overheard his captive thrush imitating the crowing of a rooster, and attributes feelings to it that few zoologists today would consider credible:
"The curious fact about this circumstance was, that the bird would not crow in my presence, and would always stop when any one appeared to witness his exercise. There is no evidence that he had ever had an unpleasant experience in connection with crowing. His conduct must therefore be attributed to a kind of feeling of shame, or to a sense of the unfitness of that method of expression to a bird of his character and standing. Have we not in this another proof of the possession by animals of a psychical quality which it has been usual to regard as peculiarly and distinctively human?"

Rabbi Placzek was a close friend of Gregor Mendel, widely renowned as "the father of genetics." (UPDATE: By a beautiful coincidence, after putting up this post just now, I noticed that Google is commemorating Mendel's birthday today!) Although Mendel's work eventually turned out to be an essential solution to unanswered questions of evolutionary theory, Darwin himself was unaware of Mendel, and scientists in general completely missed the significance of Mendel's work for many decades. Placzek was reportedly the first to really understand and appreciate Mendel’s genius.

Mendel was unknown to Darwin, but Rabbi Placzek wasn't. The two of them corresponded. In 1878, Rabbi Placzek wrote a letter to Charles Darwin, praising his work and offering to send him a book of his. Darwin replied that he would be unable to understand the German, but added that he knew of another Orthodox Jew who saw no contradiction between evolution and religion. Two years later, Rabbi Placzek again wrote to Darwin, this time about how pigeon behavior has evolved since that described in the Midrash Rabbah. (I am in the process of obtaining a copy of this letter from the Cambridge collection.) Rabbi Placzek's article on "Anthropoid Mythology," published in Popular Science Monthly, seeks to demonstrate a common thread between evolution and rabbinic thought with regard to the similarities between apes and men:

"We may say, in general, that wherever men have come into close contact with monkeys they have acquired the same impression of them, that they are a caricature of man, and the idea that they are a not-yet man or a no-longer man, a human likeness of a more primitive design or one that has suffered deformity... The shape which the idea of a community of the two principal families of primates has taken... can be followed, from divination to empiricism, from superstition to scientific description, and it is not strange that among all the theories of the doctrine of development the so-called "monkey theory" has spread most rapidly and widely... We meet, among the more ancient peoples who made the anthropoid apes the subjects of scientific disputes or invested them with religious or ritual interest... important expressions of a supposed relationship of those creatures with man."

Rabbi Placzek was extremely close with his grandson George, whom he inspired with a fascination for science and nature. George Placzek grew up to be one of the world's leading physicists and worked as a member of the British Mission on the Manhattan Project. All because of a rabbi's love for God's creation!

(Thanks to S. for starting me on this investigation)


  1. (Thanks to S. for starting me on this investigation)

    I was going to say that this sounded like an On The Main Line post!

  2. And now let's do a genetic search and discover that Placzek is east Moravian for Slifkin or something like that...

  3. I personally think Rabbi Gedalya Nadel is more fascinating.

  4. R' Slifkin, I think you and your readers will enjoy this:

    The little wrens in your backyard are not only soloists; they sing duets. A number of birds have been found to sing together in unison, or in antiphonal pairs. Some alternate melodic lines in rapid-fire succession and some sing in choirs. This was described by Susan Milius in Science News. ( Susan Milius, “Just Duet: Biologists puzzle over bird’s ensemble vocalizations,” Science News, Week of Jan. 28, 2006; Vol. 169, No. 4 , p. 58. ) One ornithologist was stunned in the mists of Ecuador when he heard a group of wrens singing together, in “one of the most complex singing performances yet described in a nonhuman animal.” Duetting is known in at least 222 species of birds.
    One researcher found a four-part, synchronized chorus with alternating parts of males and females who shifted parts at least twice a second.

  5. Here's one more about birdsong:

    The singing of a bird is a complex skill that takes rigorous training like that of a top athlete or musician. Young male birds learn by imitation from their fathers, then hone their skill over months, till their song becomes crystallized in adulthood. A paper in Nature by two scientists at UC San Francisco reported on experiments on the neurobiology of birdsong, and found that even adult birds can still learn to modify their singing based on feedback from the environment.
    It was thought that once a bird’s learned song was memorized, the stereotype was too strong to change. The scientists were able to get Bengalese finches to sing off key by putting white noise into their environment. When the noise was removed, their songs returned to normal. This shows that the childhood memory of the parental song, as well as their own memory of what constitutes normal, allows them to maintain fidelity to the song pattern, while the neurons have enough plasticity to allow adapting to the environment. A write-up of the paper in Science Daily ( ) also noted the tidbit that young males tend to experiment more when females are not around.
    The scientists believe that their findings can help in rehabilitation efforts with human patients who need to re-learn skills lost in aging or injury. If you can teach an old bird new tricks, then there’s hope for people.
    1. Tumer and Brainard, “Performance variability enables adaptive plasticity of ‘crystallized’ adult birdsong,”

  6. Wow. That's amazing- thanks for that. Was the timeline right that he might have told Darwin about Mendel?

  7. Love songs of birds? A feeling of kinship with various apes? A non-observant, childless grandson married to a widow of a Jewish convert to Christianity? Now, being non-observant, not Jewish or believing in evolution or Christianity doesn't make anybody less of a human being in my book, but what's so remarkable about this story? It's pretty typical OTD story for that time period.

    'The majority of ornithologists agree in ascribing an erotic character to the songs of birds.' Please...

    'To be able to speak critically of the love-song, one should pay especial regard to the love-life of birds.' So what did the rabbi learn from the love-life of birds?

    I've marked this post as 'kfira' in a sense that I disagree with it.

  8. Carol, Much like frogs croaking and crickets and water boatmen's sounds bird songs are largely erotic. Translated into human they would be "Me! Me! Me! You're hot for me you hot Chick!" and "Look! Look at my great big territory. Let me fertilize your eggs!"

  9. Todd, we don't know for sure that the songs are (always) meant to attract. For years, they thought that was true of peacock feathers, until some scientists recently cast doubt on that theory:

  10. Carol,

    I think the point is that the Rabbi inspired his grandson George in matters of science, and George ultimately became a famous scientist, hence a testament to the Rabbi’s devotion to science and nature. The fact that George was OTD does not reflect negatively on the Rabbi, as such, unfortunately, was the case with the family members of many Rabbis during that time period. I would imagine that the Rabbi tried to influence George in matters of Judaism as well.

  11. Pliny, there's a world of difference between not knowing everything and knowing nothing. There's excellent evidence about most bird songs - males establishing territory and attracting mates. The peacock plumage is also well established despite your quote mining. Male peacocks display to establish territory and when they are trying to attract mates. Males who are imprinted on something other than peahens - tortoises in one sad example - display at them. Males with larger, brighter plumage have much greater success attracting females.

    As for crickets, frogs, water boatmen and so on - no doubt whatsoever.

  12. Todd, any scientific report that you find inconvenient, you call quotemining. Cut it out.

  13. What's more, among song birds an isolated female can be brought into reproductive readiness by artificial stimuli including recorded songs of the appropriate species.

    That's not to say all bird songs are related to mating. There are distress calls and "let's mob the predator" calls. Parrots and corvids have a wide variety of vocalizations that come darned close to language including the "cultural" transmission of information.

    Even among these attracting and cementing a bond with a mate is a large part of bird calls.

  14. Hmmm... this is all quite interesting, but the rabbi wrote that 'to be able to speak critically of the love-song, one should pay especial regard to the love-life of birds'. So how does love-life (what is he talking about?) of birds help us to evaluate, let's say, Omar Hayam, Bocaccio, or Shakespear's sonnets? And why without the knowledge of it we cannot 'critically evaluate' love-songs of humans? I doubt that either Omar Hayam, Shakespear or Bocaccio were knowledgeable in the 'love-life of birds'. Can someone explain this to me please?

  15. No, I don't. But you invariably take anything that reflects any discussion or disagreement within the scientific community and use it as "proof" that science doesn't know anything and shouldn't be listened to and so on.

    Mayr and Lewontin "prove" that any sort of Darwinian evolution is wrong according to your words even though that's complete nonsense. If you can torture a few words out of context to to say two scientists disagree, then obviously we have to throw out all of modern biology or paleontology or archaeology or astronomy. You're absolutely reliable in that regard.

    I looked up the article you referenced. It was written, but not in a real refereed journal. It sank without a trace. Ornithologists now ignore it because it wasn't well-substantiated and didn't exactly say what you implied it meant. It doesn't even vaguely reflect the respected opinions in the field. But to you, that doesn't matter. It seemed to contradict a Darwinian theory (theory in the technical sense), so it "proved" what you wanted it to.

    Further, it's obvious that you do not understand what you're criticizing. You are quite frankly ignorant of biology at anything beyond the high school level, but you can always come up with an isolated quote.

  16. One day, I could understand the bird which was singing outside my window—he was singing "Thank You".

  17. Everything you said about me in your last post is mistaken, based on your jumping to conclusions. That's all I need to say.

  18. The problem is that arguably, unlike his father, R. Baruch Placzek may not have been Orthodox. His association with the Vienna seminary raises the question. The Vienna Israelitisch-Theologische Lehranstalt was considered a reform institution along the lines of the Budapest Seminary or the Frankel Seminary.

  19. Rabbi Baruch Yaakov Placzek was also the grandfather of Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck, who was considered even by very frummer yiden to be a hero in Theresienstadt. And G. Mendel's understanding of genetics is foretold in the Talmud (probably) when it recommends not marrying a woman mimishpachas nichpin etc. Which enabled people like Bonei Olam' s subsidizing preimplantation genetic testing, and pre-shidduchim testing offered by Dor Yeshorim and others


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