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)