Leo Baeck: A Biographical Introduction
Kaufmann (Walter)
Source: Baeck (Leo), Kaufman (Walter) - Judaism and Christianity: A Modern Theologian's Discussion of Basic Issues Between the Two Religions
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  1. Introduction
    • When Leo Baeck died in 1956, he was widely hailed as one of the most saintly men of our time; but few indeed realized that he was the author of one of the most important polemics ever launched against Christianity — and very probably the most interesting one written from the point of view of another religion. Unlike Kierkegaard, in his Attack on Christendom, Baeck did not merely criticize the millions of indifferent Christians, but the Christian religion itself1. And unlike other critics, he did not attack religion in general but only what he called "romantic religion."
    • A few days before publication, in 1938, Baeck's critique of "Romantic Religion," and the whole book of essays of which it formed a part, was destroyed by the :secret police of the Nazi state. Less than ten copies survived. Soon after, World War II broke out. And Baeck survived it. He resolved that his essay should be translated and published in English, along with the other essays in the present volume, which he himself selected. In time to come, he may well be remembered as much for this book as for anything else.
  2. Background and Motivation
    • To use one of his own favorite expressions, "there is something twofold about" Leo Baeck. Although his ideas may well have their greatest effect still ahead of them, he himself belongs to a past chapter of Jewish history, no less than Maimonides. It was a proud chapter: there have been few periods in history when so small a group has made as many major contributions to literature and music, art and science, philosophy and religion, as did German Jewry.
    • Still flourishing in the nineteen-twenties, it is dead today. To give some idea of its many-sided genius, it is best to enumerate at least a few names: Felix Mendelssohn and Jacques Offenbach, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schonberg; Marx, Lassalle, and Rathenau; Ehrlich, Einstein, and Freud, and August von Wassermann, Otto Meyerhof, and James Franck; Borne and Borchardt, Wolfskehl and Mombert, Arnold and Stefan Zweig; Ludwig Borchardt, the Egyptologist; Husserl and Cassirer. If a few of these men were Jews in spite of themselves, and still others — like Adolf von Baeyer and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Heinrich Hertz and Gustav Hertz, and Ludwig Wittgenstein2 — were only of partly Jewish descent, the Jews of Germany and Austria also made major contributions to Jewish history and Jewish studies; for example, Leopold Zunz and Michael Sachs, Abraham Geiger and Samson Raphael Hirsch, Gabriel Riesser, Graetz, and Herzl.
    • Though this necrology includes names of the first rank, the most distinctive contribution of German Jewry lies elsewhere. In the areas considered so far American Jewry bids fair to continue where German Jewry left off. But there were also some German-speaking Jews who somehow straddled German and Jewish literature and thought — rather more so than any of those named so far. Most famous among these are Heine and Kafka; but alongside them there is a line of others who accented Judaism even more. It opens with Moses Mendelssohn, includes Moritz Lazarus and Heymann Steinthal and Hermann Cohen, and ends with Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber and Leo Baeck.
    • Baeck was equally at home in Aristotle and in the Talmud, in the Bible and in German literature: he was the heir of the best the world could offer him — and a rabbi. The way in which he fused this multifarious heritage was inimitably his own; but the ability and the resolve to effect such a fusion he shared with Moses Mendelssohn and his other heirs.
    • In these men Judaism lost the narrowness of the ghetto and recovered the scope it had always had when It was free — without ceasing to be Jewish. The major reason for the wide appeal of these men and their impact was that they were not eclectics, nor primarily apologists.
    • There was something serene and irenic about Baeck, and no man could have been more polite than he could be. But he had fire and originality and was at heart an iconoclast. He never preached a sermon that did not sparkle with new ideas, and every conversation with him and almost every letter from him was memorable. He was sometimes wrong, but always wise and never dull.
    • It is entirely fitting that his essays on Judaism and Christianity should be published as his last major work. For his first major work was his book on The Essence of Judaism, his reply to Harnack's classic on The Essence of Christianity. In English, this point, which no German reader could miss, has been lost because Harnack's book was translated under the title What is Christianity? Baeck's thought was polemical from the beginning, and the central theme from beginning to end is his polemic against Christianity.
    • It might be fashionable to slur over this truth and to misrepresent the facts ever so slightly by saying that he wanted to reopen a dialogue between Judaism and Christianity, as if he had wanted to restore Judaism to the role of an equal partner. With his staggering politeness, he might even have put the matter that way himself. It is told that in his homiletics class he would often begin his comments on a trial sermon: "It was wonderful." But after some generous compliments he would proceed, "If I may say just one thing" — and rip the sermon to shreds.
    • Baeck's point was not that Judaism was not inferior to Christianity but rather that Judaism was distinctly superior. It is one of the oddities of our time that this view is scarcely ever discussed in public. Yet it would be very strange if it were not shared by most Jews; and Christian theologians must surely take for granted that this is at the very least the position of practically all rabbis. Most Christians are convinced of the immeasurable superiority of Christianity over all other religions, and quite especially over Judaism; but it is polite to grant that the Jew, of course, considers his religion the equal of Christianity; and it is the acme of liberalism to grant that, theoretically at least, he might be right. The view, however, that Christianity is inferior to Judaism is simply ignored.
    • The Essence of Judaism could still be read as primarily a work of apologetics. The essays in the present volume are thoroughly militant in spirit, though so polite that those who merely browse in them might miss that fact. It would be a pity if they did. For whether one agrees with Baeck on particular points or not, what he here tries to do needs doing so badly.
    • Serious Christians should care to know in what respects one of the outstanding Jewish thinkers of our time considered their religion to be open to objections: not just Catholicism or Luther, or some few beliefs or excesses, but the very core of Christianity. Religion tends to become repulsive when it is not under attack, and it is often at its best when it is persecuted. German Judaism was a case in point; so, specifically, are Baeck's essays. As Kierkegaard well knew, though his contemporary admirers seem to have forgotten it, Christianity needs less apologetics and more criticism. Serious Christians should therefore welcome Baeck's Judaism and Christianity.
    • Readers who consider themselves neither Jews nor Christians may find these essays fascinating in two ways. First, they may view them as unusually interesting contributions to the history of ideas. Secondly, adopting the perspective suggested here, they may concentrate on the manner in which so proud and wise a man responded to a hostile3 world, and particularly to the challenge of Christianity: Baeck's response differs not only from Heine's and Kafka's but also from Rosenzweig's and Buber's.
    • And Jewish readers? There is no danger that any of Baeck's writings will make them complacent: like the prophets, Baeck stresses the central importance of the challenge in Judaism rather more than his contemporaries. And he himself lived true to this challenge and exemplified what he taught, unlike some of the most outstanding German philosophers and theologians who before 1933 had talked, and after 1945 went right on talking, with a cracked existential pathos — cracked by the rift between life and thought or, as Baeck might have said, between "mystery and commandment," or, in one word, by their "romanticism." Baeck was a great man, and he may yet lead Jewish readers to reflect on dimensions of their own religion of which they had never been aware4.
    • In sum, this is a signally important work for anyone seriously concerned with Judaism or Christianity. It may prove to be a seminal work. No doubt, it has faults — in the original, too — but a lack of nobility is not one of them.
  3. Style
    • Baeck's style was legendary even among his devotees in Germany. Nobody questioned that it was highly peculiar, but nobody minded seriously. It seemed natural that a man of Baeck's originality should express himself in unconventional ways.
    • One of his more frequent idioms was, "Es ist ein zwiefaches" — "It is something twofold." This phrase was generally followed by a prolonged contrast. Two good examples of this mode of thought may be found in the present volume, in the juxtaposition of "Mystery and Commandment" and of "Classical" and "Romantic Religion."
    • Whether one finds the roots of this dialectic in German philosophy or in the Talmud, this way of thinking is relatively rare in the English-speaking world. Baeck's thinking revolves around substantive concepts; and he does not explain these by placing them in the context of some experience until they become mere labels for something that could also be spelled out in greater detail. Rather he discusses them as if they were entities: he explains them not functionally but antithetically, by playing them off against some counter-concept5.
    • In this way, his contrasts tend to become too neat and might even become entirely abstract and untrue to experience if it were not for his unusual fund of historical knowledge. He is never at a loss for illustrations that are not only pertinent but so important that they require us to reconsider our preconceptions.
    • Baeck's erudition is never second-hand, never a matter of being able to cite some dubious tract that comes in handy, never an obtrusively learned way of saying what we knew anyway. He read the Hebrew Scriptures in Hebrew, the New Testament and the Greek philosophers in Greek, Tertullian and Augustine and some of Luther in Latin, and, of course, German literature in German; and instead of producing convenient but questionable excerpts, he used quotations that came to him from an intimate knowledge of the sources. Since he always made his own translations, which occasionally involved new interpretations, the translations in the present volume often had to deviate from the standard versions.
    • One feature of Baeck's style that may strike some readers as more teutonic than talmudic is that in a sense it is deeply uncritical. Possible objections6 are scarcely ever considered, and when they are introduced it is often merely as foils for neat retorts. Baeck is the preacher and he is "telling us" — even in the long essay in which he criticizes the "romantic" conceptions of the finished man and of finished truth while upholding the ideals of search, quest, and step-by-step approximation. He seems to write as if he had the truth and merely faced the problem of communicating it. But what he does tell us is so profoundly opposed to traditional7 ideas about Judaism and Christianity that he simply did not have to worry lest the reader might be taken in before considering the matter fully. There was no danger whatsoever that his suggestions might be accepted as new dogmas. Obviously, Baeck was not trying to say the last word and to settle issues definitively. He wanted to make us reconsider unquestioned dogmas, unquestioned assumptions, unquestioned attitudes; he wanted to open up discussion of issues that are still held widely to be settled once and for all.
    • "There is something twofold about" his thinking: the voice is often the voice of a preacher — sometimes dogmatic, always serene and peaceable and polite — but the soul is the soul of a revolutionary who craves open horizons and is willing to tear down old walls of prejudice and preconception. Something of this contrast was obvious to all who knew him.
    • Less than a year before his death, he was invited to speak at the University of Frankfurt, in Germany, in February 1956. Academic speeches were read off by way of introducing him. Then Baeck spoke. He was in his eighties: tall, commanding, venerable. He did not use any notes at all — he never did. His speech, as always, was urgent and exciting — the speech of a young man who is full of ideas, some of them perhaps a little wild, and alive! His imagination had caught fire and he had something to say. He spoke about the idea of rebirth — and one could hardly help feeling that, in spite of her economic recovery, Germany was spiritually dead compared to this old man who, having come back from the grave of Theresienstadt, seemed so much younger than any other philosopher or theologian who had survived World War II in Germany. Unlike all the rest, he knew the meaning of rebirth.
  4. Translation
    • About the art of translation people have very different ideas. The German tradition of translating Homer into dactylic hexameters (Voss), Shakespeare, with every pun intact, into iambic pentameters (Schlegel), and every author in accordance with his own peculiar style, has never won wide acceptance in the English-speaking8 world.
    • In Germany, translating is respected as one of the fine arts, and the best German poets have added to the rich store of fine translations — from Goethe and Holderlin to Stefan George and Rilke. In the United States, a translator is widely considered a writer manqué who, unable to write anything worthwhile himself, uses the content furnished by a foreign writer and imposes on it — not his own style which, alas, he lacks, but rather what his publisher considers currently acceptable English. Where Schlegel's translation of Shakespeare, and Voss’s of Homer, are more or less definitive and need not be brought up to date any more than the originals, it is a common axiom in the English-speaking world — and follows from what has been said — that every generation must in turn make new translations of the same texts — assuming that public interest has survived the initial mutilation, which rarely happens.
    • Naturally, there are some fine English translations and many bad German translations; and the translator himself is the very last person who should discuss the quality of his own work. If he has any sense at all, then, having exposed himself rather more thoroughly to the original than almost anybody else, he should realize most clearly how inadequate his translation is. But he is not likely to find this inadequacy where others find it — and he may even find himself asked by his publisher to explain at least briefly what he has been trying to do.
    • It was during the winter 1950/51, after he had read my Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, that Baeck asked me to translate his essays. He was enthusiastic about my translations because he found them so faithful. Feeling that my English versions of Nietzsche still sounded like Nietzsche, he expected that my English versions of Baeck would still sound like Baeck. To accede to his request and then to render his prose into ordinary English, void of any peculiarity, would have constituted a betrayal.
    • In this case, duty and inclination coincided. The Baeck translations were made in 1953 while I was also translating Nietzsche for a volume in The Viking Portable Library, and it was a welcome challenge to keep their idioms distinct. Later, when I translated Rilke and Heidegger, it seemed imperative not to flatten out their differences in style, either by making Heidegger sound like Rilke or, forbid, Rilke like Heidegger.
    • It should go without saying that a translator generally does not agree with all the ideas in the texts he translates, that he does not think the way his author does — and that he does not write the way his author does. But once he undertakes the translation, he is on his honor not to retouch the ideas, however slightly, to bring them closer to his own — and not to impute his own style to his author either. In the present volume, only a few obvious misprints in the references have been corrected. A few very minor departures from the original in "Mystery and Commandment" are due to Baeck himself. Any reader who cares to know what the translator thinks about some of the questions discussed in this book may turn to my Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Harper & Brothers). In the present volume, the voice is the voice of Baeck.
    • Long sentences, to be sure, have often been broken up in translation, and every effort has been made to produce a readable English text. But as this is Baeck's Iast book and some of the original texts are all but inaccessible, it is generally more important that the book should be exceedingly faithful to Baeck's intentions than that the reader should find it much smoother and easier than the German text ever was for German readers. What matters most is that he should find himself addressed by Leo Baeck.
  5. Life and Works
    • Baeck is not nearly as well known in America as he ought to be. Therefore, at least a brief sketch of his life and major publications seems called for.
    • Baeck was born in Lissa, Posen, then a part of Prussia, on May 23, 1873. He studied in Breslau, Silesia, then also a part of Prussia, and in Berlin. It was in Berlin that he received his Ph.D. from the University and his rabbinical diploma from the Lehranstalt fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, to which he later returned as a teacher.
    • In 1905, when he was a rabbi in Oppeln, Silesia, he published Das Wesen des Judentums. For the second edition, in 1922, he revised the book thoroughly and expanded it from 167 pages to over 300. By 1932 the book had reached its sixth edition. In 1936 an English translation appeared in London; in 1948, a revision of that translation was brought out by Schocken Books in New York. The Essence of Judaism is the book for which its author was best known during his lifetime.
    • In 1912 Baeck accepted a call to Berlin. Two years later, World War I broke out. He volunteered as an army chaplain and served on both the Western and the Eastern fronts. After the war he resumed his work as a rabbi and a teacher at the Lehranstalt. He kept publishing, and a bibliography of "The Writings of Leo Baeck," compiled by Theodore Wiener and published by the Library of Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, Ohio, in June, 1954, lists over 400 publications. But between the two World Wars he never found time for more than essays and reviews, and two volumes of collected essays.
    • The first such volume came out in 1933: Wege im Judentum: Aufsatze und Reden — i.e., "Paths in Judaism: Essays and Lectures." It was divided into six parts:
      … Of Faith,
      … Ties and Paths,
      … History and Struggle,
      … Goal and Conflict,
      … Men and Destinies,
      Hochschule and Academy.
      Many of the essays in the first four parts also featured that characteristic "and." One of these, "Mystery and Commandment," originally published in Der Leuchter 1921/22, was selected by Baeck for inclusion in the present volume.
    • The second volume of collected essays bore the title Aus drei Jahrtausenden: Wissenchaftliche Untersuchungen und Abhandlungen zur Geschichte des judischen Glaubens — i.e., "Out of Three Thousand Years: Scholarly Inquiries and Essays concerning the History of the Jewish Faith." This book was printed but never published. The Gestapo destroyed almost the entire edition before publication. Less than ten copies were saved: one may be found in the New York Public Library, another in the library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
    • As this volume is all but lost, at least a list of its contents should be given here. It contains 24 essays which may be numbered here to facilitate references:
      … 1. Does Traditional Judaism Possess Dogmas?
      … 2. Theology and History.
      … 3. Romantic Religion.
      … 4. Judaism in the Church.
      … 5. Greek and Jewish Preaching.
      … 6. Two Examples of Midrashic Preaching.
      … 7. The Ancient Opposition to the Haggadah.
      … 8. The Pharisees: A Chapter of Jewish History.
      … 9. The Gospel as a Document of the History of the Jewish Faith.
      … 10. The Son of Man.
      … 11. Simon Kefa.
      … 12. Three Ancient Songs.
      … 13. Just Men and Angels.
      … 14. Secharja ben Berachja.
      … 15. The Third Generation.
      … 16. Faith.
      … 17. The Kingdom of God.
      … 18 "He That Dwelleth in the Bush."
      … 19. The Origin of Jewish Mysticism.
      … 20. Sefer Yezira.
      … 21. Sefer Habahir.
      … 22. Popular Philosophy in the Middle Ages.
      … 23. The Development into an Ethical Personality.
      … 24. Religious Education.
    • All this may sound "scholarly" enough, as the subtitle says; even academic and innocuous. Why, then, was the book destroyed by the secret police? There may have been any number of reasons, but one of them was probably that the book, far from being innocuous, represented a rare act of courage — as any reader of the present volume may judge for himself.
    • Four of these essays (numbers 4, 5, 8, and 19) have been translated and included, along with two other essays and a brief selection from number 9, in The Pharisees and Other Essays, published in 1947 by Shocken Books in New York. Three others, including the two longest and most important essays Baeck over wrote, are included in the present book: numbers 3, 9, and 10. Any reader who turns to the essay on "Romantic Religion" to look at the last two paragraphs9 in the section on "Humanity" may form some notion of one reason why the book was suppressed. He will also realize quickly that the book, however scholarly, is far from "academic." Indeed, it is more scholarly and less academic than almost the entire religious and theological literature of our time.
    • An earlier version of the essay on "Romantic Religion" appeared in the Festschrift for the fiftieth anniversary of the Hochschule (alias, Lehranstalt) fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, in 1922. It was then intended as the first section of a larger work on "Classical and Romantic Religion." Unmistakably it represented one of Baeck's most important efforts. Later he revised and expanded it for inclusion in Aus drei Jahrtausenden. It is the final version of the text that has been translated for the present volume.
    • The essay on "The Gospel" was not only included in Aus drei Jahrtausenden but also appeared separately as a small volume in the so-called Bucherei des Schocken Verlags — a wonderful series of little volumes on Jewish subjects — in Berlin in 1938.
    • "The Son of Man" appeared originally in Monatsschrift fur Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, in 1937, while "Mystery and Commandment," originally published in 1921/22, as mentioned above, is from Wege im Judentum.
    • The remaining essay, on "The Faith of Paul," was not translated by me. It appeared originally in The Journal of Jewish Studies in London in 195210 and was based on a lecture delivered to the "Society for Jewish Study" in London.
    • Before the Gestapo destroyed Baeck's book, he had become the acknowledged leader of German Jewry. After Hitler had come to power in 1933, a small committee had been formed to represent the Jews of Germany vis-a-vis the government, and Baeck had been elected chairman of this so-called Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland.
    • The members had many opportunities to emigrate but stayed to alleviate as far as possible the lot of the remaining Jews and to help as many as possible to emigrate. Their negotiations sometimes took the members of the committee into foreign lands, but although they managed to evacuate their families from Germany, they themselves returned again and again into the lions' den — not because they trusted that God would deliver them but because they hoped to be able to deliver a few of their brothers. One by one, they gave up their lives in concentration camps. Baeck's own tribute "in Memory of Two of Our Dead" — Otto Hirsch and Julius Seligsohn — may be found in the first Yearbook of the Leo Baeck Institute of Jews from Germany, published by the East and West Library in London in 1956. The same volume contains many other essays on "Jewish Organization and Spiritual Resistance During the Hitler Epoch," on "Jewish Thought and Its Re-Orientation," and on the history of German Jewry.
    • In 1943 Baeck himself was deported to Theresienstadt where he continued to exert himself to keep up the morale of his fellow inmates. Because of his poor eyesight he had trained himself early to preach and teach without notes; now he taught philosophy as well as religious subjects without any books. Owing to a fortunate mistake, he escaped liquidation and survived until the Russian army arrived and liberated the prisoners at Theresienstadt. Immediately, he used his influence to help prevent any revenge.
    • He was then in his seventies, but anything but an old and broken man. His wife had died in Germany, his daughter was living in London. For years to come, he spent half the year in London with his daughter, the other half at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, teaching. Indefatigably he commuted across the ocean. Nor was he content to rest in England for six months at a time. He travelled widely and gave occasional lectures in Israel, and also in Germany. And he continued to write.
    • In 1952 he published an essay on "Israel und das deutsche Volk" in the German periodical, Merkur. The response to this article, which is as completely honest as it is free from resentment, touched him more deeply than the reception of his steady flow of scholarly essays in English publications. In 1955 the Europaische Verlagsanstalt in Frankfurt am Main published a short book which Baeck had written during the Hitler years and dedicated "To the Life and Memory of My Wife!" Dieses Volk: Judische Existenz — i.e., "This People: Jewish Existence." One gathers that this little volume with its less than 200 pages was really read, read with the heart, by simple German people and by ministers — Baeck was moved by the letters that came to him from Germany — and even by reviewers.
    • Three reviews may be quoted here. The first appeared in Die Kultur: "When the two poets, Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, died, Germany knew that two great men had left the realm of the living. Who knows it in the case of Leo Baeck, the ‘poet on a higher plane,' who died November 2, 1956, in London? Germany may think today that it suffices morally to have Martin Buber's books on one's shelves. Buber's reputation should not be contested. No less important for humanistic German literature is the lifework of the rabbi, Leo Baeck — for a literature, that is, which rises above the merely aesthetic and places men's thinking at the center of their reflections." Merkur said: "The day will come when this book, probably the last great Jewish message in the German language, will be prized as an important testimony of Jewish teaching in this age and, no less, as the enduring legacy of a Jew from Germany to the German people." Finally, a sentence from Deutsche Rundschau: "In its beauty, intensity, simplicity, and greatness, his language becomes as plain as that of the Biblical patriarchs, as if it came from far away, and yet it welled up in the direst distress in our own midst."
    • After the War, Baeck wrote a sequel of almost twice the length of the original volume. He gave it the same title and subtitle; merely added "A Second Part." The book is no epitaph; the chapters are entitled:
      … I. Growth and Rebirth.
      … II. Way and Comfort.
      … III. Praying and Learning.
      … IV. The Kingdom of God.
      … V. Hope.
      When the book appeared in 1957, Baeck was dead.
    • He needs no eulogy. He only needs to be read.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: This is an important distinction – between the criticism of Christians and the criticism of Christianity.

Footnote 2: Both Wittgenstein’s father’s parents were Jewish, but only his mother’s father was of “Jewish descent”. This makes Wittgenstein “ritually” non-Jewish, and he was “religiously” Catholic, though non-believing and non-practicing. See Link.

Footnote 3: Was Christianity, as distinct from the German state / people hostile at the time? Complicit, maybe.

Footnote 4: So there may be a comparison with Kierkegaard, after all?

Footnote 5: Is this Hegelian? Kaufmann wrote "Kaufmann (Walter) - Hegel - A Reinterpretation".

Footnote 6: This “preaching” approach will make him less philosophically interesting. Of course, “objections” can be considered merely for the purpose of refutation – as the text suggests of Baeck. Is this the case with Aquinas?

Footnote 7: In what sense were his ideas “opposed” to both traditional Judaism and Christianity?

Footnote 8: There are some well-known Anglophone literati who have been translators (George Elliott?) and great English literary figures have translated the classics. Also, there’s the KJB. But major figures translating contemporary work may be rare.

Footnote 9: These last two paragraphs (see p. 275) are:- It’s not clear to me that the Gestapo would have read any of this – though if they had, this condemnation of the Church for its (alleged) indifference to injustice and the implicit call to amendment of ways might have been objectionable as an implicit call to opposition to Nazism. However, presumably any Jewish publication was for the bonfire? Also, some protestant pastors did speak out against Nazism.

Footnote 10: Edition 3.3 – not available (as far as I can tell) on JSTOR or other sites.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

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