Minutes of Monthly Meeting

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March 10, 1996

Location: Home of Jerry and Lorraine Kotler

Meeting Topic: Review of Karen Armstong's book, A History of God1

Speaker: Jerry Kotler

Hosts: Jerry and Lorraine Kotler

PRESENT: Connie Breen and Lou Ryterband, Cochairs; Robert Bloom, Bert Buby, Corrine Coleman, Steve Coleman, Phyllis Duckwall, Lisa Federle, Tom Federle, Erika Garfunkel, Felix Garfunkel, Bob Gleason, Jack Hickey, Jack Kelley, Jerry Kotler, Lorraine Kotler, John Magee, Bill Patterson, Jane Patterson, Ruth Precker, Ken Rosenzweig, Joan Schiml, Marianne Weisman, Murray Weisman.

Connie called the meeting to order at 8:05 PM. As part of the devotional, Jerry Kotler sang a song written by Schlomo Kalbach, a composer of Chasidic music who died recently. The song contains a passage from Psalm 21. "Lmanachai Lreyav." "Because of my brothers and friends, peace to you. This is the house of the Lord. I wish the best for you." Continuing the devotional, Lorraine read from a book entitled Living Each Day which contains meditations for each day. It was written by Rabbi Twersky, a Chassid who has a graduate degree from Marquette University. Some selections from Lorraine's reading were "Serve God with trembling and with reverence. It is our responsibility to contribute to life as well as take from it. Life has meaning." Following the devotional, there was a round of introductions of those in attendance. Ken passed around the newsletter, titled Ma Nishma?, from the Christian Jewish Dialogue of Augsburg, Germany (Gesellschaft fuer Christlich-Juedische Zusammenarbeit Augsburg und Schwaben). Ken receives Ma Nishma? on a regular basis and sends our minutes to the Augsburg group in exchange. Phyllis announced that dues are coming in slowly and urged those who have not sent in their dues for the year 1996 to do so promptly. Jack Kelley announced that there were about 100 people at Rabbi Cook's recent presentation at Temple Beth Or, including 10 Dialogue members. Eileen and Connie attended a meeting in Columbus to form a state-level Jewish-Christian Dialogue group. Lou Vera commented that, at that meeting, Connie and Eileen talked in lyrical terms about the Dayton Dialogue. Lou continued that Dayton dialogers are considered elder statesmen in the process of dialogue, and others need to hear about this. Unfortunately, many Christians have not yet had the opportunity to be exposed to Dialogue. For this reason, Lou has pushed over the last few years for the Ohio Council of Churches to develop the state-level dialogue group that was attended by Connie, Eileen, and herself.

Lou Ryterband then introduced Jerry as one of the great finds of this group. Lou noted that Jerry joined about 16 years ago and initially complained that, although group members had warm feelings toward one another, the Dialogue was not a learning group. As a result of that criticism, the Dialogue developed a much more active educational program. Jerry has addressed the group many times before and has provided many stimulating presentations. Jerry has a Ph.D. in engineering. Currently he is a personnel recruiter ("head hunter"). However, his chief preoccupation now is being a singer. Jerry also conducts services at Beth Jacob Synagogue, Dayton's largest orthodox congregation. He is a member of practically all of the Dayton congregations. Lou induced Jerry to read the Armstrong book after Lou's daughter pointed the book out to Lou. Noting that Jerry is a book person. Lou stated that it was a particular privilege to introduce Jerry Kotler.

Jerry pointed out that his daughter had also given him the book and urged him to read it. Since the book is long, Jerry initially searched for ways to prepare this presentation without having to read it. He searched for reviews of the book. He read a devastating attack on the author in the journal, Biblical Review. This review criticized Armstrong for not even having an elementary understanding of Hebrew scriptures. The review was written by Richard Elliott Friedman, Lorraine's first cousin. A search for other reviews (on LEXIS/NEXIS and at the Dayton Public Library) yielded none that would help Jerry with his preparation. With no lazy man's way to proceed, he had to read the book. He is glad he did because he learned a great deal about the many ways different cultures have envisioned God throughout history.

Karen Armstrong is not in the same biblical scholarship league as Lorraine's cousin. She does have some impressive credentials. Her knowledge of Christianity derives from her seven years as a Roman Catholic nun. After leaving the convent, she earned a degree at Oxford in English literature and went on to become one of England's leading commentators on religious affairs. As of 1993, she was a professor at the Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and the Training of Rabbis and Teachers. She rounds out her association with the three Western monotheistic religions by being an honorary member of the Association of Muslim Social Sciences. She has published six popular books, all on subject of religion, including a biography of Muhammad. Jerry doubts that there are more than a handful of people in the world who can boast the spectrum of knowledge about Western religion demonstrated by Armstrong. Lorraine and Jerry are looking forward to meeting her at the next International Workshop on Christian Jewish Dialogue in Stamford, Connecticut, later this year. Armstrong will be the keynote speaker at that conference.

Judaism in Ancient Times

Karen Armstrong's objective in A History of God is to trace mankind's view of God over the past 4,000 years. Dealing primarily with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, she summarizes their origins and tracks the development of religious thought in each branch. She begins her study with Genesis and the relationship between the God of the Israelites and their leaders. In Chapter 3 of the Book of Exodus, when Moses has the chutzpah to ask God his name and credentials, God answers, "I am who I am" (Ehyeh asher ehyeh). Armstrong states that this is a Hebrew idiom to express deliberate vagueness. She says it really means, "Never mind who I am!" or "Mind your own business!" There was to be no discussion of God's nature and certainly no attempt to manipulate God as pagans sometimes did when they recited the names of their gods. The God of Israel is the unconditioned God: God will be exactly as God chooses and will make no guarantees. God simply promised that God would participate in the history of God's people.

Armstrong notes that at the Sinai covenant, the Israelites never admitted that the God of Sinai was the only God. They promised only that they would ignore all other deities and worship God alone. She defends this statement by noting that the Ten Commandments take the existence of other gods for granted; i.e., "There shall be no other gods before my face." The worship of a single deity was an unprecedented step.

Armstrong takes us through the Hebrew Scriptures, stopping now and then to point out similarities and differences between the Hebrew understanding of their god and the ideas of Buddhists and those of Aristotle and Plato. She is obviously attracted to the Hebrew prophets and the revolutionary impact they had on the way the Jewish people viewed their god. For example, prophets like Isaiah were trying to make their countrymen look seriously at the actual events of history and accept them as a terrifying dialogue with their god. The prophets also drove home the point that God wanted compassion rather than sacrifice. A person must return to the marketplace and practice compassion for all living beings. The prophet Amos emphasized that God did not simply intervene in history to glorify Israel but rather to secure social justice. During her discussion of the Hebrew prophets, the images of God that the prophets use in their poetry are noted, e.g., king, jilted husband, suffering person. At this point, she states that religion must have some anthropomorphism. A deity which is utterly remote from humanity, such as Aristotle's unmoved mover, cannot inspire a spiritual quest. It is her belief that this imaginative portrayal of God in human terms has inspired a social concern that was not present in earlier religions and in Hinduism in particular. She states that Jews were first people in the Ancient World to establish a welfare system that was the admiration of their pagan neighbors.

Armstrong addresses the criticism that the Jews have endured for nearly 2,000 years regarding the arrogant belief that they are the "chosen people." She says that all 3 of the monotheistic faiths have developed similar theologies of election at different times in history. She notes that Western Christians have been particularly prone to the flattering belief that they are God's elect. During the 11th and 12th centuries, the Crusaders justified their Holy Wars with the Jews and Muslims by calling themselves the "new chosen people," who had taken up the vocation that the Jews had lost. Calvinist theologies of election have been largely instrumental in encouraging Americans to believe that America is God's own nation. She points out that a personal god can be manipulated to defend fundamentalist behavior, as can be seen in the Middle East and in our own country on a daily basis. She claims that this type of behavior is rare in the case of belief in an impersonal deity.

Another notion found in the Hebrew Scriptures is that God is dependent on man when he wants to act in this world. She claims that this idea became very important in the Jewish conception of the divine. Armstrong also notes that Jews could get closer to God by imitating God, e.g., observing the Sabbath as God did after creation. They also felt the holiness of God when they performed any of God's 613 mitzvot (commandments).

The prophets had claimed that God had allowed Israel to suffer because of its sins. However, Armstrong points out that the author of Job showed that some Israelites were not longer satisfied by these traditional answers. God ends this debate (about the reason for suffering) by coming to Job in a vision and pointing to the marvels of the world God had created. God asks how could a puny little creature like Job dare to argue with the transcendent God. Job submits. Armstrong also notes that the author of Job is not denying the right to question, but suggests that the intellect alone is not equipped to deal with such matters as the reason for suffering. This was a strong divergence from Aristotle and other Greek philosophers.

Armstrong notes additional or evolutionary changes in the Jewish understanding of God at the dawn of the Rabbinic Period in Judaism. A very important rabbinic insight suggests that God cannot be described in a formula as though God is the same for everyone. Each one of the prophets had experienced God differently because each personality influenced his conception of the divine. Other monotheists developed a similar notion. To this day, theological ideas about God are mostly private matters in Judaism and are not enforced by the establishment.

Christianity

As Pharisaic (or Rabbinic Judaism) became more dominant, a new movement developed whose first adherents were all Jews. They saw in their young charismatic leader a new Moses or new Joshua. Armstrong suggests that Jesus seemed to encapsulate many of the deepest aspirations of many of his contemporaries and to give substance to dreams that had haunted the Jewish People for centuries. The sudden scandal of his death forced his disciples to believe that he would soon return to inaugurate the messianic kingdom of God. Armstrong states that such an idea about the messiah was not heretical. In fact the New Testament suggests that Hillel's grandson, Rabbi Gamliel, saw the new Christian sect as authentically Jewish. Ultimately, this new Israel, inspired by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, would become the Gentile faith, which would evolve its own covenant and distinctive conception of God. After his death, Jesus' followers decided that Jesus was divine. This did not happen immediately. The doctrine that Jesus was God in human form was not finalized until the fourth century, and its development was a gradual and complex process. The doctrine of the incarnation of God in Jesus has always scandalized Jews and Muslims. Armstrong claims that incarnation is a difficult doctrine with certain dangers, and Christians have often interpreted it crudely. Yet, she believes incarnational notions have been a fairly constant theme in the mystical tradition of all religions, including Judaism and Islam. It is also an element in the Hebrew Scriptures. For example, in Genesis when Abraham met the three men, one of them can be interpreted to be God.

The growth of Christianity relied on converting pagans and Gnostics. Members of these groups often demanded a detailed theology regarding the nature of God. The early church fathers who were well aware of Greek philosophy, which permeated Asia Minor, developed a passion for theological debate that is unique in the history of world religion. From these debates and discussions evolved the concept of the trinity as well as the church's rejection of Marcion (who advocated rejecting the Hebrew Bible). By the end of the Second Century, the pagan gentiles were successful in converting the Semitic god of the Bible to the Greco-Roman ideal.

Armstrong takes her readers on a long, multi-century historical visit to the major players in Christian thought, including:

  1. Clement of Alexandria who studied the Greek philosophers before his conversion and devised rules of life for Christians
  2. Origen, the brilliant follower of Plato, who was convinced of the kinship between God and the soul
  3. Plotinus, who had absorbed 800 years of Greek speculation and applied its methods and understanding to Christian theology that surprisingly generated a spiritual quest rather than a logical process
  4. Arias and Athanacius who, at the famous synod at Nicaea (held in 325 CE in modern Turkey and convened by the emperor Constantine himself) were on opposite sides of one of the most important debates in Church history, viz., either Jesus belonged to the divine realm (the view of Athanasius) or Jesus belonged to the fragile created order (Arius' position). Today, Arius' name is a byword for heresy.
Note: At this point in the book, Armstrong makes one of her strongest critiques of the Church: viz., that after the Council of Nicaea, a dogmatic intolerance unfortunately crept into Christianity. This would ultimately make the adoption of the "correct" or orthodox symbols crucial and obligatory. She goes on to say that at Nicaea the Church opted for the paradox of the incarnation, despite its apparent incompatibility with monotheism. At this point, Jerry expressed his view that Armstrong appears to be biased against Christianity. She is sympathetic to Judaism and Islam.

In the fourth century, the Eastern Church, developed a distinction between the teachings from scripture and the deeper meaning of Biblical truth, which could only be apprehended through religious experience and expressed in symbolic form. This distinction differed from the Western Church and is extremely important in the history of God in both Islam and Judaism.

Armstrong emphasizes how the Eastern Church differed with the West in the understanding of the Trinity. Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians found the trinity to be an inspiring religious and mysterious experience. However, for many Western Christians, the Trinity was, and still is, simply baffling because the Western branch of the Church never adopted the mystical or spiritual aspects of religion as totally as did the East. At this point, Jerry noted that when Father Heft refers to the Trinity, he often describes it as a mystery. Armstrong suggests that the East was very uncomfortable with all the logical theological debates going on in the West regarding the nature of God and the Trinity.

Armstrong spends considerable time discussing the Latin theologian who defined the Trinity, viz., Augustine, who she calls the founder of the Western spirit because no other theologian, apart from St. Paul, has been more influential in the West. His view of the Trinity was not metaphysical, but psychological and highly personal. He was also responsible for the West's understanding of the doctrine of original sin. Neither Jews nor Greek Orthodox Christians regarded the fall of Adam in the catastrophic light of Augustine's doctrine; nor later would Muslims adopt what Armstrong calls this dark theology of original sin. She continues her critique of Augustine by saying that he left us with a difficult heritage in that he denigrated sexuality in general and women in particular.

Islam

The chapters relating to Islam were the most fascinating to Jerry primarily because almost everything he read was new to him. While he noted the great differences between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, he was also surprised to find many similarities, particularly with Judaism. In the limited amount of time available for this presentation, Jerry could only give a taste of Armstrong's view of the God of Islam.

In about the year 610 CE, an Arab merchant who had never read the Bible and probably never heard of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, had an experience that was uncannily similar to theirs. (Jerry's friend, the Muslim from Cincinnati, told him that traditional Muslim belief is that Mohammed was illiterate.) Although it is important to understand the socio-economic and religious (mostly pagan) period in which Muhammad lived, our presentation time restraint would not allow Jerry to cover Armstrong's treatment of this very important aspect of his life. Suffice it to say, more is known about Muhammad than about the founders of any of the other modern religions.

Unlike the Torah that was given to Moses over a very short period (like days), the Koran was revealed to Muhammad bit by bit, line by line, and verse by verse over a period of twenty-three years. Eventually, he came to believe that he was putting the ineffable word of God into Arabic, for the Koran is as central to the spirituality of Islam as Jesus, the Logos, is to Christianity. The Koran is neither a narrative nor an argument that needs a sequential order as in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. Instead it considers various themes: God's presence in the natural world, the lives of the prophets, and the Last Judgment.

In the Koran, the existence of God is never in question, e.g., an atheist is one who is ungrateful to God and will not honor him. Islam is a religion that literally means surrender. Each person who claimed to be a Muslim was expected to surrender his/her whole being to the creator. The Koran is highly suspicious of theological speculation, dismissing it as self-indulgent guesswork about things nobody can possibly prove or know. As in Judaism, God was experienced as a moral imperative or moral necessity. The major Koran messages are simple. It is wrong to stockpile wealth and to build a private fortune. It is good to share the wealth of society fairly. Each Muslim has the duty to create a just and equitable society where the poor and vulnerable are treated decently. In the Koran, Al-Lah (the God) is more impersonal that the God of the Jews and lacks the pathos and passion of the Biblical God. The Koran suggests that we can only glimpse something of God in the signs of nature, and God is so transcendent that we can only talk about God in parables.

Armstrong notes that the way in which Jews and Muslims read their holy texts are very similar. In Christianity, it is Jesus who is the word of God. Hence, there is nothing holy about New Testament Greek. Arabic and Hebrew are holy tongues to Muslims and Jews respectively. Frequently, when they recite these texts, they savor the words that God himself has revealed. The Koran represents the presence of God in their midst. Jerry noted that in Muslim services, the reader chants passages from the Koran from memory. This is in contrast to the Jewish service, in which passages are read from the Torah scroll. Jerry observed that the Koran is written in a way that is so poetic that it is inconceivable that it could have come from an illiterate person.

The perception of God's uniqueness is the basis of morality in the Koran. To give allegiance to material goods or to put trust in lesser beings was idolatry, the greatest sin in Islam. Armstrong notes that the same words and phrases used to describe the above ideas are found in the Torah. Islam makes it clear that we only see God in God's activities, which adapt God's ineffable being to our limited understanding. Because Muhammad was believed to have surrendered perfectly to god, Muslims were to imitate him in their daily lives. By modeling themselves on Muhammad, they hoped to acquire his interior receptivity to God or his God consciousness.

At this point, Lorraine pointed out that, in contrast to Islam (meaning surrender), Israel means "one who has wrestled with God." This comes from the Biblical story in which Jacob wrestles with an angel. The angel is a mechanism by which man can communicate with God.

Armstrong feels that it is important to understand Islam's view of other religions. She claims that from the start Muslims saw revelation in less exclusive terms than either Jews or Christians. The Koran repeatedly points out that it is not bringing a message that is essentially new and that Muslims must emphasize their kinship with the older religions.

Philosophers and Mystics

At this point in Karen Armstrong's book, we have completed only 170 of 399 pages. The remaining six chapters deal with how these religions modified and changed their view of God when conditions demanded it. In the chapter titled "The God of the Philosophers,", she describes how Falsafah and the Faylasufs (Arabic for philosophy and philosophers respectively) in Islam dealt with the minute details that arose during the centuries following Muhammad. These men addressed and explained issues not directly expounded upon in the Koran. Many Faylasufs were greatly influenced by the Greek philosophers and their methods of logic, as were the Church fathers. Armstrong emphasizes one major difference, viz., Western Christians often persecuted and attempted to wipe out many philosophical nonconformists, while in "Islamdom", esoteric thinkers usually died in their beds. As in Christianity and Judaism, the emphasis on the rational versus the spiritual depended on the philosopher, rabbi, Faylasuf, or Church dignitary, as well as the specific time period. Examples of issues tackled by these philosophers were: suffering, creation ex nihilo, how matter can emanate from God, the nature of God, the nature of prayer, the proper way to pray, the meaning of life, the relation between science and religion. Philosophers often tried to build a bridge between revelation and natural reason. Armstrong summarizes the works of 22 Jewish, Muslim, and Christian philosophers, including the most distinguished of the three religions. She considers Maimonides the greatest Jewish philosopher. Jerry noted that Maimonides was not isolated in the Jewish Community; he studied under some of the great Islamic philosophers. He is called the Rambam--which is an acronym for Maimonides.

Armstong's best chapter is entitled "The God of the Mystics." She strongly believes that a mystic tradition is crucial to the viability of any religion. The benefits of a personal god are all too obvious (God loves, judges, punishes, sees, hears, creates as we do), yet a personal God can become a great liability. Such a god can be a mere idol, carved in our own image, a projection of our limited needs, fears, desires. We can assume that God loves what we love and hates what we hate, endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them. All three monotheistic religions developed a mystical tradition, which made their god transcend the personal. Except for Western Christianity, it was the god experience by the mystics which eventually became normative among the faithful. In modern times, these traditions were sometimes abandoned and later revived. Armstrong notes that in recent years, the people in the West are feeling the need for an alternative to a purely scientific view of the world and that mystical religion is more immediate and tends to be of greater help in time of trouble that a predominantly cerebral faith. The disciplines of mysticism help the ones who are adept to return to the source, the primordial beginning, and to cultivate a constant sense of presence. As in the case of the philosophers, her knowledge of the field of mysticism also appears to be encyclopedic for all three religions. Jerry is somewhat familiar with the major Jewish mystics and was pleased to see that Armstrong covered all of the names of which he was aware. Her major theme in this chapter is that the mystical experience of God has certain characteristics that are common to all three faiths.

Armstrong summarizes the work of forty major mystics and their movements, including: Rabbi Akiva, the Kabbala and its major work, the Zohar, Thron Mysticism, the Song of Songs, the Shiur Qomah, Sefer Yezirah (the Book of Creation), Gregory of Nyssa, Denys the Areopagite, St. Basil, Jesus' experience on Mt. Tabor, Dante, Symeon of Constantinople, the Sufis, Abu Yazid Bistami, Al-Junayd of Bagdad, Al-Hallaj, Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazzali, Yahya Suhrawardi, Muid Ad-Din Ibn Al-Arabi, the notions of En Sof and the Sefiroth, Moses of Leon, Abraham Abulafia, Isaac Luria, Meister Eckart, Johannes Tauler, Gertrude the Great, Henry Suso, Richard Rolle of Hampole, Dame Julian of Norwich, Gregory Palamas (Archbishop of Salonika), Barlaam the Calabrian, Gregory Akindynos, Nicephoras Gregoras, Prochoros Cydonas, and a few others.

Lorraine felt Armstrong was close but missed the mark on some of the Jewish mystics. Jerry is impressed with the scope of her knowledge. Jerry has the impression that Armstrong does not consider herself Catholic anymore. He noted that mystics tend to believe that no one religion has the ultimate truth.

Armstrong concludes that introspective, imaginative mysticism was a search for the ground of being in the depths of the self. It deprived the mystic of the certainties that characterize the more dogmatic forms of religion. Since each person has a unique experience with God, it followed that no one religion could express the whole of the divine mystery. There was no objective truth about God to which all must subscribe; since this God transcended the category of personality, predictions about his behavior were impossible. Any consequent chauvinism about ones own faith at the expense of other people's faiths was obviously unacceptable since no one religion had the whole truth about God.

At the end of her book, Armstrong has a wonderful, somewhat upbeat section indicating her belief that the God of the mystics has the potential to transcend fundamentalism and promote more respect for the wide range of religious beliefs in the world.

Time prevented Jerry from covering Armstong's chapters that relate to the Protestant thinkers as well as the modern Jewish philosophers of the Enlightenment Period. In fact, her journey takes the subject right up into the 1990's.

Discussion Period

Lou Ryterband stated that reading the book gave him the impression that Armstrong is still a Catholic. He was impressed with the breadth of her knowledge. Erica questioned how much depth can be possible in so few pages. Jerry replied that she gives a "birds-eye view." Bert talked about the Council of Nicea. He noted that incarnational creeds had preceded this council. Also Jerry's discussion of the Gnostics seemed appropriate to Bert. Steve asked whether the book changed Jerry's thinking. Jerry replied that the book gave him a better perspective of the history of religion. He noted that Armstrong expressed the opinion that Isaac Luria's notion of tzim tzum may be the most creative mystical thought of all. Lou found very interesting that Western Christianity had no real mystical tradition. Lorraine asked whether Charismatic Catholicism is a mystical tradition. Lou Vera responded in the affirmative, but she stated that it has been institutionalized. Lou Ryterband pointed out how the Hebrew prophets were very different because of their different personalities, while Mohammed was treated in a different way. Lorraine speculated that Armstrong tends to romanticize Islam, while she rebels against her own Catholic tradition. Lorraine said that she felt the title of the book was chutzpahdik (nervy or galling) to her. Jack referred the Dialogue members to another similar book entitled, God, a Biography. Ken asked whether mystics from different religious traditions actually talk to each other, as was implied by Jerry in his review. This is surprising in light of the extremely different cultural backgrounds. Jerry replied that mystics have spoken to each other on occasion. At this time, Jerry retrieved a book from his library entitled The Jew in the Lotus that describes a very successful recent encounter between the Dalai Lama and several Jewish mystics and rabbis. Joan defended the book against the criticism of "lack of depth." Given its mission, it could not be expected that Armstrong could intensively cover any one tradition or element. Ken pointed out that one of her main points was the pain that Western religions have often caused to their adherents by insistence on doctrinal purity and uniformity. Lou Vera pointed out Fowler's analysis of the stages of religious development including stage five where people are not greatly affiliated with formal religious institutions and are quite tolerant of other religious traditions and thought. Ken asked whether it was possible for Catholics to maintain allegiance to their faith while retaining a "free thinking" habit of mind. Lou Vera replied that, unfortunately, in recent years, there has developed less tolerance in the Catholic Community for free-thinking Catholics.

Jack Kelley pointed out that four Passion Plays are sited in Ohio. Unfortunately, two in Cleveland still use the "blood curse" text. Jack also recommended a moment of silence in honor of the tragic bombings that have occurred in Israel.

The meeting adjourned at about 10:00 PM.

Respectfully submitted,

Ken Rosenzweig, Secretary


1 Karen Armstrong, A History of God, New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
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