The Jewish community were welcoming Torah Scrolls that had come from the Synagogue in Dundee which sadly has now closed. A cupboard in the University Chaplaincy had been adapted to house the scrolls and Sunday was the day in which the new Ark was consecrated. It was such a joyous occasion. First of all we sang Yiddish songs and then were reminded of how precious and sacred are the Torah Scrolls in Judaism. The Scrolls were then brought out, read from, passed round and danced with as happens each year at the festival of Simchat Torah. It was a mixed gathering of orthodox and reform Jews and I was privileged to be handed the Scrolls and pass them on – something orthodox women would not be allowed to do. One orthodox woman told me she couldn’t do it as it would be too awesome a happening for her.
The Torah is at the centre of Jewish religious life and the Scrolls are seen as a symbol and even sacrament of the Living Torah and the Presence of God. They are not just scripture. While I might have known this in my head it was the delight and love with which the Scrolls were received that helped me experience and gain a deeper insight into their meaning for Jews. I suspect that attendance at synagogue services will not be quite the same for me in the future as I bring this amazing experience into my appreciation of what is going on.
The reason I was in St Andrews was an invitation to preach at the morning service in the University Chapel, a beautiful medieval building that was small, warm and inviting. The passage from the Bible that I preached on was the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery – a story in which a woman caught, we are told, in the very act of committing adultery, is brought before Jesus by the religious authorities to test his response and hopefully catch him out. Will he forgive this woman and so break the Law of Moses which required death by stoning or will he uphold the Law and so flout the authority of the Romans who forbade the Jews to inflict the death penalty? They have him in a bind – or so they think.
Jesus response has the touch of genius I think because he doesn’t enter into their games, he refuses to debate the niceties of religious or civil law, he doesn’t argue but waits and disarms them with the suggestion that the one among them who is without sin should be the first to throw a stone. The group disperses – perhaps rather sheepishly.
Often the title given to stories conditions how we see them. The story of the woman taken in adultery is about a woman who is shown mercy and forgiveness, something that is at the heart of Jesus’ message, though it’s a mercy and forgiveness that is challenging for the woman is told not to sin again. And while the woman is central, it seems to me that the spotlight is much more on the men – self-righteous men, presenting themselves as the experts, feeling entitled to question and intimidate people, willing to support a punishment meted out to only one partner in the act.
It wasn’t possible for me as a Catholic and a woman to read this story and not be aware of the terrible scandals that have hit the Catholic Church in recent times. Now it’s Bishops and priests and Cardinals, who have been exposed as wanting. They have shamed the Church and scandalised believers. Men who seem to have been addicted to the trappings of authority and power, who used people for their own satisfaction, who preached a gospel that they did not live up to, who castigated people for being gay while they themselves were living a gay lifestyle.
It has rocked the Church and led many people, especially young people, to wonder why they stay. What has shocked people is the hypocrisy of it all, the culture of secrecy that allowed it to continue, the ability to point the finger at others while being immune to their own sinfulness. Of course we are all, to some extent hypocrites, and we mustn’t do to these men what the religious authorities did to the woman in our gospel reading today.
But the abuse of a power that often demanded obedience and compliance is staggering. This is an example of the very worst kind of religion and the danger of putting too much trust in institutions. All religions have their institutional aspects and centres of authority. They are there to protect and hand on the core beliefs of the faith but often they obscure rather than reveal those beliefs which in their essence are about meaning, love and service. There is at the heart of religion, I believe, a pearl of great price that is worth seeking. But the search is within our own hearts, within our own history. It is a search which leads us to be open to wisdom and truth wherever it reveals itself to us. Then we will be able to recognise the good in religion and distinguish it from the bad.