Posted by Robin Podolsky
I don’t think the women of Pussy Riot should go to prison. With their Punk Prayer, they’ve pushed human rights issues in Russia onto the international stage in ways that ‘respectable’ NGOs could not. And they brought in some neon to break up the grey; they’re fun and kind of adorable. All of which may seem like strange sentiments for someone preparing to be a clergyperson, let alone for someone preparing to be a rabbi.
Yes, I do know how bad I’d feel if some people rushed the bima (pulpit) of a synagogue in which I was praying or leading prayer and carried on with a loud ritual of their own devising. No, I don’t think the dangerous tropes about Jews that two of them invoked in their closing statements are defensible. And, no, I don’t think that passion, sincerity and wit are good enough when it comes to activism. Strategy, content and substance are still key. But, as I’ve learned from my study of the Shoah, when religious institutions are used to enforce silence about repression, one of the worst things to do is nothing. These girls cracked a putrefying can of worms wide open.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich took the pulpit of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral to chant their Punk Prayer, as an invocation: “St. Maria, Virgin/Drive away Putin….Become a feminist!” in order to protest the alliance of the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church—whose spiritual leader, Patriarch Kirill Gundyayev, has called the Putin era “a miracle of God”. Amnesty International calls it a regime under which, “corruption, the abuse of power and human rights violations will continue to flourish”; a judgment based on documented attacks against journalists and peaceful demonstrators. The freedoms of press, assembly and speech protected in our Constitution have never been secure in Russia where democratic traditions are weak and imperial traditions flourish. Again, we are hearing, “‘God, Tsar and Fatherland”; and, when those things are conflated, everyone outside the magic circle becomes fair game—like those of our ancestors who were brutalized and murdered in pogroms.
Of course, Pussy Riot stands for more than a protest against corrupt elections and a Church that turns a blind eye. They stand for a female sexuality that does not apologize for itself or submit to Patriarchal discipline (that’s not rhetoric—church fathers in Russia actually are called Patriarchs). They stand for the artist’s need to pull back the skin of conventions that holds the everyday together, exposing the tangle of loss, fear, need and crazy hope underneath.Pussy Riot has been accused, not only of trampling on the very idea of the Holy, but also of invading a place where working and middle class Russians expect to find refuge, to retreat from just those issues that Pussy Riot brought to the fore. These slick kitties from the city stand for subversive cosmopolitan possibilities that the ascendant Russian right is determined to smash.I don’t know how to talk about that without confronting the self-policing aspects of working class culture. The very capacity for self-discipline and sacrifice that keeps working class families together at all can become a powerful drag on social change. A hunger for personal happiness—unwillingness to make do—an irrepressible need to make art for example, draws accusations of self-indulgence, of “elitism” from parents and friends who have rejected the torture of hope. The terrible hunger for respectability on the part of people who have precious little else to strive for can turn a holy community into a communitarian jail that preserves the status quo. Even fighting for better wages and benefits can be framed as greed in that context.
This is different from the religiosity of the prophetic tradition, exemplified by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Z”L, who wrote, ““Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, and the vision.” Our contemporary Rabbi Jill Jacobs reminds us of Rabbi Heschel’s great insight—that prayer, while it does take us into that timeless time of greater intimacy with God, is not a mere refuge. Prayer is where we confront our soul and confront a Creator who respects our capacities enough to make great demands on them.
And it’s not like our prophets eschewed the lewd, the weird, or the scatological when it came to making their point. Ezekiel lay down in the street for days, eating bread cooked over cow dung to protest social injustice and idolatry. Hosea’s entire married life with a woman who had either been promiscuous or a sex worker can be seen as one big provocative performance. Social/spiritual emergencies call for desperate measures.
The women of Pussy Riot do have a lot to learn. In her closing statement at trial, Tolokonnikova wrote, “Passion, total honesty, and naïveté are superior to the hypocrisy, mendacity, and false modesty that are used to disguise crime.” True—-but those things are not superior to having an analysis. Those who inflect their social justice work with Romance tend to confuse tactics with principles, provocation with transformation. An aesthetic is not a strategy, nor is it wise, let alone kind, to mock potential allies or even to appear to mock them. But Pussy Riot has already apologized sincerely for that, saying that, in the way they did their intervention at church, they made an “ethical mistake”.
It saddens me that both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina invoked an old and dangerous trope, that of “the Jews” oppressing Jesus, to analogize their own situation in their closing statements. They failed entirely to contextualize Jesus as a Jewish teacher and the Jews as a colonized degraded people under Roman rule. Again, that’s not just sloppy thinking; it’s especially maladroit politics, given that Jews are targets of the same forces arrayed against Pussy Riot. Let’s hope these women bring their creative intelligence to this issue as they have begun to do with regard to religion in general.
Still, it’s a very good thing that, in the face of real danger, these women spoke out. They took risks and tried something new. People have been beaten to death in Russia for less. And the women of Pussy Riot are already learning and growing, critiquing their own behavior while drawing attention back to the conditions against which they acted.
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