Authenticity, Autonomy, and Authority: Feminist Jewish Learning among Post-Soviet Women

Jan. 15, 2008

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 74, Issue 1 January 2008 , pages 83 – 102


A group of 40 women ranging in age from 22 to 60 sit in a large circle at a retreat center about 50 kilometers outside of Moscow on a cold Friday night in November. They have gathered from across Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus for four days of Jewish learning and celebration. This evening, after self-conducted services and a festive Shabbat meal, they are exploring the question "What being Jewish means to me?" When the group leader first introduces the discussion topic, there is hesitation and nervous laughter.

The women exploring these complex questions about Jewish identity and identification are part of a Jewish educational program called Beit Binah (House of Wisdom), that employs methods of feminist pedagogy and transformative learning to engage in the study of Jewish texts. Beit Binah is one of several programs of Project Kesher, a grassroots women's organization dedicated to revitalizing Jewish life and creating democratic communities throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Like many of their adult Jewish learning counterparts in the West, many of the women in Beit Binah appear to be grappling with the question of what does it mean to be an "authentic" Jew? It is a complicated enough challenge to understand what people mean when they invoke the word "authentic" in a Western, free-market society where freedom of expression is a core value and understood as a basic human right. But, how does the quest for authenticity play out in a society where values of freedom and personal autonomy have long been suppressed? As we see in the comments above, for many of these post-Soviet women, the starting point is one of dissonance, forged out of a fragmented if not ruptured history, and shaped by limited Jewish resources and role models to help them deliberate and make autonomous choices for their lives today.

This article explores these women's struggle with developing a sense of personal autonomy and authority in deciding what it means to be an "authentic" Jew, and then acting on those meanings in terms of their choices of Jewish beliefs, practices, and connections. This struggle centers around a fundamental dichotomy between a feminist and transformative learning process that is designed to promote and encourage personal autonomy, and their historical/cultural context that prompts them to accept an imposed authority and seek validation from outside the self.

Updated: Mar. 26, 2008