He brought unprecedented attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry. He stood up to the KGB. He survived nine years in Siberia. He served in Israel's fractious government.
Now, Natan Sharansky is facing his next challenge: finding a solution to the growing battle over women's prayer restrictions at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site.
In recent months, Diaspora Jewish activists have grown increasingly incensed by the arrests and detention of women seeking to pray publicly at the site in keeping with their religious practices – but in violation of the rules of the wall under which women may not sing aloud, wear tallit prayer shawls or read from the Torah.
The controversy threatens to drive a wedge between Diaspora Jewry, where egalitarian prayer is common, and Israel, which has upheld Orthodox rules at the wall, also known as the Kotel. American Jewish leaders in the United States say the rules alienate Reform and Conservative Jews. Within Israel, too, the wall has become a flashpoint for non-Orthodox religious activists and the Kotel's haredi Orthodox leadership.
Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to look into the controversy and propose solutions. The question is whether the former refusenik leader and human rights advocate can resolve a dispute that pits Jew against Jew.
“Will it happen through Sharansky?” asked Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a group that organizes monthly women's services at the Kotel. “That I doubt, but I'm willing to give him a chance. Sharansky will understand how much traction this issue has.”
Hoffman was arrested in October for wearing a tallit at the site, and several more of the group's members have been detained at subsequent services.
Sharansky declined to comment on the issue until he gives his recommendations, but activists on both sides of the issue say the gaps between the site's leadership and pluralism advocates may be too wide for Sharansky to bridge.
Shmuel Rabinowitz, the wall's chief rabbi, would like to maintain the status quo, where men and women are separated by a partition and only men may wear tallit and tefillin and convene a minyan prayer quorum with Torah reading. Hoffman and her allies have proposed alternatives that involve the religious streams sharing time and space in the Kotel Plaza, with each praying according to its own precepts.
Hoffman says her minimum demand is for women to receive one hour at the beginning of every Jewish month -- excluding Rosh Hashanah -- when they can pray as a group with tallit and tefillin, and read the Torah. Ideally, Hoffman says she would want the Kotel's partition between men and women to be removed for several hours each day so that women and egalitarian groups can pray there undisturbed, but she acknowledges that such a scenario has virtually no chance of being approved by Rabinowitz.
Other activists say the solution lies in adding a partition rather than removing one. Yizhar Hess, the CEO and executive director of the Israeli Conservative movement, Masorti, advocates dividing the Kotel Plaza into three sections: one for men, one for women and one for egalitarian groups. Hess also told JTA that he would like to see the rear section of the plaza opened to cultural activities such as concerts and dancing, which are prohibited now.
“There are many egalitarian groups who come to the wall and view it as the peak of their emotional and spiritual experience in Israel,” said Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who runs Hiddush, an Israeli religious pluralism nonprofit. “The fact that they can't express that spiritual experience in a spiritual way is a missed opportunity.”
According to a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling, non-Orthodox and women's prayer groups can pray at Robinson's Arch, an archaeological park adjacent to the Kotel Plaza where an admission fee is required. Regev suggested that Sharansky may recommend improvements to Robinson's Arch, including an expanded prayer area and free admission for prayer groups.
That may be the maximum compromise that Rabinowitz would make.
“I think what's happening today at the Kotel is the best for all viewpoints of the world,” Rabinowitz told JTA. “No one gets exactly what they want -- not haredim and not Women of the Wall. If someone thinks they can bring something better, I'd love to hear it.”
Rabinowitz declined to comment on time- or space-sharing proposals.
Meanwhile, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the Kotel, announced recently that women are no longer allowed to bring tallit or tefillin into the Kotel Plaza.
The Prime Minister's Office, one official there told JTA, hopes Sharansky will bring to bear his “unique experience and abilities in serving as a bridge for all streams within the Jewish people” as he approaches the problem.
One potential bridge between Rabinowitz and Hoffman are Modern Orthodox rabbis who believe both in Orthodoxy and pluralism.
The Kotel “is a holy place, but needs to belong to all of Israel,” said Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who co-founded the Modern Orthodox rabbis' organization Tzohar. Cherlow says he isn't throwing his backing behind any particular solution but that a time-sharing arrangement may work.
Daniel Goldman, chairman of the religious-secular nonprofit Gesher, says the only way to reach a compromise is to find figures who occupy middle ground who can foster some sort of accord.
“If Natan Sharansky could broaden the people involved in that debate beyond Rabbi Rabinowitz and Women of the Wall, it's possible to use this issue to create a more constructive dialogue,” Goldman said. “If you get Anat Hoffman and Rabbi Rabinowitz in a room, it's quite obvious and clear that there will be no compromise solution.”