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.