I'll try to avoid a debate as to whether the mechitzah is actually required by halakhah - let's just, for now, assume it is - and I'll just say the following:
(1) If the male side is exclusively male, and the female side exclusively female, I think that it is difficult to say which side is the one being discriminated against, on these grounds alone. Perhaps the men are the ones being discriminated against! However, we then realize that the women are (as far as I know) not allowed to read from the Torah or sing as loudly as men. This, and precisely this, is where the discrimination lies. Now, in a private synagogue, the congregation can set whatever policies it desires, and women can simply choose not to frequent that establishment, but in a place that is publicly owned by the Jewish people, I see no grounds whatsoever to give preference to men, because the women own it no less than do the men, and the women have as much say as the men do. If the sexes must be separated, so be it, but it should be separate-but-equal; whatever the men are allowed to do, the women should be allowed to do as well, without any limitation whatsoever. If the men are distracted by singing women, they can
(a) rely on the Orthodox-Jewish Turkish, Greek, Egyptian, Syrian, and Yemenite permission to listen to women sing; so far as I know, the only Orthodox rabbis who still uphold the prohibition even today to listen to women sing, are Ashkenazim and Haredim; Sephardi and Mizrahi Orthodox non-Haredi rabbis tend to be extremely lenient regarding this. Now, I've got ample sources to back up this assertion if anyone calls me on it;
(b) the men can wear earplugs;
(c) the men can simply go somewhere else.
(2) Perhaps there should be a third section of the Kotel, a mixed-sex area. That way, everyone could daven according to his or her own preferences. And if mixed-sex davening violates halakhah, then we should realize two things:
(a) It is the non-Orthodox daveners who will put themselves into this situation, by willingly davening in the mixed area. There is a halakhic principle, "Let the wicked stew in their juices", meaning that if sinners want to hurt themselves by sinning, and no one else, then we let them. So if the non-Orthodox want to daven in the mixed-sex area, the Orthodox have ample halakhic basis to let the non-Orthodox do so without interference. Even if mixed-sex davening is prohibited, there is still a strong basis to permit it here. (I hope you realize that I am being tongue-in-cheek; my classifying non-Orthodox Jews as sinners actually leads to greater tolerance, not less.)
(b) Perhaps it is worthwhile to permit a relatively minor infraction - viz. mixed-sex davening - if it will lead to greater unity in the Jewish world. Perhaps a small concession like this would go a long way towards mending some of the rifts in the fabric of Jewish peoplehood. I don't think I need to elaborate on how fantastically self-evident - in the context of historical Judaism - this suggestion of mine is, to be lenient for the sake of Jewish unity.
I say all this as an Orthodox Jew, and that's all I have to say about this.
As I believe I made very clear in my post, I "see a problem in the wall" because it exists, and I do not believe in gender separation. It's not about moving the mechitza to create more space or decorating it with bows or anything else, it's about the fact that I do not believe the mechitza should not be there. Period. My definition of Jewish unity is about unity - as in, all Jews standing together and praying as one people without any barriers between them. "Unity" should not mean "all Jews of all denominations just going along with whatever the Orthodox want or else be accused of disloyalty."
That said, I do believe in compromise. Mike Winndale's suggestion of having three sections at the Kotel - men', women's, and mixed - sounds entirely reasonable to me and seems like a fair way to let everyone pray in a fashion they're most comfortable with.
To this, I responded (with words that largely what I have already written in Importing Reformism Into Israel),
"Unity" should not mean "all Jews of all denominations just going along with whatever the Orthodox want or else be accused of disloyalty."I agree.
Now, I personally believe that Orthodoxy - taken in the simple sense of being faithful to Jewish tradition and law - has a greater claim to authenticity and legitimacy than other Jewish denominations. But there are a few caveats:
(1) This argument, while it may be true (in my opinion), is of little avail in today's environment. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, and even today in Israel, everyone considered Orthodoxy the most authentic form of Judaism, even if they weren't observant themselves. But today, most American Jews do not think this way, and so, even if Orthodox is more authentic, this won't help Orthodoxy win adherents. Being self-righteous is of no avail if one's goal is not merely to be correct, but is rather to actually convince others of one's being correct.
(2) Not all forms of Orthodoxy are created equal. Professor Menachem Friedman, a renowned expert in Haredi sociology and history at Bar Ilan University, notes, "In my opinion the Eastern European, Ashkenazi character of haredi Jewry remains questionable to this day."
Professor Marc Shapiro, in The Moroccan Rabbinic Conferences writes,
It is a truism that with the Emancipation and the rise of Reform and, later, Conservative Judaism, options for halakhic flexibility became much more limited. In the midst of a battle against the non-Orthodox movements, traditional Judaism retreated into a conservative mold both as a means of distinguishing itself from the non-Orthodox and out of a fear that in an era of halakhic crisis, any liberality in halakhic decision-making could encourage non-Orthodox trends. This latter sentiment was always on the minds of halakhists, even those who did not adopt lock, stock, and barrel R. Moses Sofer's famous bon mot, "Anything new is forbidden by the Torah." The above description is accurate, however, only with regard to the Ashkenazic world. The Sephardic world never had to contend with non-Orthodox religious movements, and thus it was able to develop in a much more natural-one might say organic-fashion. In particular, this was the case in Morocco, a community that had a very old halakhic tradition and whose scholars produced numerous works of responsa.
In like wise, Professor Daniel J. Elazar writes in Can Sephardic Judaism be Reconstructed,
[A]s modernization engulfed them, the Jewish religious leadership in Central and Eastern Europe became either more radical or more conservative in their approach to tradition, either seeing antinomian radical reform or refusing to continence any new departures, even in interpretation. The religious leadership of the Sephardic world, on the other hand, particularly in North Africa and the Balkans, developed a whole pattern of halakhic interpretation that moved far in the direction to reconciling halakhah with modern technology and life down through the nineteenth century.
In contrast to Ashkenazi stricture, Elazar notes (ibid.) that
One of the greatest, if not the greatest, contribution of Sephardic Jewry was...to offer a balanced theory and practice, not given to excess, seriously Jewish, yet worldly and cosmopolitan. Classic Sephardic Judaism was designed by men who lived in the larger world and were active in its affairs, most of whom wanted a Judaism no less rigorous than their Ashkenazi brethren in its essentials, but flexible in its interpretations and applications. … The basic element of the Sephardic religious outlook embodied in the halakhic decision-making of its religious leadership w[a]s that halakhah should facilitate Jewish living in the world in which Jews found themselves, not seek to separate the Jewish people from the external world per se. … Their Judaism would play an isolating function only where critically necessary and not prevent Jews from playing their role in what had been in Spain prior to 1391 a multi-religious society.Similarly, he notes (The Special Character of Sephardi Tolerance),
Sephardim are noted for and pride themselves on being less fanatic than Ashkenazim in virtually all matters, especially religion. They certainly are not among the militant, black garbed Jews who throw stones at vehicles on the Sabbath and refuse to serve in the army. Sephardim are often bewildered by the Ashkenazic pursuit of humrot (new and more difficult halakhic refinements), because they have traditionally sought to balance the requirements of observance with those of living in order to achieve a form of religious expression that takes into consideration the whole human being, to encourage and cultivate the range of human attributes. It is difficult for Sephardim to understand the isolationist trend that is dominant among so many Orthodox Ashkenazim, who see the salvation of Judaism only in separating it from those who do not meet current religious standards, which seem to be always moving to the right. Sephardim see no hope or virtue in isolation; to them, the result is a warping of Jews and a distortion of Judaism. Sephardim always have sought to balance their lives both as Jews and as a part of a larger human society. Isolation is not and was not a Sephardic goal -- that would have been a violation of their sense of proportion and balance. Rather, they seek to accept involvement with the larger world and its challenges. Historically, in the world in which most Sephardim lived, there was little occupation and segregation between Jews and non-Jews and often little residential segregation. Living and working together prevented the development of an isolationist spirit.
In the traditional Sephardic community, everyone - observant or not - was accomodated by the Orthodox authorities. Similarly, Professor Menachem Friedman notes that whereas today we have "voluntary communities", in which the members are only those people whom the community admits, traditionally, the community was constituted by an entire political or geographic locale. Everyone - observant or not - within a certain area was the community. The rabbis had no choice but accomodate the non-observant, because they were already part of one community; everyone - observant or not - was among the rabbis' constituents, and he had no choice but to seek to accomodate them.
Thus, Elazar notes ("Can Sephardi Judaism be Reconstructed?),
Sephardic Judaism as it developed in Spain was not like the "post-Reformation" Judaism of modern Europe and the United States divided into Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. First of all, it did not involve the kind of rupture with tradition that characterized Reform. Nor did it turn tradition into something frozen, or worse, reshaped by a deliberate ideology of rigidity, as did ultra-Orthodoxy. Nor did it allow the kind of institutional divisions that ultimately led to more deep-seated ruptures as with Conservatism. In part this was because medieval conditions were different from modern ones and in part because the culture of the Mediterranean world is different from that of northern Europe. … [T]he fact of Sephardic Jewry being Mediterranean played a very important role. Thus we see today that in the Mediterranean countries the Protestant approach to religion with its search for consistency between belief and action continues to do poorly. As a rule, Mediterranean peoples believe that they must formally be faithful to the traditions of their fathers although reserving to themselves the right to determine how they individually will maintain those traditions. In contemporary times, this has become the way in which many Sephardim conduct their lives. Today there are more than a few Sephardim who eat every kind of halakhic abomination while providing support for the most ultra-Orthodox Sephardic yeshivot (rather than more "modern" institutions) and who regularly visit (with checkbook in hand) wonder-working rabbis of the old school to obtain their blessings.
Elazar (ibid.) offers one example: whereas Ashkenazim build synagogues based on ideology,
Contrast this with a typical Sephardic congregation. It will be composed of people of all levels of observance, from black-hatted yeshiva students to people who think of themselves as secular but enjoy attending services from time to time. In the congregation all are equal. No one is asked how much or how little he observes. Sephardim assume that all people want to be traditional, only some people need greater degrees of help. That Sephardic attitude, which is typically Mediterranean, runs against the grain of the Ashkenazi pattern where people have to declare their religious ideology and form of religious behavior to fit into one community or another within Orthodoxy as well as between Orthodox and non-Orthodox.
Professor Friedman, in several of his essays, cites a case in which an Orthodox Eastern European rabbi chose to be lenient for the sake of Jewish unity. A few Jewish villages in the area, while nominally observant, were not completely punctilious in the observance of kashrut. The rabbi chose, however, to overlook their laxity, trusting that they were generally observant, and chose not to penalize them for their spotty observance. (It should be emphasized, however, that they were generally observant of kashrut. The issue was that their method of slaughtering cattle, while mostly conforming to Jewish laws of shekhita, left a bit to be desired in a few technical areas.) Why? Because, he said, it is more important for every Jew to be able to eat as one at one table, than it is to be completely punctiliously observant of the ritual laws. Professor Friedman concludes, based on this, that "Preventing animosity is a religious obligation that transcends even the suspicion of eating non-kosher meat." Realize that Friedman's conclusion is based solely on Orthodox sources.
Elazar concludes (op. cit.),
[I]t [is] possible to attract non-Sephardim, who are seeking a Judaism of that kind, to the Sephardic way. Can it be done? Only if there is a major effort to revive Sephardic halakhic interpretation, train Sephardic rabbinical leadership, and present the Sephardic way as an equally valid expression of Judaism, one that avoids Reformation-style schismatics and speaks on behalf of an organic Judaism through which Jews as a group are linked to a common tradition, while as individuals they make their own choices as to how to relate to and express that tradition. … The revival of a living organic Judaism of this kind is the need of the hour in Jewish life.
Therefore, based on all the foregoing - that Orthodoxy has historical legitimacy, but that this is helpful only when the non-Orthodox realize it; and that different kinds of Orthodoxy have different levels of legitimacy (Haredism is illegitimate, Sephardism is extremely legitimate); and that traditional Judaism sought to encompass all the Jewish people - observant and not - and compromise for the sake of unity - therefore, I agree with Lilit that
"Unity" should not mean "all Jews of all denominations just going along with whatever the Orthodox want or else be accused of disloyalty."