First, the Halachic source on this issue is the Rambam (Maimonides),
Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:13 in Mishne Torah, vol 1. This paragraph of
the Rambam is quoted essentially verbatim in the Shulchan Aruch of
Rabbi Yosef Karo (Yoreh Deah 246:6) and by later Halachic compilations.
The Rambam appears to take a middle ground between the views of the
Tanna, Rabbi Eliezer, who holds that teaching Torah to one's daughter
is like teaching her frivolity or wantonness, and the view of the
Tanna, Ben Azzai, who holds that one is required to teach Torah to a
daughter (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 20-21). The Rambam takes the position
that most women aren't prepared to study Torah seriously, and will
consequently form superficial judgements on what they are taught. His
view, thus, appears to be that there is no blanket prohibition or
requirement to teach Torah to girls or women, but is conditional on
their receptivity and intellectual capacity. The Rambam, furthermore,
prefaces his view of the role of women in Torah learning with the
statement that a woman who learns Torah has a reward for her learning
which is "lower" than that of a man who studies Torah since he has the
obligation to study, whereas she does not. Clearly, the Rambam
expresses the view that a woman may study Torah even if no one is
obliged to teach her. All of the above pertains primarily to the oral
Torah (Talmud). The Rambam makes a distinction at the end of his
presentation on Torah for women between the oral (Talmud) and written
(Tanach) Torah, in that teaching women Tanach is not objectionable, but
also not meritorious, whereas as teaching Talmud may be objectionable.
Here, the Rambam appears to be taking the middle ground between the
"majority" view of Talmud Sotah 20-21 (cited above) and the universal
view expressed in a Mishne in Nedarim 35b that one may teach the
written Torah to women.
Thus, there is no basis in the Rambam, in my view, for a restriction on
women to study Talmud, much less Tanach. Such study, of course, must
be done seriously and with a respectful attitude towards the legal
arguments and views presented there. Nor do I see a basis for the
blanket prohibition against teaching women Talmud if the candidate
students are judged to be interested, serious, and intellectually
capable of successful Talmud study.
[Editor's note: Torah-Forum's Board cautions the reader that Halachic
determination is far more complex than examining a single passage in
Rambam. The issue of Torah study for women has been the focus of an
extensive literature of the poskim (halachic decisors), all of which must
be factored into a determination of what is, and what is not, appropriate]
There is also a practical argument for providing interested women with
an opportunity for Talmud study. Many women will achieve a high degree
of secular education including law, science, and mathematics. Success
in such fields requires a high level of analytical skills - skills that
would be needed for successful Talmud study. Such women would have
achieved equal success in mastering Talmudic material as in the above
secular fields - given comparable motivation. Instead, our current
educational system tends to leave them ignorant of a vital part of
Torah studies, and fosters a resentment on the part of such women of
the traditional establishment and the traditional system of learning.
Similar arguments were used by the "Chofetz Chaim" (Rabbi Yisroel Meir
Hakohen of Mishne B'rura fame) in the early part of this century to
foster the formation of schools for girls that would involve the
teaching of Tanach, despite the reservations expressed by the Rambam.
Such mode of instruction is now very widely accepted in Israel as well
as in countries that have laws mandating a secular education for youth.
It is difficult to conceive of a reversal of this educational practise
despite its provisional rationale.
In sum, it seems to me that women do have a portion in all of Torah,
the parts that are primarily of "academic" interest to them as well as
the parts that are of practical importance to women (see the Ramah's
gloss on Yoreh Deah 246:6). The only distinction between men and women
in Torah study is the nature of the obligation. Women are only obliged
to know those matters that are directly pertinent, whereas men have the
obligation to know all of Torah. However, a woman who is interested
should feel free to study all of Torah, and educators should be
prepared to teach the oral as well as the written Torah to interested
and qualified female students.