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Voices of Faith: Is it Scripture that the man is always the head of the household?

  • Published Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, at 7:28 a.m.

The Rev. Holly McKissick, pastor, Peace Christian Church, Kansas City and Overland Park, Kan.: No hats at the dinner table; call if you’re going to be late. Just as households have rules, so do cultures. Sometimes they are merely practical: Take off your shoes when you come in. Sometimes, though, they reflect power imbalances: Women do not speak until spoken to; slaves eat in the back room.

Like every faith system, Christianity was influenced by the cultural rules in place when it took root. Then, as now, people mistook cultural rules with the sacred principles of the faith.

Thankfully, rules can evolve in a positive, progressive fashion.

But not always.

Take Christianity. Christianity began as a reform movement of sorts — more inclusive and less hierarchical than the social environment in which it began, and in some ways, a reaction against that environment — with neither “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” The early Christian faith was good news to the poor, the leper, the lame, the women. The outcasts were welcomed, accepted, affirmed.

Over time, though, Christianity moved from the sideline to the mainline, from the margins to the mansions, and with that move came a renewed skewing of power. It became the religion of the empire. The Christian household, which Jesus envisioned to be more egalitarian, eventually came to look like every other household of the time: patriarchal. Female submission became entrenched (and largely remains entrenched).

We remain called, however, to reflect the earliest Christian voice, crafting and sustaining relationships where power is shared.

Rabbi Avi Weinstein, head of Jewish Studies, Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy: Attitude toward Scripture and its authority is one of the great dividing lines between religious traditions, and Judaism is no exception.

The Biblical mandate is that a man must leave his mother and cleave to a wife. Biblical laws of inheritance of land certainly favored men, and these designated roles were mandated in the Book of Exodus. The question is, once the tribal order has been thoroughly dismantled, should those directives remain?

Scripture assumes traditional roles and describes them often throughout the Hebrew Bible. The primary role of a woman is to raise a family, and the primary role of a man is to support that family with an occupation of some kind. There was never a Biblical mandate as to who should be the primary decision maker. Those dynamics were a family affair. Even if public roles favored men, women were never entirely excluded. Deborah was a judge and had no problem asserting her authority.

Even inheritance laws as evidenced in the Book of Numbers did not entirely exclude women. When the daughters of Zelophkhad came before Moses claiming their father had died and was it appropriate that their uncle should inherit in their place, God himself approves the challenge and requires Moses to give the daughters the inheritance designated for their father.

In Eastern Europe, it was common for the men to study while the wives not only managed the home but worked outside the home to support the family.

Nowadays, although in more traditional Jewish homes many rituals are the exclusive province of men, the issue of who gets to be the head of the household — depends on the household.

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