On April 26, U.S. Representative Ann Wagner (R-Ballwin) tweeted the following:
“Anti-semitism of all forms must be condemned. All members of the Jewish community must know we stand with them.”
She was retweeting a Jerusalem Post article which reported that anti-Semitic incidents reached record levels in the U.S. in 2021. There were 2,717 such incidents — a 34 percent increase over 2020 — according to Anti-Defamation League statistics.
Since Wagner brought up the subject, and since she’s decided to a make a public point of her concern for the Jewish community, her tweet cries out for a response. It turns out those words ring especially hollow right now.
That’s because Wagner — who once cosponsored a bill to protect “pre-born” human beings under the 14th Amendment — is a leader in an effort to get abortion outlawed in America using a Christian definition of human life, which will deprive Jewish women of their religious liberty with respect to abortion rights.
Safe abortion access is far more important to those women than comforting words about standing against anti-Semitism.
The Jewish definition of human life — that it begins with the first breath at birth — directly contradicts and disagrees with the Christian definition, that life begins at conception. That matters a lot.
Disclaimer: I am Jewish. My son was the fourth generation in our family to become confirmed in St. Louis at Temple Israel. That said, I’m more of a “Mel Brooks Jew” than a devout congregant, and certainly no spokesman for the religion. Surely, many Jews would like me to pipe down.
As for Ann Wagner, I don’t believe for an instant that she’s anti-Semitic. She seems sincere in her condemnation of anti-Semitism. Her pro-life beliefs appear genuine and advanced with the best of intentions. What’s in Wagner’s heart isn’t the issue. What’s in her legislative agenda is.
It cannot be ignored that Reform and Conservative Jews — excepting the Orthodox — believe that life begins at birth. The Talmud, a central text of rabbinic teachings and Jewish law, has language referencing the head leaving the womb. Genesis 2:7 states “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”
In Jewish law, life comes with that first breath, not the fertilization of an ovum. Further driving home that point is this passage from Exodus 21:22-25 which makes it abundantly clear that Jewish teaching does not subscribe to the view that a fetus enjoys the full rights of personhood:
“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…”
As far as I know, there's no reference in Christianity to merely fining someone who causes a miscarriage. This is the quintessential type of difference that cannot be resolved legislatively in a nation governed by a First Amendment stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
The issue of reproductive freedom is obviously a women’s issue, but not exclusively so. A fundamental truth that too often gets left out of the debate is that an immense religious disagreement exists over whether a fetus is a human being at all stages of development.
It’s not just about Judaism. Many Protestant faiths maintain pro-choice beliefs, rejecting harder-line definitions about human life. In Islam, the fetus is believed to become a living soul after 120 days gestation. Tens of millions of others, from Unitarians to atheists and agnostics, hold views that deserve the same respect as the view that life begins at conception.
It’s time for the pro-choice side to engage the debate in these terms. The pro-life position should be framed for what it is — an attempt to impose a government mandate of childbirth on all pregnant American women.
Here’s an alternative to that: How about not imposing one faith’s religious beliefs upon those who do not share those beliefs?
By the same logic with which Catholic hospitals should not be forced to perform abortions — and they should not — women who do not subscribe to the Christian definition of human life should not be governed by it. And that includes a lot of Christian women.
Politicians like Wagner cannot have this both ways. They cannot on one hand speak glowingly of the Jewish community but disregard and dismiss the sanctity of its faith.
Advocating anti-abortion beliefs is certainly no indicator of anti-Semitism. But intentional or not, it has the effect of disrespecting Judaism and other faiths or spiritual beliefs that diverge from Christianity on the subject of human life.
This view is politically incorrect. It is preferred today to comfort one another with happy talk about the nation’s great Judeo-Christian traditions, origin unknown. Or for politicians to reach for the low-hanging fruit by condemning anti-Semitic rhetoric in the strongest rhetorical terms.
“Jews control the world banking system”? Horrible thing to say. “Jews are attacking California with space lasers”? Really horrible. “Jews will not replace us”? Really, really horrible. “Jewish billionaire George Soros is orchestrating an international financial conspiracy to destroy America”?
Well, that trope is OK with them.
But what’s not acceptable, apparently, is to recognize as doctrinal the substantive differences between Christianity and Judaism. When was the last time someone suggested we all have a robust public debate about Jesus of Nazareth? Not lately, thankfully.
That’s the way it needs to be in a nonsectarian nation. The separation of church and state was one of the Founding Fathers’ top priorities, and it is no less compelling today than two and a half centuries ago.
Denying or glossing over substantive differences might be politically expedient, but it doesn’t make things right. Those who advocate school prayer, for example, cannot empathize with Jewish kids for whom starting the public-school day by paying homage to Christianity is uncomfortable.
And it all pales next to the unacceptability of any woman having her life — or her reproductive decisions — governed by the principles of another’s faith. The bottom line could not be clearer: Imposing the Christian definition of human life on Jews or other non-Christians, or anyone else who doesn’t share it, is religious intolerance on steroids.
If you’re Ann Wagner and you’re so passionate about your own faith that you cannot hold these truths to be self-evident, so be it. Do what you got to do.
But spare us the empty rhetoric about “standing with the Jewish community.”
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).