After the war, as a student of philosophy at the Sorbonne, I happened to come across a volume in a library, which summed up the contributions to a colloquium that Jacques Maritain had organized on the topic of phenomenology in 1932. There Edith Stein had given a lecture, which I read with the keenest interest! Later, following the appearance of the French translations, I discovered her more and more; at once I was moved and fascinated by her path of holiness as well as by her genius.
To say that Edith Stein was and is a „bridge-builder between Jews and Christians” is a claim which seems to be both provoking and insufficient. Provoking when one calls to mind certain rather apprehensive reactions on the Jewish side on the occasion of her beatification and later her canonization. Did this undertaking of the Church not mean an improper adoption of the Jewish identity and a Christian sublimation of the horror of the Shoa as well?
When approaching the Christian faith and asking for baptism, Edith Stein herself experienced the burden of painful incomprehension on the side of her family.
Furthermore, the image of the bridge seems to me insufficient to express the significance of Edith Stein’s life and work with regard to the relationship of Jews and Christians. For to speak of a bridge means to describe two spheres, unfamiliar, standing opposite one another and separated by an insurpassable obstacle until the building of a bridge at last makes a connection possible without, however, neutralizing their mutual unfamiliarity. Through her very existence as well as through her work Edith Stein has done far more than that. She has embedded Israel again in Christian consciousness.
Has she, in doing so, also contributed to embedding Christianity again in Jewish consciousness? Who could tell? It is certain, though, that this would fulfill her dearest wish. Evidently I would have to justify my assertion at once. This, however, I am only authorized to do with respect to the first part of this twofold assertion: the re-anchoring of Israel in Christian consciousness.
That this, by the way, needs an explanation is in itself already paradoxical; for to every disciple of Christ as well as to every well-meaning reader of the New Testament this would have to appear as self-evident, even if the astonishment about my statement is understandable both in the face of almost two thousand years of mutual exclusion and the persecutions and suffering endured by the Jews.
The origin of this mutual estrangement – the Gospels and the whole New Testament give evidence of that – is by no means an abyss but a conflict within the Jewish consciousness, which crosses the messianic hope of this very consciousness, be it fulfilled or disappointed. A conflict which also ranks among the manifold orientations of Jewish life two thousand years ago before the Destruction of the Temple. A deeper knowledge of Jewish history throws a new light on this epoch, especially also owing to the complete publication of the manuscripts from Qumran.
In the course of centuries this original conflict has dug a deep chasm of hostility and mistrust. Through the peculiar interpretation of the Holy Scriptures the idea of the substitution of the Jewish People by the Church of Jesus has evolved, in misjudgment of the irrevocable Election of this very Jewish People. The work of the Second Council of the Vatican – unfolded and with perseverance further pursued under the influence of Pope John Paul II, confirmed and continued by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI – has done far more than build a bridge.
The confession of guilt for the committed and tolerated crimes has restored the mutual appreciation. It has promised the Jewish consciousness to the highest degree that the time of contempt is outgrown for ever – to take up the words of French historian Jules Isaac whose thoughts were not unfamiliar to the Council Fathers, especially Cardinal Bea and Pope John XXIII. Still more: Vaticanum II and then the teaching of Pope John Paul II have emphasized the very special relationship which connects the Church with the Jewish People in the faith. The first sentence in the fourth section of the Declaration Nostra Aetate expresses this very clearly: „Sounding the depths of the mystery which is the church, this sacred council remembers the spiritual ties which link the people of the new covenant to the stock of Abraham”, which here means: with the Jewish People.
Edith Stein was born and died long before the Council, and yet her fate demonstrates this same condition of mutual relatedness, which is not satisfied with overcoming prejudices or soothing the suffering of the wounds received or even restoring the ties of trust.
Her fate reflects quintessentially what Martin Buber in his book Two Types of Faith called „Jewish faith” and „Christian faith” in order to tell them apart, yes, to contrast them with one another. This contrasting may well have its origin in Martin Buber’s understanding of Christianity which relies too much on Bultmann as the „Oracle of Christianity”, especially referring to his interpretation of Paul.
In her life and in her death Edith Stein expressed their mutual integration in all completeness. St Paul called this „Mystery”; it is about the admission of the Pagans, through the sacrifice of the life of the Messiah, to the Covenant which God sealed with Israel, His People. In Edith Stein’s inner way, in her praying and in her thinking, the suffering Messiah, the mystery of the Cross cannot be separated from the suffering of Israel; and that was long before the emergence of Hitler. In a prophetic way the theology of the Cross marks the heart of her consecration when she chooses Sr. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross as her religious name. United with the suffering Messiah through faith she went into the gas chamber with her People and for her People.
In a private conversation with Pope John Paul II, when the process of Edith’s beatification had come to its end, the Pope called her a martyr. I pointed out to him that as she was killed in Auschwitz, this happened because she was a Jewess. The Pope gave me as an answer that he saw in her a martyr precisely because of that: killed for the „sanctification of the Name – Kiddush haShem”.
The evidence relating to that phase in Edith Stein’s life shows in what spiritual attitude she proceeded in this trial, with the deepest participation in the mystery of her Master’s Cross, aware of her true identity, for it was as a Jewess that she endured this trial.
In doing so she has truly anchored the vocation of Israel again in Christian consciousness.
To Christians the Church presents Edith for veneration as a martyr, who died since a Jewess, who died for the sake of the „sanctification of the Name – Kiddush haShem”.
In his book N’oubliez pas l’amour (1987), p.241- Do not forget love – and then in his book Le monde de Jean Paul II (1991), p. 82-83 – The World of John Paul II – , André Frossard, too, transmits the same words of John Paul II.
This definition of martyrdom with reference to the Jewish tradition corresponds with one of the essential criteria that the Church cites in order to ascertain martyrdom: it is essential that the victim was brought to death „in odium fidei – out of hatred for the faith”, according to the time-honoured tradition of Christian martyrdom. This definition is true, as John Paul II emphasized repeatedly, for all Jews, who were killed by the Nazis because they were Jews, and that means: out of hatred for the Revelation which God has entrusted to them.
It goes without saying that the point here is not to mix up everything. But who knows what Martin Buber might have written today about this question?
By thus recognizing her martyrdom today, the Church certainly does not usurp her death, on the contrary: the Church respects her Jewish identity to the very last, just as Edith wished.
Now that she has been proclaimed one of the Patron Saints of Europe by the Church, Edith Stein calls us to reflect the mystery of the Church more attentively and deeply in order to detect in it the spiritual ties with the Jewish People which the Council teaches.
May she grant us to understand what unique hope is bestowed on us in this time of Passion amid the troubles of mankind.
„O Crux ave, spes unica,
in hoc passionis tempore.”
Introduction to the Round Table about Edith Stein in Saarbrücken, 2006 at the Assembly of German Catholics.
Text from: Edith Stein Jahrbuch Vol. 13, 2007, ed. on behalf of Theresian Carmel in Germany by the International Edith Stein Institute, Würzburg, in permanent cooperation with Edith Stein Society Deutschland e.V., p. 119-123.
Translated by Annegret Fuehr (January 22, 2009)