The Edith Stein Case
I talk about Edith Stein here not because I pretend to know a lot about her. Unfortunately, I have not familiarized myself, as I should, with the life and works of this remarkable woman. I write because I was asked to present the Jewish perspective, meaning the associations which her person, especially her canonization, brings out among Jews. The matter has stretched itself out at least since her beatification, nearly twenty years ago. It seems that everything has been said and there is no value in going back to it all. But the matter has not been thoroughly discussed in Poland, so it makes sense to go back to it. What’s more, even though there were many accusations, some unreliable, since coming from ill-will, and even though the side of the Church has had its voice, not without heeding Jewish considerations, the matter is not closed. It most clearly points to deeper problems which are still important. This is a calling to both Jews and the Church, for our memory of the Holocaust, and for interfaith dialogue. Furthermore, was should ask whether the symbolism represented by Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is a symbolism suited for the bringing together Jews and Christians in dialogue?
I cannot help but add a personal note. My recently deceased father of blessed memory, Władysław Krajewski was born with the last name Stein. Even though his father changed their last name when my father was just a child, even though his family came from Włocławek, and not Wrocław, even though the last name Stein is so common – much like the name Krajewski – I cannot help but feel that I could be related to Edith Stein. Thus, the matter we are considering here becomes more than a general problem, instead it becomes almost personal.
From my own point of view, or more generally, according to the standard Jewish approach, survival is the most basic matter. That the Jews should survive as Jews is not guaranteed by the laws of this world. This is especially visible in Poland: after centuries of life it only took a few years to reduce their population to almost nothing. It is even more keenly observable in Auschwitz; mass murder can be effective on an unimaginable scale. It was effective. If the war were to last a bit longer, if the race to create the atomic bomb took a different turn… All this sounds quite banal today, but it seems to me that for Catholics, Poles, or also for Germans, this kind of experience is very hard to imagine. No moment that can be recalled threatened the very existence of Catholics, Poles and Germans. The Church, Poland, Germany, went through a lot, they faced many difficulties, but from the perspective of history these are only deviations. Leaving the Church, losing some people might be sad, but it does not endanger its existence, whereas some sixty years ago it became thinkable that there would be no more Jews. This fact, that it became thinkable, is for Emil Fackenheim a reason to rethink Jewish theology, or maybe not only Jewish. This imperative led to the 614th Commandment: Thou shalt not give a posthumous victory to Hitler, live, survive as a Jew.
What I have said about the calling which is the survival of the Jews as Jews is relevant here: Edith Stein broke with Jewish tradition. On the other hand, she believed that she still belonged to the Jewish nation just as before. Whatever she might have thought, it is clear for the majority of Jews that she apostatized.
Did she stop being Jewish? On the one hand, of course not. One cannot simply stop. A sinning, indifferent and rebellious Jew is still a Jew, however apostasy is a specific infraction. It signals a break, a resignation from incorporating one’s life into the continuity of Jewish survival – it is a betrayal of the Jewish mission. Non-religious Jews are sinners from the perspective of the religious tradition, but they always have the opportunity to return. Who among us does not sin? Jews who profess a different religious tradition, especially when they are fervent about it, can return, but are condemned until they do so according to tradition. Conversion to Christianity is especially painful for the Jewish community. After all, for centuries the Church attempted to convert Jews by using persuasion, pressure, seduction and torture.
In general, conversions to Christianity are not treated by Jews as a serious theological problem. This kind of conversion is something dramatic in light of the above mentioned imperative to survive, but it does not negate the identity of those who choose to remain Jews. It is sad, painful, worthy of lament, tragic, but it is not usually treated as a calling. Usually it is chalked up to self-interest, or lack of knowledge and rootedness in the Jewish tradition, ambitions or laziness, seduction by the culture of the majority, or hatred toward oneself. My father, who was very far from the Jewish tradition, used to quote the great scholar Chwolson, “Did I baptize myself out of conviction?” Of course I am convinced that it’s better to be a professor in Petersburg than a small-time teacher in a Shtetl. Whatever one says about this topic, it is obvious for anyone who knows anything about Edith Stein that these accusations do not pertain to St Teresa Benedicta. This is why the Jewish theologian David Novak described her as “the most significant Jewish convert to Christianity” in the 20th century; because, he added, she might be “the most problematic Jew for us since Saul of Tarsus.”
Edith Stein did precisely what the Church tried to convince other Jews to do for many centuries. She admitted that baptism is a way of completing her religiosity, a way of crowning her Judaism. What I have already mentioned explains why for Jews who see tradition as an obligation, her approach is felt to be a problem, a betrayal, an evil. I also feel this way. I want to be understood well, it is not that I question Edith Stein’s right to religious choice. I would not want her or anyone else to be forced to remain being a Jew. I value the liberal order, according to which everyone chooses for himself and does not have to subordinate himself to his surroundings or family. I do not want to say that all religions are equally good. Comparing religions leads to problems which we will consider in while. For now, it is sufficient to remind ourselves that according to tradition, being a Jew means functioning within the framework of Judaism. Judaism can be understood in many ways, currently it expresses itself in many forms, but Christianity is not one of them. Christianity is not one of the expressions – almost everyone, both Jews and Christians agree on this matter.
The canonization of Edith Stein makes her an example for imitation. For whom? Obviously for Catholics. I understand how she can be inspiring in many ways. She is really an outstanding person. Her intellectual, personal and spiritual formation is worthy of utmost recognition. I do no waver in adding her religious depth to that list. Yet, this does not change the fact that by praising her religiosity we inescapably also see her conversion as a positive event, because we are obligated to seriously consider that her conviction was positive for her. However, in that case she also becomes an example for imitation for Jews. The dilemma is quite simple. On the one hand, the Church has the obvious right to canonize whomever it wants to and in principle Jews have nothing to say about that. On the other hand, canonizing a person who consciously shifted from Judaism to Christianity says that the Jews who are the most praiseworthy are the ones who have become Catholics. There is no easy way to overcome this problem. One can only say: the more her path is described as a personal pilgrimage which could inspire, but does not constitute an example for emulation, the less controversial the case of Edith Stein becomes.
Obviously the most important thing here is not Edith Stein herself and her case, but the attitude of the Catholic Church, and more widely of Christianity toward converting Jews. It is my conviction that there is not full clarity in this matter. Of course the situation is different now, after the Holocaust and the Second Vatican Council, than it was before. Now no missions are organized for the purpose of converting Jews. There are statements from serious theologians that Christians should not strive to convert Jews.
The Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops under the direction of Cardinal William Keeler unambiguously said that, “the beatification of Edith Stein can in no way be understood by Catholics as an impulse toward unwarranted proselytizing of the Jewish community.” Even if we omit the question of what might constitute warranted or necessary proselytizing, we are faced with two problems. First, many Catholics, priests and theologians, think differently. Either openly or in the depths of their hearts they believe that getting baptized is the best thing Jews could do. I have brushed up against this personally, I know that such a stance is treated as understandable, or understood in itself. I am not sure what the reach of this kind of thinking might be, but it seems that is quite wide. At the same time I know that there are Catholics who think differently: they think that it is good that Jews continue being Jews. I know people for whom this is understandable in itself. However, this is the second and much more subtle problem; even among them it is not automatically acknowledged that since Jews should be Jews, then we should discourage Jews who want to become Christians. I understand that this is not an easy step, because it goes against thousands of years of tradition, because it questions the fundamental principle that mission work is for Christianity. But I reckon that it is conceivable that a Jew – only a Jew, I am not suggesting that it should be extended to others – who comes to the Church in order to prepare himself for baptism, should hear in a church – precisely in a church! – that he should familiarize himself with the Jewish tradition and see how he could be a religiously more faithful Jew.
Calling for the Church
It is not my task, obviously, to present a catalog of callings which the case of Edith Stain places before the Church and Christianity. It would be inappropriate for me to do that. I can only voice the hope that she will encourage thinking about the Holocaust, meaning, how to speak about it, how to remember it, and what role was played within it by the Church and what role individual Christians could have played.
I would like to reveal certain feelings. Abraham Foxman and Leon Kleinicki admitted on the occasion of the canonization in 1999, after long discussions which should shed light on everything, that they have the feeling that, “we have lost Edith Stein twice”, first through apostasy, then through canonization.
How is it possible to lose a person because of their canonization? According to the above-mentioned leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, “certain groups are taking possession of her as a Christian martyr.” In this way she becomes, “a pretext thanks to which the Church can strive for itself the same status as victim”, like the Jews. This is all the more inappropriate, because among the sources of the tragedy of the Jews there were also the “anti-Jewish practices” of the Church. I would like to underscore that I understand why such accusations cause a considerable opposition among Catholics. After all, what mattered was her teachings without considering her Jewishness! No reasonable person will deny that she was murdered as a Jew. In fact, the Church says that she was murdered both as a “daughter of Israel” and as a Christian martyr. Yet this does not close the case. It seems to me that even though the accusations of taking possession and the fault of the Church are formulated too categorically, they still deserve to be taken seriously.
I will start with the second accusation, that is, the playing-down of the role of the Church which has been taken up as a problem by its representatives. I am not sure whether this is understood on a wide scale in Poland where the memory of persecution is still a living one. At the same time, even though many Catholics and people of the Church were also persecuted by the Nazis, their persecution does not negate their responsibility. Cardinal Keeler is well aware of this. In his discussion of the declaration of the American bishops he said, “meditation on the martyrdom of Edith Stein has to underline the fault of Christians and call everyone to repentance.” I wonder whether such a calling could also resound in Poland.
When it comes to the accusation of taking possession, then the commission of the American Church said unambiguously, “by venerating Edith Stein, the Church desires to venerate all the six million victims.” This is an important declaration, however, it is only a declaration. More importantly, it does not overcome the accusation that the Church wants to present itself as a victim in the same category as the Jews. This is a most delicate issue, especially in Poland. Polish Catholics were victims of Nazism, including priests. We know that many priests were murdered in Auschwitz. At the beginning of the exposition in the camp’s museum we see a citation from a “welcoming” speech according to which Jews can count on living for several weeks and priests not much longer. This kind of statement (although according to professor Długoborski its authenticity is in doubt) suggests to the average visitor of the museum that the fate of both categories of victims is comparable. In reality it only points to comparability of the threat to prisoners. This is not the same as a similarity of the fates of Catholics and Jews. The overwhelming majority of the victims of Auschwitz were Jews who were murdered immediately and did not have the good luck – good luck! – of becoming prisoners of the camp. This is even more the case with other camps of extermination, which, unlike Auschwitz, were not also work camps: Treblinka, Bełżec, Sobibór. What’s more, even the fate of the prisoners was not the same. They were similarly endangered, but – after the first period when the camp came into existence – they were not in the same situation: the Jewish prisoners usually had behind them the tragic experience of the first day when their loved ones were gassed. Nobody waited for them anymore, nobody prayed for them, nobody wrote them letters. These circumstances distinguished their fates from the fates of Catholics. The sheer number of victims is also different, plus their proportion in relation to the communities from which they came is incommensurate. All of this explains why when we fully acknowledge the Catholic victims, we should not count them in the same category as the Jews.
Even though I believe the Church had no intention of taking possession of the Holocaust – one should add that many Jews suspect this – there is still the fact that Edith Stein was singled out as a representative of the victims. One cannot avoid the question of what it means for the memory of the Holocaust that a Catholic saint was made into a representative of the victims, when she was one of the very few faces that represent the mass of otherwise nameless death camp victims. We should not be surprised by the recurring doubt as to whether this leads to a taking-over, a Christianization, of the Holocaust.
Calling for Jews?
Since Edith Stein perished just like other Jews, she indubitably is a victim of the Holocaust. But she also is someone else – a Catholic saint. She is very atypical among victims of the Holocaust, but why shouldn’t we honor her uniqueness? Such people were also among the victims of the Holocaust. Does this bring something new into the debate about who Jews are? Certainly not, most Jews would answer. But the above-cited consideration of David Novak about “the most problematic” person among modern Jews seems to point to a certain unease that remains. It is possible that Edith Stein points to a calling that is still insufficiently understood.
Through many generations, Jews were accustomed to the fact that conversion to Christianity causes a factual removal from the Jewish community. This stopped being obvious in the 20th century. The Carmelite Daniel Rufeisen symbolizes a complication of this matter because of the question of Israeli citizenship and the identification with the state of Israel as a criterion of Jewishness. Edith Stein symbolizes the breakdown of this obviousness because of her Jewish death, which points to the possibility of the acknowledging of a Jewish fate as a criterion of Jewishness. An interesting case in point in Poland is the Association of the Children of the Holocaust (Stowarzyszenie Dzieci Holokaustu) whose members are Jewish children who managed to survive the War in Poland and live here right up to this day, however, the majority of them are Catholics. Yet, their association is very Jewish because their common denominator is a Jewish fate of living under threat of extermination during the German occupation. This is probably the only Jewish organization in the world whose members are mostly Catholics. This creates a problem which is symbolized by the name Stein, but few Jews actually recognize this problem as substantial. It seems obvious to them that it came from a momentary historical tempest and will shortly disappear along with the passing of those people. There will remain the current insight that the danger associated with being Jewish can be lived out by people who have broken with the Jewish tradition and community. We still do not see how this should influence our understanding of this tradition.
Calling for Dialogue
It is taken for granted in interfaith dialogue that proselytizing destroys the trust which is indispensable for that dialogue. Even when we reject proselytizing in the Christian-Jewish dialogue, there still remains a controversy – as David Novak sees it1 – which we simply hide from ourselves somewhere in our depths. It depends on the conviction of both sides that the best path to God is, “either by the Torah and the Jewish tradition or by Christ and the Church.” Even when we acknowledge the value of both roads, explains Novak, for both sides the abandonment of the community and movement into the other is a taking leave of a better road for a worse one. This is why we cannot escape the problem of apostasy, which the Edith Stein case represents to us so clearly. The Catholic and Jewish communities exclude each other mutually. We can respect each other, but we separately await the fulfillment of the prophecies, “We Jews can empathize with Catholics who have found yet another saint, another exemplary holy life, it is not something we can feel with (the original meaning of „sympathy”) Catholics any more than we could celebrate the Eucharist with them.” Novak ends with, “At this deepest level we are still strangers to each other.”
This argument is interesting and important, but to me it is not convincing. There is a possible vision to which I have already alluded to several times in my arguments. Let us accept that there is no objective measure according to which either the Torah or Christ is better. For Jews there is the Torah and Judaism, for others Christ and the Church. Conversion is not expected from either one of the sides. Conversions do obviously happen and sincere converts (in traditional Judaism it is called ger tzedek) are welcomed. Yet, our first responsibility is to discourage the person who aspires to conversion. When conversion does happen, the person is treated as a lawful member of the community, but his path is not seen as an example which should bind all others. This is how one is supposed to act according to the Jewish tradition. Is this acceptable in Christianity, at least in relation to Jews? That is not for me to say.
There remains an obvious problem. The people from the community which the convert left believe that he has committed an error. It looks as though they view him and his new community from on high. This is not a comparison of the whole of a tradition from the point of view of an abstract person. If a particular person has sufficiently good information to convert, then that’s fine. Their positive assessment of one side should not suggest that everyone should follow in their footsteps, and their negative assessment of the side they left should not reflect a negative assessment of the members of their new community.
Within such an approach, Edith Stein remains a Catholic joyfully accepted and revered in the Church. She does not become an example for other Jews. Among Jews she is treated with respect, although with sadness, as a person who went down an individual path, a path, as was said, that is not an example for other Jews.
Some might say that independent of the problem of her conversion, the fact remains that thanks to Edith Stein there is more contact between Jews and Catholics. If we say that thanks to Edith Stein’s case many meetings were organized and serious reflection was undertaken, then that is obvious.
However, those who speak of a positive role of the Saint for Christian-Jewish dialogue are looking for something more. She is supposed to be a personification of a meeting-point, a connection between both communities, a person who in herself combines that which is best in Judaism and Catholicism. I respect the motives that stand behind such a stance, but from what I have already said, it should be clear that I do not share this view. Edith Stein can be revered by Catholics, but she will not be a shared saint; her death was simply Jewish, it did not become Catholic because of her devotion to Catholicism; her intellectual or spiritual achievements can inspire anyone, but not because they somehow successfully combined Jewish and Christian influences.
1 D. Novak, Edith Stein: Apostate Saint, “First Things” 96 (1999), p. 15–17.
Translated by Artur Sebastian Rosman
Prof. Dr. phil. Stanislaw Krajewski: Professor at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Warsaw. Co-chair of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews since it was founded in 1989.
Source: God and Auschwitz. On Edith Stein, Pope Benedict XVI’s Visit, and God in the Twilight of History. Edited by Fr Manfred Deselaers, Fr Leszek Łysień and Fr Jan Nowak. UNUM Publishing House, Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim, Krakow 2008. P. 67-75.