Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review / Oct. 15,1998 / 25 Tishrei, 5759

Jonathan S. Tobin

Converts, saints and Jews: Confronting the story of Edith Stein

Jonathan S. Tobin

MY EARLIEST MEMORY of any sort of Jewish education is not the first time I encountered the aleph-bet or learned my first prayers. It was — at some uncertain point in my early childhood — hearing my mother tell me what she herself was told as a child — that I was part of an unbroken line who had suffered and fought for thousands of years to keep their identity as Jews.

It was a message that I heard on countless occasions over the years, whether we were discussing the dangers of assimilation or my lack of enthusiasm for going to synagogue or attending Hebrew school. Regardless of the circumstance, I was put on notice that it was up to me not to let those who had gone before us, from Abraham to the martyrs of countless generations, down.

Though I don't think my mother was familiar with the works of Emil Fackenheim, that writer's pronouncement, that in the aftermath of WWII, the 614th commandment of Judaism should be, "Thou shalt not give Hitler any posthumous victories," surely resonated in our household.


The idea of giving up our faith and our identity as Jews was the greatest anathema and utterly unthinkable. The only converts from Judaism that I knew of were the villains in the cartoon history lessons on the back of the "World Over" magazine which I read in Hebrew school, such as Johann Pfefferkorn, a 15th century German Jew who converted and helped promulgate laws which called for the burning of the Talmud. I saw conversion to another religion as a form of spiritual — if not literal — treason.

These childhood memories are called to mind by the strange story of Edith Stein, a 20th century German Jew who was proclaimed a saint of the Catholic church this past weekend. The hostile reaction of most Jews around the world to the Pope's action is, I think, as much rooted in our instinctive revulsion against someone who rejected Judaism as it is anything else.

Stein converted to Catholicism in 1922 at the age of 31. A student of philosophy and a secular Jew who rejected the piety of her family, Stein was influenced by the Catholic idealism of fellow German intellectuals and fell under the spell of the works of the medieval Catholic saint Teresa of Avila. She eventually became a nun and took the name Sister Teresa Benedicta. Unlike converts who used their new Christian identity to revile or help oppress the Jews, Stein spoke out against the Nazis and even tried to get an audience with Pope Pius XII to urge him to act. He did not receive her.

After fleeing to Holland, she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz in 1942, along with other converted Jews. Two weeks later, she was murdered there.


Unlike those who converted for reasons of advancement or convenience (such as the poet Heinrich Heine or the composer Gustav Mahler), hers was a purely spiritual conversion. Indeed, she conceived of her life in "Jewish" terms.

Born on Yom Kippur in 1891, she took her vows as a nun, offering her life in atonement for the sins of her "unbelieving" Jewish people. When she conceived of her mission to the Pope, she saw herself as a latter-day Queen Esther. It is a pity that Edith Stein's spiritual hunger was so unsatisfied by the Judaism offered to her by her family. Writing in a collection of essays on Stein entitled, "Never Forget," which was published this year by the Carmelite Order, Daniel Krochmalnik, a German Jewish educator, speculates, "how might the strongly mystical talent of Edith Stein have been touched by Hasidic piety?" He thinks Stein's emotional piety might have been better able to express itself in a more emotional Hasidic milieu rather than in the very Prussian and culturally assimilated Jewish life she was born into.

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer wrote in Lilith magazine in 1991 that restrictions on the role of women in Judaism might also have affected Stein's life. Though she argues that there were options for "an intellectually brilliant, spiritually ambitious woman within Judaism" in Stein's time — just as it is true today, Fuchs-Kreimer wondered whether, "The tremendous focus on family which is so characteristic of Jewish life may have made it even more difficult for a single, 30-year-old, female philosopher to find adequate models within Judaism."


But the problem with Edith Stein's sainthood goes beyond our feelings about converts. If by proclaiming Edith Stein a saint, the Pope believes he is furthering the cause of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, he is mistaken.

The notion of Edith Stein's death symbolizing the oppression of the Catholic church in the Holocaust, as some would have it, is repugnant. Stein died in Auschwitz, not because of her religious faith, but because of her Jewish origins, in spite of her nun's habit. As much as the Church has been at pains to use the Stein sainthood proclamation as an occasion for soul-searching about the Holocaust and promoting respect for Jews, making this woman symbolize Jewish suffering is offensive to most Jews. She is not, as ADL head Abe Foxman has correctly pointed out, an appropriate representative of Jewish victims.

The problem here is not ill will. Pope John Paul II has proven himself over and over again a courageous fighter for tolerance and respect between Catholics and Jews. His deeds speak louder than any words. But that's the rub. The words associated with the Stein sainthood process and Catholic notions of sacrifice strike Jews as inherently disrespectful of our suffering and the integrity of our faith. Speaking about Jewish suffering in Catholic terms which have no parallel in Jewish thought is bound to offend.


The Stein affair also pours salt in Jewish wounds about the inaction of the Vatican and most Catholics during the Holocaust. Many fear that Stein's sainthood symbolizes a Christianizing of the Holocaust which will only desecrate history. And talk of making Pius XII a saint can only strike Jews as astonishing and repugnant.

In the end, it really is none of our business who is or is not considered a saint by Catholics. We need to respect their view of Edith Stein, just as we must, reluctantly, respect Stein's own intellectual integrity, even if it goes against everything we believe. All we can ask is that the Church not use Stein to denigrate respect for Judaism or the truth of the paramount Jewish tragedy of the Holocaust.

Edith Stein remains a remarkable Jewish girl who fled her faith without rancor and who then suffered the same terrible fate of millions of other Jews whether assimilated or pious. Let us mourn her not as a saint but as a branch of our thirty-five-hundred year-old Jewish tree of life that was torn away. Neither a Yom Kippur offering nor a Queen Esther, she was yet another Jewish intellectual who was lost to her people.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association highest award: First Place in The Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing. The Rapoport award is named for the longtime editor of the Jerusalem Post and was given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 1997 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Cleveland on June 18, 1998.


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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin