Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

A Witness for Christians and Jews

by Freda Mary Oben, Ph.D


A detailed reflection on the impact of St. Edith Stein's life by a leading Jewish scholar who came into the Church after studying Edith Stein's life and work.

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Urbi et Orbi Communications, October 1998

At the turn of the century, a brilliant German Jewish girl of 14 years decided to stop praying. But in 1987, Edith Stein was beatified by the Catholic Church and is soon to be canonized. How explain this incredible phenomenon? Simply put, she fell in love with Christ with her whole being, with Christ and His Church. Her devotion to the Church was total and absolute. Great was her love for the sacraments, fidelity to the repository of faith, and conviction of the healing role played by the Church not only for its members but for society at large.

Yet, this fervent Catholic was to refer to herself as Jewish until the end of her life. Is she telling us something? In speaking to a priest shortly before her death, she exulted in her blood ties to Christ and his mother. Stein knew what every Jewish convert knows, that she had not abandoned her Jewish faith but was penetrating into it with even greater fidelity. She was referring to the continuity of Judaism within herself, relating to the valid continuity of the Jewish faith, and recognizing the sacred link between Judaism and Catholicism. She was well in advance of Nostra aetate (1965). Stein writes that the community of the faithful is the essence of the Church. Each person is to attain salvation, to build up the Mystical Body of Christ; there is an organic "rooting and growing" in Christ through each person, thus building a community nourished by the spirit of Christ. What would Edith Stein say to the Church were she alive today regarding its role in the Holocaust?

We remember that in her writings she was quite early in protest against National Socialism. She was certainly among the first to appeal to Pope Pius XI in April of 1933 to issue an Encyclical regarding the anti-Semitism of the new Nazi Regime. She felt the deep responsibility of the Church in its care for society. Edith Stein hated anti-Semitism. She once exclaimed, "People will say anything about the Jews just as they do about the Jesuits!"

It stands to reason, therefore, that in her teaching of the building of the Mystical Body of Christ through individual growth, in this rooting and growing in Christ, that if there were anti-Semitic persons, then there was of necessity disease in this body. Moreover, Stein did not believe that salvation is the exclusive priority of any one Church. According to her Jewish colleague, Gertrud Koehner, she never deliberately tried to bring people into the Church. Yet she did bring in many of her friends, just by the state of her being. Stein had advocated that a teacher conveys much more to the student by what she is rather than by what she says, and this certainly reaped great harvest for those about her.

Because of the course of her personal life, she understood that Catholicism is rooted in Judaism. She knew the necessity of recognizing the reality and humanity of the Jewish community. This was her motivation in recording the history of her life as a young Jewess, Life in a Jewish Family.

The truth is that Stein struggled for holiness and writes that we are each called to holiness, the most important vocation for the human being. A constant spiritual purgation of self is basic to human nature, constitutes the excellence of being, and is its most essential drive. The symbol of her growth in holiness and sanctity can only inspire persons of all faiths. Let us examine then the life of Edith Stein. She herself afforded much significance to the day of her birth: in that year of 1891, October 12 was also the celebration of "Yom Kippur," a day of Atonement and the holiest day of the Jewish year. Of course, that made her especially dear to her mother who was a pious woman. Stein had lost her father when she was just 18 months old.

Edith loved this feast because she could stay at home, in bed late, and read! But of course she got dressed and went to the synagogue, too. Although some of her siblings digressed from the faith later, all of them observed the holidays as children. We can view Stein's later desire to share in Christ's redemptive action as the flowering of Jewish seeds within her. On this day of atonement, "Yom Kippur," she witnessed a communal cleansing, the blowing of the shofar and announcement of freedom from sin.

Yet we know that she did stop praying deliberately when she was 14. She also dropped out of school for a period of time. She had been very brilliant in school but had suffered under the anti-Semitism of a teacher who continually refused to put her in first place even though the entire class thought she had earned it. But she did submit after a lapse of time to her hunger for education. After private tutoring, she was able to study at the University of Breslau for two years, among the very first of university women admitted to full matriculation.

But this "atheist" was not happy with her major subject, psychology, which she called a soulless science! She switched to the University of Gottingen to study philosophy under the famous Edmund Husserl. This summer of 1913 marks the beginning of her conversion.

There was a large group of Jews in that school of phenomenology, and the two most important were Jewish converts: Husserl and Max Scheler. They had revolutionized philosophy by accepting the absolute objectivity of phenomena, even of the supernatural world. Attending lectures such as "the essence of holiness" by Max Scheler opened up a whole world new to Stein, the world of faith.

She did stop her studies in order to act as a Red Cross nurse for 5 months during World War I, evidencing personal bravery as she nursed soldiers in Austria with infectious diseases — spotted fever, dysentery and cholera. But then she returned to earn her doctorate summa cum laude, and Husserl invited her to be his first assistant at the University of Freiburg to which he had just transferred.

Stein had made other strong friends while at the University of Gottingen: Adolf and Anna Reinach, who apparently taught her by their state of being. Reinach, her professor had, she wrote, "a personal goodness." He enlisted early in the War and was killed in 1917. But both he and his wife Anna had converted from Judaism to the Evangelical Church. After his death Stein went to his home to arrange his scholarly papers. She also came to console the widow, but Anna was able to console her because she had accepted the cross in her travail. Stein was to confide later to a priest that it was this meeting with Anna which was the most decisive reason for her conversion, although Max Scheler had prepared her by his knowledge and fervor. We know that the immediate reason for her entering the Catholic Church was her reading of the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Our brilliant intellectual, hungering so deeply for living truth, read the account of faith personally experienced by the mystic. Was not the saint present to her in her reading? And now the philosopher of objective reality bowed unreservedly to the sign of the cross. I do believe that it is for this reason that the philosopher Peter Wust said of Stein that she symbolizes the intellectual movement of that time, because she turned from mere rationalism to revelation for total truth.

After a few months of theological discussion with the parish priest, Pastor Breitling, she was baptized in 1922. At this time she wanted to become a religious, but her spiritual advisor, recognizing both her importance as a Catholic lay woman and the terrible trauma it would cause her mother on top of Stein's baptism, advised her not to. Instead she went to teach at a small Dominican school in Speyer. This intellectual woman who had already published phenomenological studies recognized as important works in her field, such as "Psychic Causality," "The Individual and the Community," and "The State," now began to teach German language and literature to high school girls and novices preparing to teach. She took privately the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and spent long hours of prayer in the chapel.

Her personality underwent a great transformation. Stein had been known heretofore for a critical bent and very caustic wit. Now her students and colleagues found her to be gentle, patient, modest, loving and loveable, humble, happy, serene, balanced, charitable, and holy. She now wedded her intellectual endeavors to her spiritual quest by turning to Catholic giants such as Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Newman and translating their works. She wrote an important seminal commentary, comparing phenomenology and scholasticism.

And because of her educational work, she became very interested in the nature of the person to be educated. Since she was dedicated to building a Catholic system of education for girls and young women, she set about analyzing woman's psyche. Her analysis was so brilliant that she became the actual leader of the Catholic Woman's Movement in Europe, which was comprised in great part by Catholic women teachers. She lectured throughout Europe not only on the nature of the woman but of the man, their complementary roles, the person (in terms which preclude abortion), human sexuality, family life, parenthood, woman's vocation and destiny, and Mary's collaboration with woman in all walks of life. She was concerned therefore with the roles women were playing both at home and in society.

She did not think that nature and grace are denied by women being out in the professional or public field. In fact, she believed that women have a great deal to offer by their very nature. In all her lectures, now compiled as Essays on Woman, she offers a very sensitive approach to both the woman at home, the young girl in society, the working wife, and the religious. She covers the education needed and the jobs which best suit the woman. All this she maintains is possible within the power of the woman as long as she does remain the heart of the home if she is married.

Her analyses are not only still vital and relevant today, they are in many ways still avant garde. Stein writes that it is woman's mission to be God's agent, carrying the spirit of love into society. It is a matter of religious concern that woman be involved with the issues of the day. She is essential for the upbringing of youth, not only of her own children but of others for she is a defense against corruption.

This is the ethic for the professional woman, married— or unmarried, for maternal love is spiritual as well as physical. It is woman's unique strength no matter what state of life she is in.

Along with all Jewish teachers in German places of learning, which were state supported, Edith's Jewish presence was no longer wanted at the German Scientific Institute of Pedagogy when Hitler became Chancellor on January 30, 1933. It was then that she wrote the letter to the Holy Father, requesting his intercession for all the Jews. We learn about her traumatic journey at that time from her essay "The Road to Carmel," where she describes her clear recognition that the destiny of the Jewish people would be her own. Edith believed that it was Christ's cross laid on the Jews.

She decided to enter Carmel to give herself in prayer. Why Carmel? Certainly prayer is a basic concept in all religious life, but it was her belief that the Carmelite order excels in a joyous participation in Christ's redemptive action. In her definitive philosophical work not yet in translation, Endliches and Ewiges Sein (Finite and Eternal Being), written 30 years before Lumen Gentium, she writes that the prophets also are part of the Mystical Body of Christ, that it includes total humanity because Christ is the head of total humanity and had died to redeem all men. She writes that the unity of the human race is found in Christ. This is seen clearly through the concept of creation (the origin of all humanity from the first parents) and the concept of salvation (the fulfillment of humanity's total development in the Mystical Body of Christ).

She writes: "It seems to me to belong to the meaning of the Mystical Body of Christ that there are no men—outside of sin—who do not belong to the unity of life of this body." Each person is designed to be a member through redeeming grace and to share the Redeemer's life. Hence, for her the Jews, too, were part of Christ's body. And she writes that He continues to live and suffer in all men, and the persecution of the Jews is a continuation of Christ's crucified humanity. Her intention was prayer of reparation, but it was for the persecutor as well as the persecuted—for the Nazis as well as for the Jews.

She entered the Carmel in Cologne on the eve of the feastday of St. Teresa of Avila, October 14, 1933, taking the religious name of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In her decision to become a religious, she had prayed that the suffering of the Jews would be her share of the cross. How dynamically clear this is to us in the reading of a letter sent to a friend just a week before Crystal Night. She writes hopefully of her mother in heaven who will look after her children so harassed daily by the Nazis. And, Stein writes, she is also consoled by her belief that she herself has been singled out from the folds of her people to act as proxy for their safety, to pray like Queen Esther of old, not to an earthly king but to the heavenly one. God has taken her life for all.

We know about "Crystal Night" of November 9, 1938, when utter destruction descended upon the Jewish community in Germany. The following December 31, she was driven by car to the Carmel in Echt, Holland, for the safety of the Cologne nuns as well as herself. We know of her philosophy of "Stellvertretung," of offering herself to suffer in place of another.

On Passion Sunday of 1939, she offered herself as a sacrificial expiation for the sake of true peace. In June, she drew up her last will, accepting the death preordained for her by God. It is not addressed to Christ. She prays that God will accept her life and her death for His praise and glory, the intentions of Mary and Jesus, the Church, her holy Carmelite Order, the unbelief of the Jewish people, Germany's deliverance (from Hitler), world peace, and for all of her own family.

Stein's holiness is a fruit and sign of Christian-Jewish-unity. But she is also concerned with a higher unity—the cosmic one. She envisions the human race as one being in the process of growth. Each person is responsible for all and all are responsible for the one. For her the entire world is one community. The important theme of her work is empathetic interpersonal relationships and the exercise of basic human values. The spiritual formation of the person is actually the key to all her work and basic to all her writing, Her will has been taken as a prayer for the conversion of the Jews in this will, but she is actually praying that faith in God be professed by all—so that His kingdom will come in holiness. So many of her own generation and her own kindred had turned away from God as she had once done. Of course, in the privacy of her own inner being, she could well have wished her beloved people to share in her joy and peace found in Christ. That could have been true for an ordinary Christian, and she is a saint. But we also have her philosophical and theological testimony concerning the value of each human being, and her certitude in God's redemption for the Jewish people.

Prior to Stein's Beatification in 1987, a controversy was maintained by the press as to whether she had died as a Jew or as a Christian. In other words, why should she be singled out as a martyr from all the millions who had perished? Would she not have died, in any case, just because of her Jewish blood?

Actually, Stein had been informed shortly before her arrest on August 2, 1942 that she was safe, because all Jews baptized before January 1, 1941 had been given amnesty from deportation by the authorities. The arrest of Stein and the other hundreds of baptized Catholics erupted as a retaliatory measure against the Dutch hierarchy: just the Sunday before on July 26, the Catholic Dutch hierarchy made a protest from every pulpit in the land against the persecution of the Jews. The Jews baptized as Protestants were left free because many of the Protestant churches did not go through with their intended participation in this protest. There is compelling evidence of all this in the National Institute for War Documents in Amsterdam. The immediate cause of Stein's death was Nazi "hatred of the Church." Conjecture as to whether or not she would have died eventually is immaterial here, for were there not Jewish Catholics who did survive the Shoah?

The important fact is that, in pure solidarity with the Jews and by a free act of will. Stein made herself physically available and thus vulnerable. Unhappily but understandably, it is Stein's conversion which wounds the Jewish community so intent on maintaining their faith. This is not only a sensitive issue, it is a deeply painful one to a people which more and more fears for its survival in a world of assimilation. Yet, a knowledge of the true intentions of Stein, as well as that of the Church in recognizing her sanctity, would remove this fear.

To reiterate, she insists that holiness is the primary calling for all. The best meaning of conversion is found in the change which took place within her when her atheism fell away and love for God became her driving force. She exemplifies the power of personal conversion. What is most important is that she knew what it was to love God with her total being and knew how to live according to that love and how to die. Such people are rare, but are they not manifested in all faiths? And, actually, she died both as Jewess and Catholic. In her we see the sacred link between Judaism and Christianity.

The example of her growth in sanctity and heroism should only inspire persons of all faiths. Instead of running away from evil, she ran towards it. Her weapons were love and prayer. Her spirituality attained the level of her last work entitled The Science of the Cross. When she was arrested with her sister on August 2, 1942, her words were "Come, let us go for our people."

They journeyed through three camps before their death on August 9, and witnesses of both faiths have testified to the heroism and love manifested by Stein to those about her. She was truly a Jewish heroine and a Christian saint. Stein had a deep conviction in the plan of providence — that all things have a meaning in God's vision. Is this not evidence of her belief, that now she plays such an important role in the relationship of Judaism and Catholicism?

This writer knows that the hand of providence has steered her also to the point of writing this article, has steered her life through her own conversion from Judaism and 35 years of work on Stein, all with the certainty that Edith Stein is a saint. I know that her influence on a personal life can be unbelievable. Her sanctity is food for the soul. Her writings are nourishment for each person and the entire human community. Her influence on the Church has already been great and will continue to be even greater. Her writings have influenced documents of the Church and even the writings of Pope John Paul II himself.

Yes, we can grow in holiness by knowing and loving her. We can hope for greater understanding and — this is her great predestined role — a growing reconciliation between Jews and Christians. Stein sets the tone for an ideal human image because her philosophy and spirituality transcend all human divisiveness. To honor her is to deplore all human hatred, anti-Semitism above all.

Christians can grasp through her death the realistic horror of the Shoah. As individuals they can be purged; as communities they can be conscious of their failure towards all who are oppressed, and they can seek to make change. This writer was told many years ago by a German priest, "Edith is good for us — she opens up our conscience!" And Jews can recognize in her another righteous Gentile who resisted National Socialism to the death. Let us pray that Stein's coming canonization will miraculously be a hallmark in the history of Jewish-Christian relations. For both faiths cannot be at peace with God until they are at peace with each other.

Dr. Freda Mary Oben, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, is an editor and translator of Edith Stein's writings and one of the world's leading experts on Stein's life and work. Dr. Oben resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA.

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