Sister Edith Stein

Edith Stein was an extraordinary philosopher and mystic who died at Auschwitz at the age of 51. Although she faced lifelong discrimination as both a woman and a Jew, she was able to establish herself as an accomplished German academic — the prize student and assistant to the great phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. In Germany today, the name “Edith Stein” is everywhere: schools, libraries and streets bear her name.

By all accounts, Stein was a woman with a deep and luminous soul. “From the moment I met her, I knew: here is someone truly great,” said a Dutch official at the Nazis’ Westerbork camp, echoing an almost universal sentiment. “Talking with her was like … journeying into another world!’

Hundreds of people pilgrimage to Stein for spiritual guidance. “I find great happiness,” Stein wrote, “whenever someone arrives here all worn out and battered, and then goes away with a measure of consolation”. A friend corroborates Stein’s sentiment: “The more wretched a person was, the more pleasure [Edith] felt in seeking him out as one of God’s favorites!’

Still, Stein’s life-choices complicate a Jewish effort to understand her, because not only was she an adult convert to Catholicism, but in 1933 she became a nun in the Carmelite order. The Catholic Church, (interpreting Stein’s martyrdom at Auschwitz in its own fashion) recently beatified her, and in time, she may be canonized.

I found myself reading a recent biography (written by another Carmelite sister), Edith Stein: A Biography, by Waltraud Herbstrith (Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1985), with a confusing mix of emotions. On the one hand, I felt proud of this intellectual, spiritually gifted woman. On the other, as someone seeking Jewish women role models, I felt abandoned and betrayed. Her baptism in particular — in an era of such extreme Jewish vulnerability — feels almost like an act of treachery.

Why did Edith Stein turn to Christianity? As the eleventh child of a family headed by a pious Jewish woman who was widowed shortly after Edith’s birth, Stein and her family struggled against enormous financial and emotional odds. Like her daughter after her, Stein’s mother had a strength-giving faith in God that sustained her through difficulties.

As an adult, Stein — a devoted daughter, sister and aunt — struggled for many years with the wrenching incompatibility of the joy she found in Christianity and the pain she was causing her family. Even after her conversion, she loyally attended Jewish holiday services with her family; she wrote loving, weekly letters to her mother. Although the intensity of the bond between Stein and her mother raises more questions than it resolves, this biographer would have us dismiss the hypothesis that Stein left Judaism in order to separate from her family-of-origin.

Converts from Judaism often wish to abandon what they perceive as a narrow and parochial community, but this was not the case for Stein. She always considered herself a proud member of the Jewish people and she admired traditional Jewish life. Immediately upon entering the convent, Stein began her autobiography with the purpose, she said, of educating readers about Judaism and thus combatting anti-Semitism.

In 1933, Stein requested a private papal audience (it was declined) in the hopes of convincing the Pope to take action on behalf of Jews, and she referred to herself (using a Jewish metaphor long after she became a Christian) as being like “Queen Esther, separated from her people just so she could intercede before the King!’ While this role was not the catalyst for her conversion, it certainly underscores that Stein was not fleeing Jewish identity. When Stein and her biological sister (also a convert) were taken from the convent to Westerbork, she said, “Come, Rosa, we are going for our people!’

As a university student, Stein, enchanted with secularism, studied psychology and philosophy and gave up Jewish religious practice. Soon, however, she found herself among a circle of university intellectuals who were questioning the orthodoxies of science, rationality and philosophy. The first religious books to capture her adult interest were by medieval Catholics, beginning with the mysticism of Theresa of Avila, whose autobiography Stein discovered on a friend’s shelf and stayed up all night to read.

Personal encounters were also important factors in her journey towards Catholicism. Once she visited an empty cathedral into which a lone woman entered, Stein wrote, “as if to talk to a friend!’ A meeting with a young, grieving Catholic widow revealed to Stein how “the Cross triumphs over the sting of death!’ Finally, the cloistered life of the Carmelite sisters was immensely attractive to her. The structure of contemplation and work made her “radiantly happy!’ providing her with the “transcendent tranquility” that she sought.

There is a school of thought that holds Christianity to be a religion of love and interiority, and Judaism more strictly a religion of law and duties. Was Stein drawn then to the Church because of these “Christian” qualities? It appears not. For Stein, the love she felt for God and the interior depths she cultivated came to fruition through a commitment to a highly exacting regime of law (that of the nuns), as well as specific daily acts of kindness and devotion in the private and public sphere. In fact, Stein’s very life teaches how inadequate this alleged dichotomy is.

On the subject of death, Stein clearly preferred a Christian view over a Jewish one. Three years before her death, she wrote, “I joyfully accept in advance the death which God has appointed for me” — an attitude towards death that is uncongenial to Judaism’s “life” orientation. True, Stein’s biographer may well have exaggerated the extent to which Stein’s martyrdom was voluntary. Also true, Judaism has a concept of kiddush hashem (dying to sanctify God). Nevertheless, I believe Stein was correct in understanding that her own approach to death was more consonant with Christianity than with Judaism.

The question that remains for me as a Jew is whether and how Stein sought spiritual nourishment from Judaism before she turned to Christianity. Unfortunately, this question is not important to Stein’s biographer, so we have little information on the matter. We do know that Stein wrote to an Orthodox Jewish friend asking whether he believed in a personal God and that the man’s answer — brief and lacking in emotional content (“God is Spirit — there is nothing more to be said”) — felt to Stein “as if I had been given a stone instead of bread!’

But did she seek further in Judaism? Did she read the Baal Shem Tov or Mai-monides? Did she know of Martin Buber? Did she attend the Frankfurt Lehrhaus where a brilliant renaissance of Jewish learning was occurring at the very same time as her conversion? This we don’t know. I suspect that Stein’s being a woman had something to do with the direction of her spiritual journey. When Franz Rosenzweig was a young philosopher about to abandon Judaism (according to the theory of Nahum Glatzer), he visited an Orthodox shul on the eve of Yom Kippur and was awakened to the spiritual depth of his native religion. But would Franz Rosenzweig have remained a Jew if he had been hurried upstairs to sit behind a mehitza that fateful night? Frankly, I doubt it. It seems hardly a coincidence that the book that decisively turned Stein toward faith was written by a woman — Theresa of Avila. Does a female author of similar stature exist within the Jewish spiritual canon? No. The life with women to which Stein was ultimately attracted — the paradoxically restricted and liberated life of the cloistered nun — has no parallel in the Jewish world. 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.

Still, this is not to say that there were no options for an intellectually brilliant, spiritually ambitious woman within Judaism of Stein’s time, even less to imply that there are no such options today.

What does Edith Stein’s story leave me feeling, as a Jewish woman, a rabbi and a scholar of Jewish-Christian relations? On the one hand, here is someone who courageously follows what she takes to be her vocation from God, and who (even allowing for hagiography) clearly brings godliness into this world. A co-prisoner at Auschwitz wrote, “It was her complete calm and self-possession that marked Stein out. She went among the women like an angel, comforting, helping and consoling them” and a novice at Stein’s convent remarked that, “At Mass, she seemed to participate as if she were offering herself on the altar!’ Before such testimonies, I can only be humble.

On the other hand, I am angry when a Jew chooses not to continue to struggle with the civilization into which she was born, however difficult she may find it. I don’t understand why Stein didn’t wrestle longer and harder with this complicated blessing of Jewishness. And I feel sad and cheated that her profound work as a translator, philosopher, inspirational writer and spiritual director enhanced another tradition and not mine. Judaism needs every great spirit we have to help us in the task of religious renewal. Stories such as Stein’s make me feel more committed than ever to ensuring that Jews, particularly women, not be hindered in experiencing the riches of our faith.

Though Stein can never be a role model for me as a Jewish woman, she is still someone from whom I can learn. Her writings about women’s roles (suggesting that as we move into the public sphere we stay conscious of our uniquely feminine capabilities) prefigure the most current feminist thought. I am fascinated by Stein’s very intense and extensive prayer life; I am intrigued by her career as a spiritual counselor. I would like to know
more about that role, and about the way in which we can incorporate some of its functions into contemporary Judaism.

Stein can, after all, in certain ways, be a teacher to us. Though she found her bread elsewhere, we can use some of her leaven in our own Jewish lives.

Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer is a Reconstructionist rabbi with a PhD in Jewish-Christian relations