Jews can actually learn from Edith Steins example

The canonization of Edith Stein, a Jewish intellectual who became a Carmelite nun and died in Auschwitz, hits a raw nerve.

A Jew, a nun, a martyr, a saint: how to respond to each of these links in the chain? Though the Pope's tactic has backfired with Jews, his theory is right: We all have much to learn from Edith Stein.

At Sunday's ceremony, Pope John Paul II praised Stein as "an eminent daughter of Israel and a faithful daughter of the church."

Strange as it seems, she was both, and neither. Her real life — and her real death — raise disturbing questions about religious faith and identity for both Catholics and Jews.

What do we Jews care about Edith Stein? Not much right now. Those who converted to other faiths but met a Jewish death are considered martyrs, but with a difference.

But the stories of our lives are never simple. I spoke this week with one of Stein's biographers, Professor Rachel Brenner of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Brenner, a Polish-born Israeli whose parents are Holocaust survivors, is author of "Writing as Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust: Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Anne Frank, and Etty Hillesum."

The book explores ways in which these four well-known German Jews from assimilated backgrounds responded in spiritual and personal terms to the Nazi era.

Today we place all the Eastern European Jews into one category of victim, Brenner said. But there were many individual approaches.

Stein was born in 1891, the youngest of seven children in Upper Silesia near the Polish border. Her family was so pro-German that it left the town of Lublinitz when a plebiscite returned it to Poland. One of her uncles distributed food to German war troops and Stein herself volunteered to be a nurse in World War I. The children were educated in German schools, but celebrated Jewish holidays.

How did a nun emerge from such a family?

We can't look at the pre-Holocaust world anachronistically, Brenner said. We cannot judge it through our own eyes.

Stein was more than a convert, more than a victim. In 1938 she wrote to Pope Pius XII, urging him to condemn Kristallnacht, the Nazi attack on synagogues and Jewish businesses.

Five years earlier, even as she was losing her teaching job in a German university for being born a Jew, she wrote her autobiography, "Life in a Jewish Family," with the goal of stopping racial hatred. Her life's work, and doctoral dissertation, were on the subject of empathy, which she called the primordial essential quality of humans.

So why did she and so many leading Jewish thinkers convert to Catholicism?

Though Stein's was clearly a conversion of conviction, belief itself has its social context. As an intellectual with a doctorate in philosophy, Stein was part of a world that regarded Judaism as passé, the religion of history, while Christianity was the religion of humanism and enlightenment, the way of the future.

Why did Judaism come to be so narrowly defined, deemed so irrelevant and anti-humanistic? This question is certainly relevant today.

In "Life in a Jewish Family," Stein gives hints of how German Judaism changed over time. Her own family honored all the Jewish holidays, yet the children had little formal Jewish education or Jewish faith. Her great-grandfather was a cantor, yet Jewish spiritual commitment was only a distant memory, through a great-grandmother whose favorite prayer was "Lord, send us only as much as we can bear."

Stein declared herself an atheist until, at age 22, she was baptized a Catholic.

As a woman, the limitations were compounded. As a young woman with an independent spirit, strong spiritual yearnings and the lack of Jewish education, all she knew of Judaism was that rules of modesty and piety left her with few outlets for her ambitions.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Stein's conversion as circumstantial. Yet, I can't help but wonder what Edith Stein might have made of today's lively Jewish world, filled with creative options and spiritual passion. And what might she have done with the education open to today's Jewish women? Certainly she would not have seen the convent as the unique opportunity for religious vocation.

Brenner says that Stein herself would have no interest in sainthood. She wouldn't want the fame or controversy, Brenner said.

Too late now.

But it's not too late to understand Stein's life. Eventually, we will need to place in context the complex pressures on women and men like Stein — thoughtful members of the German intelligentsia who did not find their place in the Jewish community. We need to know why they left Judaism, and what they were seeking.

When I argued, at the time of her beatification 11 years ago, that Stein had a place in Jewish history, I was accused of bad taste and worse for defending an aberrant. Stein is part of our history? "Ugh," wrote one critic. "So is Jesus." But historians today are resurrecting the Judaism of Jesus, so wait and see.

But before we consign Edith Stein to the spheres, let's restore her to her time and ours.