The 1998 canonization of Edith Stein created quite a turmoil for the Jews. They are willing to admit that she was an extraordinary woman, though the fact remains: To them, she was an “apostate.”
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It is not the first time the Jewish people have had to face a situation in which someone whom they view as a traitor is honored by the Catholic Church. St. Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, abandoned the Judaism in which he had been raised and became a fervent Christian, an apostle, and a martyr. But St. Paul’s case and the one of St. Edith Stein are vastly different. In a moment of time, Paul — or Saul of Tarsus, as he was then known — went from his position of violent opposition to the Christian sect to one of complete self-giving and devotion to the King of the Jews. His conversion was instantaneous and total.
Crisis of Faith
On the contrary, Edith Stein lost her faith when she was a teenager and had become, if not a virulent atheist, very certainly an agnostic. She did not abandon Judaism to become a Christian, as Paul did; she left the religious Jewish community some 20 years before she was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. Whereas St. Paul became an apostate, is it not rather the case that Edith Stein had “apostatized” long before her baptism? Rather than abandon Judaism because of Christianity, as St. Paul did, St. Edith Stein found her way back to faith in the God of her people precisely through Christianity.
What makes the Jews unique in the full sense of the term is that God chose them as His special people — the chosen people. This is a fact and a point of faith that every Christian believes. Why did God make this choice? It would be sheer arrogance on the part of man to challenge the divine will. He chose them because He wanted to; God does not have to justify His decision.
Following upon this choice, God established a covenant between Himself and His chosen ones, and St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Romans that this covenant kept its validity.
But what happens when a Jew becomes an atheist? Is that not, in fact, a radical apostasy? Indeed, can one imagine a more radical break than the one caused by a denial of God’s existence? If God does not exist or if man is incapable of ever finding out whether or not He exists, then obviously the Jewish people cannot be the chosen people — and therefore there cannot possibly exist a covenant between God and His people. A covenantal religion necessarily demands two partners. If one of the partners is nonexistent, no covenant can exist. It would follow logically, therefore, that the Bible is not God’s revelation to man. Rather, it is a cultural product of the Jews, a tissue of legends and historical facts, but in no way a sacred book. It has sociological value but no religious value whatsoever.
Following on this thesis, Edith Stein’s apostasy took place early in the 20th century when she declared herself an atheist. But if this were the case, why was she still accepted as a member of the Jewish community? Atheism is the most radical, absolute break with authentic Judaism imaginable. It is faith, and faith alone, that explains the survival of the Jewish community through centuries of exile and persecutions. Alas, many present-day Jews are atheists, and yet they are not rejected by their peers. However, as soon as through her Christian faith Edith rediscovered the uniqueness of the Jewish people as God’s chosen ones, she was rejected not only by her people but by her close family — including her beloved mother. Ironically, it was in that moment, and not before, that she officially became an apostate.
The questions Catholics are bound to raise are the following:
- Granted that a Jew who commits a grave sin (like King David) is not an apostate and remains a full member of the Jewish community, why are atheistic Jews — who officially renounce the very essence of Judaism by denying God’s existence, denying that they are the chosen ones, and consequently denying the unique role assigned to the Jews in the history of salvation — still in good standing in the Jewish community?
- Is not atheism the most radical rejection of what is so unique about the Jewish people — to be His chosen ones? Is not atheism, in fact, the sin par excellence?
- Why is it that when Edith endorsed atheism, she was still considered a member of the Jewish community? From a Christian point of view, the Jews would be expected to pray the prayer of the dead when one of them denies God’s existence. When Edith lost her faith, she objectively rejected the badge of honor of Judaism.
But the moment that Edith rediscovered the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the uniqueness of the Jewish people (that indeed, “salvation comes from the Jews”), she was declared an apostate by her people and rejected by them.
Let us assume that a young girl is raised by her pious mother as a Catholic, but that at the time of puberty, she reneges her faith and endorses atheism. Her devout mother will shed tears, and pray daily that her prodigal daughter will come back to God. Let us suppose that after many years, she hears that her daughter has abandoned atheism but joined the Jewish community. What would her feelings be? She would have mixed feelings: On the one hand, she would thank God that her daughter was, once again, a believer; on the other hand, her heart would bleed that she had not yet rediscovered Christ — the King of the Jews.
She would, nevertheless, feel an immense relief that her daughter adored once again the one, true God, that she prayed, and that she read the Old Testament. However, she would continue to pray ardently that, with time, the acceptance of Judaism would be a stepping stone leading her back to Christianity.
Embracing the Cross
When reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, which won for Edith the grace of conversion, she knew that she would be rejected by her people. She must have meditated with grief over the fact that she was still in good standing when she radically rejected belief in God, but that she was dismissed by them the very day she rediscovered the uniqueness of her people: the privilege of being born a Jew. To accept Christianity is to embrace the Cross. Can one doubt that for Edith, the worst possible cross was to be rejected by those she loved? Abraham accepted that he had to sacrifice his beloved son in obedience to God’s command. Is not Edith’s situation the situation of Abraham in reverse? She was asked to “sacrifice” her beloved mother — the noble Augusta Stein — setting the example that we must obey God’s order, even when it breaks our heart.
It is my deep-set conviction that at the very moment of her conversion, St. Edith loved her people more than ever before, and — like St. Paul — was willing to offer herself as a sacrifice for the salvation of the Jews, her people. Indeed, at the very moment she left the Carmel in Echt to go to a certain death, she said to her sister Rose who accompanied her: “Let us go for our people.” I am sure that in His own good time, God will hear her prayer.
This article first appeared in the February 2000 issue of Crisis Magazine.