At Starbucks with Edith Stein: A Messianic Jewish Leader Interviews the Famous Catholic-Jewish-Scholar-Saint
Edith Stein wasn’t difficult to spot. Let’s just say that most of the people in the Starbucks in Needham, Massachusetts, dressed and comported themselves very differently from this small, slender woman with the dark eyes, covered in a brown wool habit and black veil. She was sitting alone at a table waiting for me.
I think she had agreed to the interview in part because she sensed a certain resonance of spirit with another Jew who had embraced Jesus as the Messiah. After a brief business-like greeting, we sat down and I asked about her choice of beverage—a grande cafe mocha with whipped cream. I smiled and told her that my image of her would have suggested a simpler beverage—like black tea with a bit of milk. She chuckled and commented on my misperception of her relationship with the world of simple pleasures. But discussing her aesthetic philosophy wasn’t the purpose of our time together. We were here to talk about her life as a Jew and how that life intersected with her Catholic commitments. I came prepared with a series of questions. Though we had never met and were separated by time and experience, the conversation flowed very naturally.
Growing up Jewish
Rich: Edith, thinking back, what do you recall as one of the most positive dimensions of Jewish life in the early part of the 20th century in Germany?
Edith: Actually, what I liked most about being Jewish—or, should I say about being German and Jewish—was our sophistication as a people, our worldliness, our accomplishments, along with the quality of our family life, which I attributed to the Jewish ethos as well.
Rich: Do you have positive recollections about your family’s religious life?
Edith: As I wrote in Life in a Jewish Family, the religious dimensions of Jewish life at home were not the most enjoyable.1 I admired my mother for her deep religious commitments. But the atmosphere in Germany among educated Jewish people left little room for a deep appreciation of the religious life. My brothers, sisters, and I tended to look down on the “unenlightened” Orthodox Jewish men and women about us. I remember one young friend of my sister who grew up in a very observant family. His name was Paul Berg. We made fun of him endlessly for his blandness and lack of sophistication. However, I was not completely without feeling for the tradition of our ancestors. I particularly appreciated Yom Kippur—I was born on Yom Kippur in 1891—and as a youngster, I fasted along with other family members. The Sabbath? Keeping the Sabbath was completely out of the question. Our family business needed to remain open on Saturdays. I am sure Mother wished it were not necessary to work on the seventh day, but it was.
Rich: You stopped praying at age 15. Why?
Edith: Rich, you must understand that my family and many, many German Jews at that time were enamored with the values of the Enlightenment. Remember, Reform Judaism got its start in Germany in the 1840’s. Of course we were concerned about the anti-Semitism lurking just under the surface of our interactions with non-Jews. But our worldview was essentially optimistic and filled with the pride of human potential. Traditional Judaism seemed arcane, perhaps quaint, but unnecessary for us. I remember that at Passover time it was my brothers’ responsibility to take our father’s place in leading the Seder. But they really didn’t take the rituals seriously, and their feelings were clearly on display as they led the ceremony.
In my family, the boys became Bar Mitzvah, but the girls never learned any Hebrew. In fact, my sisters and I had no formal Jewish education. So I stopped praying because continuing would have seemed pointless. It seemed irrational to believe in some kind of heavenly God who would answer the prayer of “his people.” As far as I could tell, most people’s prayers were not answered—including my mother’s. I was, even as a young girl, concerned about the human condition. But it became increasingly clear that if there were answers to the fundamental problems facing us, they were to be found in the realm of philosophy and science. I should mention that we deeply respected our mother’s commitment to her traditional faith. I often accompanied her to synagogue through my atheistic period and even after my conversion to Catholicism.
Rich: In your autobiography you speak disparagingly of some rabbinic practices.
Edith: As a younger person I was offended by the seemingly endless list of rules and regulations enjoined by the rabbis upon their disciples. So many of these practices like kosher laws, the prohibition against carrying even the smallest load outside one’s home, and so on, seemed irrational, outdated, and unhelpful. Such observances distanced me ever further from the religious dimensions of Jewish life.
Rich: Edith, despite your claim to unadulterated love for truth and objectivity, I wonder if some of your conclusions about Judaism were misinformed. Could your lack of understanding of Hebrew language and Jewish tradition have negatively affected your appraisal of Judaism?
Edith: From my perspective now, yes, I think you make a valid point. I was ignorant of the depth and richness of Jewish prayer and, during my student days in particular, was not interested in adopting a sympathetic viewpoint. But, quite frankly, Rich, after discovering the truth about the Savior and his Church, even an informed perspective on Judaism could not have satisfied my soul’s deepest longings.
Rich: What did you mean when you said, “I abandoned the practice of my Jewish religion at the age of 14, and I felt a Jew again only after my return to God”?2
Edith: Rich, perhaps you remember a time in your life when you simply did not believe in God. As a precocious teenager and later as a developing scholar, I had little time or interest in the subject of God. But when I was 31 years old, the Savior broke through the great, high walls of my pride, skepticism, and detachment. He revealed himself to me. And he revealed himself as the God of the Jewish people. For me, Catholicism represents the flowering of the Jewish experience. It expresses the quintessence of all that our people have hoped to attain for centuries and centuries. Therefore, when I embraced the Church, I embraced the God of the Church and I embraced the people through whom the Church had come into being, the Jews.
At an experimental level I had begun to enter the reality of Jewish experience—a reality which I could not penetrate at an earlier time, because it could not be known apart from the enlightening presence of God’s Spirit. I believe I came to know God in a way not totally unlike the way Abraham knew him, the way Sarah knew him. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Mary knew him . . . Paul. . . . They did not merely believe in God; they knew God.
The stories of the Bible, although obviously not all intended as literal accounts, began to take on an urgency and meaning—a concrete reality, if you will, which they never had when I was a younger person. The Spirit of the living God was hovering over the newly-formed substance of my renewed soul and was creating my Jewishness anew as a Catholic.
Rich: What did you find lacking in the Jewish spirituality of your day?
Edith: Even as a young person, I had a deeply intuitive, spiritual side. But I also prided myself on being a very rational person—one who could not easily embrace a system if its theoretical underpinnings were weak. My understanding of Judaism surely was deficient. I admit this. But it did not seem to be a very deeply spiritual faith. Rather, it seemed to emphasize endless rules and regulations pertaining to very limited facets of the human experience. Beyond this, Judaism had no clear and unambiguous roles for highly educated women. Rich, it may be different in your day, but when I was in university, becoming a committed Jew would have left me utterly without hope with respect to my academic interests. Also, I did not want to marry. The traditional Jewish emphasis on marriage and homemaking would have rendered me ineffective in areas of my giftedness and passion. Catholicism, on the other hand, had made room for people like me.
Rich: Thank you for your very forthright answer to my question. Speaking as a Jew who believes in Jesus as you do, but who sees great value in living within the framework of Jewish life, I’m saddened by your answer. I wish there might have been another alternative open to you. But God has glorified himself through you in profound ways, and so little more needs to be said on this score.
Choosing to become a Roman Catholic was a huge step—one for which you paid quite a price. What was the single biggest catalyst for your change from atheist, non-practicing Jew and liberal scholar to Roman Catholic nun?
Edith: Truly, there was no single reason for my decision to embrace the Church. I was correctly known as the kind of person who was looking for a cause I could live or die for. Such seriousness was part of my makeup even as a little girl. I also experienced a powerful example of steadfastness in the midst of tragedy when I visited the widow of my academic colleague and friend Adolf Reinach, who was killed on the front during World War I. As I have come to understand it, in Judaism death is viewed as the single greatest enemy, and life is its highest value. I do not deny the goodness of these foundations of the Jewish worldview. However, I expected the untimely passing of a beloved husband to be met with grief upon grief, devastation upon devastation. Instead, when I visited with Anna Reinach I saw for the first time in my life a level of faith and strength—even cheerfulness in the face of great suffering—which both astounded and inspired me. Her hope was so real. I was a slobbering wreck when I visited her. The one who came to give comfort ended up as the one who needed to be comforted.
Additionally, I should mention that at the University of Göttingen I was surrounded by Jewish converts to Catholicism—Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler, as well as Adolf Reinach. These men had immense impact on my intellectual and spiritual life. Scheler in particular would give private lectures to Husserl’s circle of disciples at which he argued brilliantly and passionately for the truth of Catholic faith. I, at that time, was not persuaded, but he and the others did open me up to a different kind of truth-knowing than the strictly rational.
Many of my other colleagues and friends had become Protestants, and I might have joined them had I not chanced upon a very important book. During a lengthy visit to my friend Hedwig Conrad Martius in the summer of 1921, I happened to be alone one evening while the rest of the party had gone out. By chance I picked up a German translation of the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. I could not put it down. I read all night until dawn. When I finally finished it in the morning, I said to myself, “This is the truth.”3 God had used the life story of this great woman—herself of Jewish ancestry—to penetrate my soul. I sought conversion the next day. Rich, as I consider the interplay of the divine and human in our everyday experience, I am struck that had I not picked up this particular book, I might have ultimately become a Lutheran. Is it not true that the movement you represent has its roots in a form of Protestantism?
Rich: Edith, I would like to hear about your relationship with your family after your conversion. Is this too difficult a subject to speak about?
Edith: No, not at all. Growing up, I believe I was my mother’s favorite. I think in part this had something to do with my having been born on Yom Kippur. We also shared a similarity of personality which bonded us and, later on, distanced us from one another. We were both quite strong in our opinions, passionate and committed. My conversion was very difficult for her to accept. Despite her best efforts to understand why I had made such a decision, I believe she simply could not penetrate my reasons for doing so. Her commitments to Judaism were too strong. To her—and this I understand fully—Catholicism had meant little more than the religious faith of countless anti-Semites, all clamoring for the expulsion or death of the Jews. Breslau was predominantly Catholic, and the centuries-old dislike of the Jews hung thickly in the air around the common people. Then, there was also the shame my mother imagined she would have to endure facing her friends, relatives, and neighbors when the subject of her daughter’s apostasy was mentioned.
I fully understood these things and they pained me as with a red-hot iron. But I became convinced that there was a higher truth that deserved my deepest commitment and service. Love for truth has always been my highest motivation. Truth took me in an unexpected direction. However, is this not often the way of truth? It sometimes leads where we do not expect to go, and even where we do not initially want to go.
Years later, however, my mother’s reaction to my decision to enter the convent was not primarily motivated by the offense of religion. Far more important was the fact that in those days, my seeking to become a nun could mean we might never see one another again. Unlike today, when nuns are permitted to visit their families, I would not be permitted to leave the Carmelite convent. I truly believe this was the greatest cause of her upset.
Rich: I certainly can relate to your experience here. I was 19 years old when I became convinced on rational grounds that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. This, plus the kind of mystical experience that accompanies any deeper embrace of lofty truth, resulted in my becoming a follower of the Messiah. And like you, I experienced a disruption in my relationship with my wonderful parents for a time. However, here is where our experience is very different. I married and had four children. To paraphrase the biblical verse, “grandchildren cover a multitude of sins.” My parents and I have long been reconciled and my faith is no longer an issue.
Did you ever consider marriage?
Edith: My commitment to my scholarly work precluded any romantic involvements, although at one point, I entertained the hope of marrying and having a family. The years passed. My life was full and although I love children and love to be around them, I never felt much of the need to have my own.
Rich: Do you believe your mother has been judged by God for not having embraced the Catholic faith?
Edith: No, not at all. As I’ve explained in my writings, the community of those who belong to Jesus far exceeds the borders of any particular communion, even the Catholic communion. During my earthly life I always had a mystical feeling that my deceased mother continued to be my best counselor.
Identifying as Both Jewish and Christian
Rich: On several occasions you wrote about your ongoing fidelity to the Jewish people. And like many Jewish converts you believed that you were not leaving Judaism behind but somehow penetrating more deeply into it. How do you square removing yourself from the Jewish community with this claim of remaining deeply connected with Judaism?
Edith: As I explained to my niece Susanne when we chanced to meet in the dentist office one day in the fall of 1933, I had never left our people. Their history is my history—a drama that continues in the ongoing development of the Church, but one in which God has always been present.
Not long after Kristallnacht, I left Germany on the last day of 1938 to enter a convent in Echt, Holland. My sister Rosa joined me there, and on August 2, 1942, the Gestapo showed up at the convent to arrest us. We were commanded to gather our few things and to be ready to depart the convent in five minutes. I knew what was in store for us. Jews were being rounded up everywhere. It was clear we were being led to internment and to death. I took my sister’s hand and said, “Come, Rosa. We’re going for our people.”4 In other words, my conversion has always led me back to our people.
Rich: But Edith, how can you argue that you participated in the life of your people if your community of reference became the Church? Perhaps in some abstract, idealized way this makes sense to you. But to most Jews—and I’ll include myself as a Messianic Jew—this makes little sense. Or, to put the matter differently, if all Jewish people were to follow your path into the Roman Catholic Church, I would suggest there would be no Jews left in the world. Why? Because our entire symbolic world, the meaning of the last 2000 years of our history and the living reality of Israel’s unique place in God’s plan, would disappear within one or two generations. Our children’s consciousness of Israel’s unique covenant would be swallowed up completely within the Church.
Edith: Rich, God places each of us in a social context. Endowed with freedom of choice and as his partners in creation, we can maneuver to one degree or another. But there are inherent boundaries that circumscribe our freedom of movement. You, Rich, were born in a different world than I. In the casual, individualized culture of the United States, you have had the luxury of actualizing your faith in Jesus within a Jewish communal context, at least to a degree.
My world was far more bifurcated. A Jew who embraced Jesus became a Protestant or a Catholic. Period. There were no other options. But as I step into your world of thought and feeling, I see the potential for meaningful growth as you seek to relate theologically and practically with both the historic Church and the larger Jewish community.
When I discovered the truth about Jesus, the path quickly became clear to me. The Roman Catholic Church embodied the deepest and most sublime spiritual truth. Its ancient origins and Jewishly-rooted liturgy gave me confidence that it truly was an expression of the ongoing flowering of God’s covenant with Israel. For example, the Savior instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist during his last Passover Seder. The flow—the holy continuity of Old Covenant feast to New Covenant feast—seems clear. At this point, I have no compelling answer for the very real problem you raise regarding the issue of ongoing Jewish peoplehood. But as an old mystic, I simply tell you that I must trust God for his answer to the problem. Again, speaking in perhaps idealized terms, we know that the Jewish people are eternally bound to the Savior by covenant. So we can be sure that in the end, Israel will live. This really is the best I can do for now.
But please try not to judge my choice too harshly. Can it not be said—from the little I know of modern Messianic Judaism—that your version of Jewish life is viewed with great skepticism by the majority of Jewish community leaders? Don’t many see your synagogue as merely a sophistry or worse yet, as a clever tactic to ensnare uneducated and unsuspecting Jews in a cosmetically altered form of Protestantism?
Rich: You are quite right, Edith. The world I live in is quite different from yours. Whereas what we call Messianic Judaism could not have existed in the stratified world of what I will call “Old Europe,” the sheer breadth of Jewish expression available in the United States today gives hope that the Messiah and many of his people may be truly united one day. Quite frankly, a Messiah who doesn’t support Jews in transgenerational continuity cannot be the Messiah for Israel. This is the great obstacle I see to your hope and the hope of traditional Catholics. Of course, many Jews in the United States have become Catholics or Protestants. Within a generation, they lose their connection to Jewish peoplehood. The result seems like a double loss. The Jew loses an ongoing Jewish context for sensing and knowing himself and for understanding and loving Jesus. The Church loses the fullness of the Jewish voice because the convert loses a key dimension of his authentic voice in the billion-strong chorus of the Church.
And yes, you correctly observe the current status of Messianic Judaism. Most communal gate-keepers think we are nothing more than a ploy. But this isn’t universally the case. As we have shown ourselves to be something other than missionaries, some fair-minded leaders have begun to acknowledge our right to sit at the Jewish table.
Edith: You may speak of losing one’s Jewish voice in the Church, but frankly, I don’t think I completely lost that voice. Do you have any real understanding of the pain I endured when I was let go from my teaching position in Münster because I was a Jew? How many Jews in the United States could even begin to understand the anguish and despair I suffered when my superior invited me into his office to explain this hideous injustice to me? He said the dismissal might only be temporary, until things settled down in Germany, but we both knew better. Did you know that I refused to have an Aryan guild publish my book when I was not allowed to publish under my own name because I was a Jew? Do you know what that really feels like? Did you know that I wrote his holiness the Pope two times, seeking an audience with him so I might, like Esther, plead the cause of our people? Remember the words I said to Rosa when the Nazis came for us in Holland: “Come, we are going for our people.” And are you aware of how I died as a Jew among the other gasping, writhing martyrs? Do not these things validate my Jewish identity and commitment, at least to a degree?
We must realize that God brings the Jewish people and the Church together through suffering. Prior to the Holocaust as I watched Jewish students being beaten up in Münster, I intuitively knew that the latest episode of Jewish suffering was merely a harbinger of terrible things to come. And I knew that this suffering would have a redemptive effect. There is a relationship between Jesus’ suffering and the suffering of the Jewish people.
Rich: I have for many years noted the oscillation in meaning in Isaiah 53 between Israel, the suffering servant of the Lord, and Yeshua, who suffered as the ultimate “one man Israel.”
Edith: Yes. This is an apt comparison. Similarly, the ancient ritual of Yom Kippur including the expiatory death of chosen animals finds its highest expression in the cross of Christ. Dare I say, the suffering of the Jewish people throughout history reflects and augments the suffering of the Messiah and his Church? Does not St. Paul say in Colossians that his personal suffering, as a Jew who was called to share God’s message with the nations, was “filling up” Messiah’s sufferings?
Rich: Edith, our perspectives on Yom Kippur may differ. “Highest expression” is one thing, but replacement is another. On Yom Kippur, Jews seek forgiveness from one another and from God so that life in the community may be restored to wholeness. But—and please correct me if I’m wrong—your Catholic understanding of Yom Kippur nullifies the centuries-old Jewish understanding of the sacred day, replacing it with the work of Jesus. Is this an accurate picture?
Edith: Yes, it is. And it seems to be the picture painted by the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews as well. So you see, Rich, this understanding is not just “Catholic.”
Rich: I’m not sure the writer of Hebrews had replacement in mind at all, although this could be mistakenly deduced from the polemic of the letter. The important thing for us to consider is the fact that you understand Catholicism as the fullest, highest embodiment of Jewish truth. I see a renewed Judaism, with Messiah Yeshua as its highest expression—the precious jewel in the gold setting of Jewish life and tradition. The book of Hebrews was written by a Jew to other Jews, and I don’t think wholesale replacement by a predominantly gentile body flows from his thinking.
But let’s move on to another subject because this one would take hours to unpack and our mochas are getting cold. You and I can talk easily and with great mutuality concerning the Jewishness of Messiah’s message. Many of our people, however, cannot accept the Jewishness of a son or daughter of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who chooses to follow Jesus. Here are some of the comments offered by the Israeli Supreme Court in the citizenship case of your fellow Carmelite, Brother Daniel, who was born Oswald Rufeisin. Chief Justice Silburg wrote,
Brother Daniel will be a lover of Israel; he has already proved that and I have no doubt of it. But he does so from the outside. He has no part in, and will have no true feeling for, the world of Judaism. His undoubted love for, and even full association with, the Jewish society in Israel are no substitute for the absent subjective self-identification.
By conversion, another Justice claims, “an apostate cuts himself off from his national past,” “no longer shares a common fate with the Jewish people,” and “erects a barrier against any future identification with the Jewish people.” The majority opinion continues that to permit a Christian to apply for Israeli citizenship as a Jew would,
expunge the historic . . . meaning of the word “Jew” . . . renounce all those spiritual values for which we have been martyred throughout the different periods of our long exile up to this day. The glorious memory of our martyrs of the Middle Ages will fade away to nothing, and our history will lose its continuity and begin its annals only with the emancipation which followed the French Revolution.5
What do you think, Edith? Should Brother Daniel have been granted citizenship in Israel as a Jew? Or did he really forfeit that right by becoming a Catholic?
Edith: States, governments, and nations all have their reasons for what they do and what they say. If the state of Israel felt it necessary to disallow the Jewishness of Brother Daniel, or, had I lived beyond 1942 and applied for citizenship in Israel, and then been denied, so be it. Clearly the judge was seeking to protect the integrity of the Jewish people. He had his way of doing so and we have ours. I recognize the absolute necessity for a community to define its borders in clear and unambiguous terms. But in the hierarchy of my own values, I believe that what the eternal King has to say on such matters is of even greater significance than the pronouncements of an esteemed Israeli judge.
Rich: Frankly, I am glad that the Israeli judge is not king in the matter of determining who is a Jew. We should note that his is not the only opinion among Jewish communal leaders. A small but growing number of leaders desire to welcome Messianic Jews. However, I am sympathetic to the judge’s concern not to so attenuate the meaning of the word “Jew” that the term loses all meaning.
On the other hand, many Jewish authorities contend that even if a Jew steps outside the communal boundaries of the Jewish people—even if he or she adopts a competing religion—he or she still remains a Jew. In the traditional understanding, a Jew is always a Jew, although people like you and me, who embrace Jesus, are considered “bad Jews.” As bad Jews, we may be denied communal privileges—like being counted in a minyan or even kept from the benefits of Israel’s Law of Return—but we are still Jews.
The prominent Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod expresses the same idea: a Jew is a Jew. He or she may be a good Jew or a bad Jew, but his or her membership among the Jewish people cannot be eradicated: “This is not the nature of Israel’s election. This election is that of the seed of Abraham. A descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a Jew irrespective of what he believes or how virtuous he is.”6 Though some Jewish scholars take a more restrictive view, traditional halakhah seems to favor the immutability of the covenantal status and obligations of the individual Jew.
Edith: I can see why this issue is of paramount importance to you. May our people be brought together as one someday. At this point, I simply cannot fathom the idea that Jewishness in its full flowering can demand less than obedience to and participation in the holy Catholic Church. Men may create their necessary rules, but in the final analysis, when God speaks to the yearning heart, all other considerations pale in significance.
Rich: Edith, may we talk about the role of suffering in your thinking? You seem to have discovered that the way to genuine personal goodness is through the avenues of prayer and suffering. Is this an accurate picture?
Edith: Yes. As I studied St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa, and others, I came to realize the destiny of all who follow the Messiah—that we are to participate in his redemption by suffering for others. So it was God’s will that I suffer and die for my people.
The ethos of the Judaism I knew had little room for redemptive suffering, probably because our historical experience as a people included so much seemingly gratuitous pain. But considering the matter more deeply, no doubt Abraham’s offering of his son—the Akedah—was intended by divine providence to change the man. And, according to the biblical text, Abraham’s willingness to offer his son results in a reaffirmation of God’s promise that the nations would “bless themselves” (or “be blessed”) through him. Abraham endured unimaginable emotional pain and the peoples of the world benefited. Thus, the value of suffering is not altogether absent from the most hallowed of Judaism’s sacred texts. But our people tend to overlook the hidden power of suffering, perhaps for another reason—we have missed the One who suffered and died for all.
Rich: As a follower of Yeshua—Jesus—I certainly have room in my theology for the redemptive aspect of suffering, but my sense is that elevating human suffering to a level of positive good can easily result in the justification for needless suffering. Have not many religious leaders remained callous to the trauma of the masses while offering platitudes to the grieving mothers who come for help: “This suffering is God’s will, my child. Go in peace.” But let’s get back to a source of great pain for you: your relationship to your mother and the pain that your religious conversion caused her. Do you mind if we discuss such things further?
Edith: No, not at all. My mother is happy now, dancing the hora with the angels. We can talk about these things.
Rich: You describe a poignant encounter with your mother just before leaving home for the last time.7
Edith: That was a very difficult night. It happened to be Shemini Atzeret, the night before I would leave my family and friends to enter the Carmelite convent. My birthday fell on Shemini Atzeret that year, and I had accompanied my mother to synagogue earlier in the day. In the evening, after friends who had come to wish me well on my journey to Cologne had left the house, my mother just rested her head on my chest and cried herself to sleep. The love between us was so great, but so was the chasm between us.
Rich: Is there a relationship between your gravitation toward private prayer and the suffering you experienced in incidents like this one?
Edith: Although Jesus the Jew participated in the communal prayers of Israel, I believe that it was in his private, contemplative experience with God that he gained the spiritual acuity necessary to fulfill his mission. And as it was for the Master, so it is for his followers.
Rich: In Jewish thought, communal prayer—Shacharit every morning, and so on—is the key to that strength.
Edith: If this is so, I rarely saw that strength evoked among the attendees at synagogue—with one exception: my mother. But I believe that if she could have added to her love for liturgy private prayer in the name of the Holy One, Jesus, she would have found levels of contentment and joy which were beyond her ability to imagine.
Rich: Such thoughts are not totally foreign to Judaism. The Baal Shem Tov did not need a minyan to experience the reality of Hashem.
Edith: True, but the Jews I grew up with in Breslau knew little of the Hasidic master. We were too sophisticated and desensitized to care for such things. I came to yearn for that deep, intuitive sense of the presence of God, and I found it in the discipline of private, prolonged prayer to God through the Spirit of his Son. Corporate prayer is very much part of one’s life in the Church, but there is a rich tradition of personal prayer—and silence—which I never experienced prior to my conversion. If, as some have reported, I had a special grace to help our suffering people in the days and hours before our deaths at Auschwitz, I assure you, Rich, this was the fruit of much time in contemplative prayer. In Messianic Judaism, have you no knowledge of such things?
Rich: Edith, like you, I enjoy personal spontaneous prayer. I’ve spent many joyful hours in the presence of God, simply expressing my thanks to him for life’s many blessings and asking him for help on behalf of the people in our synagogue and my family. But, perhaps unlike you, I am ennobled equally by the traditional Jewish prayers offered in the name of the Risen One. Both modes are important to Messianic Jews.
Edith: But none of the synagogue prayers mention the name of the Messiah. How can you find deep spiritual sustenance without his glory expressed on the pages of the Siddur?
Rich: First of all, in the postmodern world of today, it’s acceptable in some Jewish circles to re-imagine the thrust of our traditional prayers and personalize their meaning in light of current life experience. Messianic Jews can infuse the prayers with the meaning Messiah Yeshua brings to them. Second, we actually do interpolate New Covenant prayers and readings into our own editions of the Siddur and Machzor. We do so in ways similar to Reform Jews, who change the wording of prayers, eliminate sections, and add material that reflects their unique slant on the Jewish life. Of course, all of this must be done responsibly, lest the tradition be reduced to banalities. But Edith, we pray in Jewish space. Sadly, your Catholic tradition, with its undiluted universalism and almost total absence of Jewish particularism, cannot afford the same opportunity for the Jewishly-committed Catholic.
Edith: Perhaps we’re both involved in different sets of spiritual gymnastics in the matter of claiming fidelity to our people and the holy traditions of Jesus. But I can see the day when the Holy See allows a distinctly Hebrew rite—Jewish expression of Catholic faith whereby Jewish Catholics can more obviously and concretely live our commitment to our people.
Rich: I’m not sure that even a Jewish rite within the Catholic Church could produce recognizably Jewish commitment and life. At least from a sociological perspective, I think it’s impossible to dance at two weddings at the same time. But Edith, if we are right that the Jews are eternally God’s chosen nation—his segulah—and if we are right that Jesus really is the promised Messiah, I trust God will take a sympathetic look at his Jewish children who seek to bring these two things together.
Edith: He is a gracious and merciful God and King.
Rich: Edith, why did you write your autobiography?
Edith: I wrote it as my attempt to fight Hitler. Through the first half of the 20th century in Germany, awful things were being said and printed about Jews. Perverse lies were added to the centuries-old piles of misinformation. The German people increasingly believed these lies. In my university work on empathy, I became convinced that if only people could get to know the “other” and become known by the other, truths about ourselves could be shared deeply. Then, the reasons for mistrust and hate could disappear. Sadly, German gentiles did not understand the Jewish people. Hitler capitalized on their prejudices. So I wanted to explain the life of a Jewish family—my family—to the German public. Then they could know the truth about us: that we have strong qualities and weak ones just like they do. They could learn we were not the monsters portrayed by the Nazi propaganda films. I intended my autobiography to be a weapon in the hand of the Lord for the sake of our people.
Rich: Apparently, your strategy did not work, at least in the short run. But I see clearly your victory in the larger scope of history. I hope I don’t embarrass you by reading this, but I have an account here written ten years after your death that describes your role and demeanor in the camps. May I read it to you?
Edith: I have no objection.
The one sister who impressed me immediately, whose warm, glowing smile has never been erased from my memory, despite the disgusting “incidents” I was forced to witness, is the one I think the Vatican may one day canonize. From the moment I met her in the camp at Westerbork . . . I knew here is someone truly great. For a couple of days she lived in that hellhole, walking, talking and praying to God like a saint. And she really was one. That is the only fitting way to describe this middle-aged woman who struck everyone as so young, who is so whole and honest and genuine . . . then I saw her go off to the train with her sister, praying as she went, and smiling the smile of unbroken resolve that accompanied her to Auschwitz.8
Edith, as you probably know, the Jewish and Catholic communities are at odds about how to interpret your life and death. But I simply want to say this: you finished your race on this earth helping and loving others at the time when people’s worst nightmares became reality. There is no diminishing the credit you deserve as a Jew, a woman, and a human being, who sought to live the words of the Torah, “Ve’ahavtah et Adonai elohecha, b’khol levavkha, u’vkhol nafshekha, u’vkhol me’odedekha.” Edith, you were born on Yom Kippur; you died on August 2, 1942—near Tisha B’Av. Surely these providential brush strokes suggest Jewish meaning in the wonderful, tragic, and triumphant experience of a Jewish woman who sought the Truth. I count it a great privilege to have been allowed to meet you. And I hope we can talk again someday, God willing.
Edith: And may you be blessed during your earthly journey, Rich.
Rabbi Dr. Richard C. Nichol has served as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Ruach Israel since 1981 and is currently the president of the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (MJTI). Rabbi Nichol received a BA in music from Ithaca College, Master of Divinity from Biblical Theological Seminary, Doctor of Ministries in Homiletics from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and Master of Jewish Studies from Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. He received smicha (ordination) from the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations in 1986. Dr. Nichol and his wife Susan live in Needham, MA and have four grown children and eight grandchildren.
1 Edith Stein. Life in a Jewish Family (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1986).
2 E. Tanay, “A Catholic Jew,” in The Unnecessary Problem of Edith Stein, ed. Harry J. Cargas, 27–31 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994).
3 Waltraud Herbstrith, O.C.D., Edith Stein – A Biography (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1971), 65.
4 Herbstrith, Edith Stein, 180.
5 Marc Galanter, “A Dissent on Brother Daniel.” Commentary, July 1963. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/marc-galanter/a-dissent-on-brother-daniel/, accessed 9/11/20.
6 Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith: God and the People Israel (Northvale, NJ; London: Jason Aaronson, 1996), 176.
7 Herbstrith, Edith Stein, 122.
8 Herbstrith, Edith Stein, 186–87.