The recent canonization of Edith Stein as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross by the Roman Catholic Church poses a number of very serious challenges to living Jews, we who are still members of the people to whom Edith Stein believed she also belonged, even at her death in Auschwitz.
Theologically speaking, Edith Stein was arguably the most significant Jewish convert to Christianity of this century. In general, Jewish tradition regards such persons as apostates who have removed themselves from the normative Jewish community in a radical way, even if they still consider themselves part of the body of the Jewish people, as Stein did. Judaism in fact also regards such persons as part of the body of the Jewish people. “A Jew who has sinned is still a Jew” is an important talmudic principle. Nevertheless, an apostate is an apostate, even when a person of extraordinary intellectual and moral virtues. Our reactions in such cases, however great or small the person before us is, range from anger to sorrow. We cannot very well be indifferent.
In the case of Edith Stein, though, it seems we Jews must be more precise in giving reasons why we cannot celebrate with Catholics the life and death of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. We need to give theologically cogent reasons for why we would have had to distance ourselves from her in life (as her pious Jewish mother did), and why we would have joined that segment of her family who chose not to attend her beatification by Pope John Paul II in Cologne in 1987. Stein’s case is not an easy one for us. Jews have been able to dismiss most modern Jewish converts to Christianity as people motivated by social or professional ambition, self-hatred, ignorance, or mental imbalance. But anyone who knew Edith Stein or who knows anything about her life would have to admit that none of these categories applies to her. Indeed, Edith Stein comes across as sui generis. She might be the most uniquely problematic Jew for us since Saul of Tarsus.
The easiest way to deal with the problem is to accept the liberal assumption that one’s religious convictions are a matter of individual choice and that everyone must respect the choice of everyone else to believe whatever they want and practice any religion or no religion, as they choose. On this view, Edith Stein had a right to become a Catholic and change her name to Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, just as the Catholic priest Father Kenneth Cox had a right to become a Jew and change his name to Abraham Carmel. At the political level, most Jews and most Catholics have accepted the liberal idea of religious freedom. Some see it as a necessary part of the social contract that enables us to participate in civil society. Others see it as being in the best interest of faith itself, which cannot legitimately be coerced. Pragmatically, we realize that our religious communities are probably better off without people who have found a spiritual home elsewhere and do not want to be with us anymore. All this is how we talk and have to talk in the public square. But while that talk is not disingenuous, it is secondary to the primary commitments of both Jews and Christians.
The most fruitful dialogue between Jews and Catholics (and other Christians as well) has been about our relations in the public realm, where we have discovered significant common ground on such issues as public morality and religious liberty. Nevertheless, the discovery of such commonality, beneficial as it is, does not change the fact that at the deepest level of our existence Jews and Christians are making not only different communal claims, but rival communal claims. The best way to God, the one that ought not be exchanged for something less, is either by the Torah and the Jewish tradition or by Christ and the Church. The choice is unavoidable. One cannot accept Christ and still be part of the normative Jewish community; one cannot live by Torah and still be part of the Church. Early in our common history, indeed almost simultaneously, Jewish authorities ruled against the practice of Christianity by Jews and the Church ruled against the practice of Judaism by Christians (“judaization”)—even by Christians born as Jews. Our acceptance of the liberal order of civil society has for the most part enabled us to make these rival communal claims civilly, and without fear of political repercussions. But that accommodation should not make us slide into the superficiality of civil religion or the disorientation of religious syncretism. Sometimes Jews and Christians have to speak to each other without the mediation of the secular public realm, as we must when speaking about Edith Stein.
Because Judaism and Christianity are both covenantal religions, the relationship of the individual Jew or Christian to God is always within covenanted community. Stein, even when physically alone in her nun’s cell, was still existentially part of the community. The community in which one hears the voice of God structures how one hears that voice and interprets what it says. There is no universal revelation until the end of history, which is why election is the doctrine of identity for both Christians and Jews. God chooses us; we do not choose God, at least originally. That election is either by natural birth or by the rebirth of conversion, which is very much like adoption. We only can accept or reject the community into which, as one former Christian philosopher put it, we have “been thrown.”
Based on these covenantal assumptions, it follows that both Judaism and Christianity assert what liberals can only regard as an unfair asymmetry: One can check into the covenant, but one cannot check out of it. A convert is “born again,” which also means that from God’s perspective he or she has retroactively always been in the community. An apostate, conversely, does not quit the community existentially; he or she is only absent without leave. Excommunication bars a sinful Catholic from receiving the sacraments, not from the Church herself, just as herem, the ban of ostracism, does not mean that a Jew is no longer a Jew. So Jews regard Edith Stein as a Jewish apostate, but always a Jew nonetheless. And she agreed with us about her Jewish identity; it is about her apostasy that she obviously had a different opinion. We cannot avoid the question of apostasy because it brings us face to face with the rival truth claims our two communities make—to ourselves, to each other, and to the world.
Judaism and Christianity alike present themselves as the fullest truth of God’s relationship with the world, but both can recognize more limited forms of truth elsewhere. Confirmation in one’s covenant does not imply having a monopoly on God. As the prophet Amos (9:7) put it to the overly proud people of Israel, “Are you not for Me like the Ethiopians?” This view enables us to live with other people in good faith and to have genuine respect for them and their traditions.
This approach, common in form but different in substance for us, might be summarized in the talmudic principle that “one is to rise, not descend, in holiness.” To illustrate, let me set up four possible situations and suggest the Jewish answer to each of them. (A Christian answer would be substantively different in two of the scenarios, but I think the Christian logic would have to be the same as Jewish logic in all of them.) The four situations are: 1) a pagan wanting to convert to Christianity instead of Judaism; 2) a pagan wanting to convert to Judaism instead of Christianity; 3) a Christian wanting to convert to Judaism; 4) a Jew wanting to convert to Christianity. By “pagan,” I mean someone who neither by birth nor by the rebirth of conversion has ever been a Jew or a Christian.
The Jew would regard the pagan’s conversion to Christianity as a good choice inasmuch as Christianity is a valid gentile relationship with the Lord God, maker of heaven and earth, elector of Israel, giver of the Torah, and redeemer of the world. Of course, he would regard the pagan’s conversion to Judaism as the best choice possible. A Christian wanting to convert to Judaism has not only made the best choice but is well prepared for it by having been a Christian and therefore knowing, however partially, the Lord God of Israel. The final option, the Jew wanting to convert to Christianity, is of course the option of Edith Stein.
Edith Stein accepted what Christians have always had to say to Jews, namely, that Christianity solves the problems of Judaism better than Judaism does because Christianity provides the savior to whom Jews have always looked. She therefore did not consider herself a runaway from Judaism (however rudimentary her own Judaism was) but rather a Jew whose Judaism brought her into the Church. Her logic was clearly supersessionist. How could it have been otherwise? Indeed, had it been otherwise, Edith Stein would have had to have said what Franz Rosenzweig said when he rejected Christian super-sessionist claims: “I therefore remain a Jew!” (Rosenzweig, a Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Stein, whom many consider the greatest Jewish theologian of this century, himself almost converted to Christianity.)
Supersessionism is the subject of deep theological debate today. Many Jews have seen it as the core of Christian anti-Judaism. Many Christians are embarrassed by it, seeing it as part of the anti-Judaism that was so easily appropriated by modern anti-Semitism. Yet, Christian supersessionism need not denigrate Judaism. It can look to the Jewish origins of Christianity happily and still learn of those origins from living Jews, whom Pope John Paul II likes to call “elder brothers.” Christian supersessionism can still affirm that God has not annulled his everlasting covenant with the Jewish people, neither past nor present nor future. Jews can expect no more than that from Christians, and Christians probably cannot concede any more to Judaism. For if Christianity does not regard itself as going beyond Judaism, why should Christians not become Jews? And, conversely, any Jew who believes Christianity supersedes Judaism can only in good faith become a Christian—as Edith Stein did.
Fruitful conversations of late between Jews and Christians have largely bracketed this critical issue for good reasons. It is, nevertheless, the crucial question that leaves the two communities at an impasse. All attempts to get beyond it—be they political, exegetical, or philosophical—have been failures. After all, it is the question of truth, and truth is what we are both all about. To bracket this question is quite different from either suppressing it altogether or reducing all discussion to it.
Edith Stein represents our impasse. She cannot be a bridge between Jews and Catholics because in this world one cannot be simultaneously both a faithful Jew and a faithful Catholic. Since the Jewish and Catholic communities are mutually exclusive, and both Jews and Catholics derive their identities from God’s covenant with their communities, no member of one community can also be a member in good standing of the other. Moreover, one cannot expect the approval of the covenanted community one has left. As with Abraham our father, the answer to God’s call always involves leaving some earlier household in one way or another, and that household does not and cannot provide one with a warm farewell.
In this world Jews and Christians do have much to say to each other and much to do together. But our more important task of waiting for God we must do separately. The agenda of dialogue must be kept distant from the agenda of conversion. Dialogue is more about this world; conversion is more about the world-to-come. Until the end time, it is not for us to judge matters of identity, except in the most mundane cases involving communal rights and penalties. Because of that, while we Jews can empathize with Catholics who have found yet another saint, another exemplary holy life, it is not something we can feel with (the original meaning of “sympathy”) Catholics any more than we could celebrate the Eucharist with them. At this deepest level we are still strangers to each other. So it seems that we shall remain until the end, when we hope to be the lasting friends of God, and thus of each other.
David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. These remarks are based on a lecture he delivered in April 1999 to a symposium on Edith Stein sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago and Loyola University.