Edith Stein was a Jewish woman who converted to Roman Catholicism, joined the Carmelite order and was murdered at Auschwitz. Her story raises questions about who is a Jew.
In the fall of 2018, I was sitting in a religion class at Chile’s Pontificia Universidad, the South American country’s premier Catholic university. As a young Jewish American woman studying abroad, I was the only Jew in the class, maybe in the building and possibly on campus.
Earlier in the semester, the religion professor had asked us to discuss a few prompts with a partner. I turned to the Chilean student next to me, and when I mentioned that I was Jewish, she commented, “Oh, I’ve never met a Jew before. What do Jews believe in?” The professor called out that we had 30 seconds to finish our conversations and return to the lecture. My mind whirled. I could tell my partner about the High Holy Days, or maybe the Talmud, or kashrut or Shabbat, but I would have to do it in Spanish — and now I had 10 seconds. “What do Jews believe in?” the Chilean student pressed. I blurted out “Not Jesus!” with two seconds to spare, and then went about my day slightly horrified that I had left a subpar impression of the Jewish people.
Let’s just say that I found myself as a Jewish person in a heavily Catholic country, testing the boundaries between North and South America, English and Spanish, indigenous and colonizer, Jewish and Catholic. I was living in liminal spaces. So when I saw the picture of a nun whose habit was emblazoned with a Jewish star, she certainly caught my attention.
Back in religion class, we had been learning about Christian mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen and St. Teresa of Avila. Then our professor indicated that we would turn to a more modern mystic, deeply influenced by St. Teresa, who wrote about interiority and phenomenology. Her name was Edith Stein, though she was also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. The professor gave us a quick overview of Stein’s unusual life, and after seeing her Catholic saint cards that mingled images of nuns, concentration camps, Judaica, golden stars and golden halos, I just had to learn more.
Edith Stein was born to a Jewish family in 1891 and became one of the first German women to earn a doctorate in philosophy. Though she was raised Jewish, Stein became an atheist as she deepened her philosophical inquiries and then converted to Catholicism in 1922 after a series of personal crises. She was particularly inspired by the work of St. Teresa of Avila, and she joined the order of Carmelite nuns in 1933. With the ascent of the Nazi Party in Germany, Stein’s family faced oppression and danger, scattering across the globe. The same year that Stein took her vows as a postulant, she began writing her autobiography, titled Life in a Jewish Family. She hoped the text would serve as “a straightforward account of my own experience of Jewish life” that would combat the “horrendous caricature” of Jewish people painted by Hitler and his propaganda machine (Stein, 24). From within the convent, Stein asserted her Jewish identity and appealed directly to Pope Pius XI, urging him to speak out against antisemitism.
But Stein’s efforts were in vain. In 1941, Stein’s Carmelite sisters smuggled her across the border to the Netherlands, fearing for her safety as a Jew in German territory. Stein reflected on her plight, writing, “It was luminously clear to me that once again God’s hand lay heavy on His people, and the destiny of this people is my own” (Espin, 130). After the invasion of Holland by Nazi forces in 1940, even Jewish converts were not safe. When Dutch bishops spoke out against the German occupation, Sister Edith Stein was promptly arrested along with several other Jewish-born men and women of the cloth. She was deported to the Auschwitz death camp and murdered on Aug. 9, 1942. At least 1.1 million Jews were killed in the same place.
In the years after her death, the story of the nun who died in Auschwitz spread widely. Stein’s writings on feminism, philosophy and empathy also grew in popularity. In 1987, she was beatified as a martyr by Pope John Paul II and canonized as a Catholic saint in 1998. As Stein became known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, it sparked controversy in the Jewish world. What did her sainthood say about martyrdom and suffering in different traditions, how the Shoah is remembered, modern Jewish-Catholic relations and Stein’s own faith identity?
One of my favorite Stein quotes reads, “I am not a ‘cleverly-designed book’: I am a human being with my contradictions” (Berkman, 72). Sitting in the Chilean classroom, I was enthralled by this woman who defied categorization, who continued to claim Jewish identity even as she took the veil of a nun. I needed to learn more about her. I discovered that Edith Stein was born on Yom Kippur and continued to attend High Holy Days with her beloved mother long after her conversion. I read that Edith often looked to Esther — the Purim Queen who hid her Jewish identity, only to reveal it to save her people — for inspiration. She wrote a short piece called “Dialogue at Night,” in which she brought Esther, the Virgin Mary and a Carmelite nun into conversation with each other. I learned that Edith Stein never spoke openly about why she chose to convert, but that she assured her niece, “What I am doing does not mean that I want to leave my people and my family. … And don’t think that my being in a convent is going to keep me immune from what is happening in the world” (Espin, 132).
Edith Stein inhabited a gray space between Judaism and Christianity, a bride of Christ who was deeply shaped by her Jewish family and upbringing. The Chilean religion class left me somewhat stymied by the question, “What do Jews believe in?” but even more intrigued by the problem of Edith Stein. When I returned to college in Boston, I embarked on my senior thesis, choosing to write about Stein and all the questions her life and legacy raised, not least among them, “Who is a Jew?”
I should say that my own family background contributed to my interest in Edith Stein. My mom grew up vaguely Christian in Northern California, and my dad was raised Jewish in Miami, Fla. His grandmother (my great-grandmother) was a first-generation Jewish immigrant born in the tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My mom converted to Judaism when she decided to marry my dad. She took the conversion classes, immersed in the mikvah, and was married under a chuppah on a beautiful October day. She received an Eastern European housewarming gift from my great-grandmother: a candle, a piece of bread and a packet of salt in a jar. When hidden somewhere in the house, the jar was said to bring good balabusta (homemaker) energy to the home.
So my brother and I were raised decidedly Jewish. But, of course, my mom’s Christian background and family traditions were not totally erased. I grew up celebrating the High Holy Days and Passover and Simkhat Torah, while also joining my grandparents for Christmas celebrations and my cousins for Easter-egg hunts. I had a bat mitzvah service attended by Jewish and Christian family members. Friday nights sometimes included Shabbat candles but could just as likely involve Chinese food and a basketball game. I attended Jewish overnight camp for seven summers and also went to weeklong Episcopal church camps to spend time with my cousins. I was raised with a firm Jewish identity, yet formed strong bonds with family and friends who were not Jewish, appreciating the beauty of their traditions.
Is my mom any less Jewish for maintaining strong ties to her Christian family and for exposing me to traditions that brought her joy when she was growing up? I would say not. And yet it is true that converts — like my mom, like Edith Stein — often hold complex and overlapping faith identities. The experiences of converts raise the question: Is religion a zero-sum game?
When Edith Stein was canonized as a saint, controversy raged over whether or not she could be considered a member of the Jewish people. In a piece for an essay collection called Never Forget: Jewish and Christian Reflections on Edith Stein, Rabbi Daniel Polish writes: “While a nonpracticing, even nonbelieving, Jew is considered to be Jewish, one who embraces another faith is understood by Jewish teaching as renouncing Jewish faith and must, as a consequence, be considered no longer a Jew” (172). More nontraditional commentators pushed back: “Though Stein changed faith, she grew up as a Jew, adhered proudly to many Jewish traditions throughout her life, affirmed herself a Jew, and thus died as fully a Jew as a Catholic” (Polish, 181). These scholars weigh Stein’s personal identification as a Jew, and her actions on behalf of the Jewish people, in their calculus. While issues of identity are undoubtedly complicated, I agree with Professor David Novak, University of Toronto Chair of Jewish Studies, that the easiest way out of this conundrum about Edith Stein 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 they want. (158)
Many have asked whether Edith Stein was truly Jewish or Catholic, questioning the basis for her sainthood and the implications for Jewish-Catholic relations. But perhaps we can take her at her word, and say that she was both. Multifaith identities and multifaith families exist today and will likely only grow in number. We can choose to embrace this multiplicity and affirm the identity of those who want to engage in Jewish community, whether or not they fit the traditional definition of who is a Jew.
These inhabiting liminal spaces may include the non-Jewish partners and parents of Jews, Jews of patrilineal descent (already officially recognized by the Reconstructionist and Reform movements), converts to Judaism who sometimes struggle to find acceptance and even people like Edith Stein, who have chosen another path but affirm the impact of Jewish teachings and upbringing on their lives.
At a time where Jews are increasingly marrying people from other religious backgrounds and exploring a variety of spiritual practices, I would push for the expansion of who is considered a Jew rather than the withdrawal of recognition and blessing. Studying Edith Stein — the Jewish-Catholic saint — has shown me the richness inherent in hybridity and the uniqueness we all bring to the world as human beings with our contradictions.
Berkman, Joyce Avrech. “Esther and Mary: The Uneasy Jewish/Catholic Dynamic in the Work and Life of Edith Stein.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 32, no. 1, 2016, pp. 55-73.
Espin, Olivia. “‘The destiny of the people is my own … ’: Edith Stein’s Paradoxical Sainthood.” CrossCurrents, vol. 58, no. 1, 2008, pp. 117-148.
Novak, David. Talking with Christians: Musings of a Jewish Theologian. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005.
Polish, Daniel F. “The Canonization of Edith Stein.” Never Forget: Christian and Jewish Perspectives on Edith Stein, edited by Waltraud Herbstrith, ICS Publications, 1998, 171-177.
Stein, Edith. Life in a Jewish Family, Edith Stein: An Autobiography 1891-1916, edited by Lucy Gelber and Romaeus Leuven. Translated by Josephine Koeppel. ICS Publications, 1986.