Expiation for the Conversion of the Jewish People
The Life and Thought of St. Edith Stein
By Freda Mary Oben
Publisher: Alba House
Review Author: Ronda Chervin
Since the canonization of Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) in 1998, interest has grown in this Jewish philosopher, nurse, convert, teacher, speaker, writer, and finally Carmelite nun who died in Auschwitz.
In personalist philosophical circles, Edith Stein is best known for her lectures about the nature and vocation of woman. I read these in the 1960s, and still find them the most insightful writings of any thinker at any time on this beautiful but thorny topic. The latest edition of these lectures, Essays on Woman, was published by the Institute of Carmelite Studies in 1987.
For those unfamiliar with Edith Stein’s life and thought, the book under review will provide an excellent beginning. Author Freda Mary Oben, herself a Hebrew-Catholic Ph.D., provides insight into the way Edith Stein’s background contributed to her philosophy and her heroic choices. For example, I had not known before that St. Edith was twice offered opportunities to escape from the net of the Gestapo, which she turned down since she wanted to remain in solidarity with her people as she offered her pain in a Carmelite manner for their conversion and in reparation for the atrocities of the perpetrators.
As a young adult, Edith entered into the study of philosophy under Edmund Husserl. She was greatly influenced by Husserl and the circle that surrounded him, many of whom were Jewish converts to Christianity and some to the Catholic Church. Max Scheler was of special influence because of his analysis of holiness. Brought up in a devoutly religious Jewish home, Edith had become an atheist as a young woman, but felt an ever-growing attraction to Christianity as she studied the truths of objective philosophy.
Some readers of the biographical part of Oben’s book will be surprised at how much Edith, like most German Jews before World War II, almost idolized Germany for its cultural achievements and espoused the nationalistic cause during World War I. Edith volunteered as a nurse to help the wounded, caring for some whose diseases were contagious or fatal. So comfortable did most Jews feel in enlightened Germany that many could not believe that Hitler could succeed. They chose to remain in their homeland past the time when they could escape.
About her conversion at the age of 29, mediated by reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, Edith wrote that faith is a seizure by God that presupposes giving free assent to God’s grace. I had known that historical evidence points to the remotely Jewish ancestry of Teresa of Avila, but I was surprised by Oben’s report about St. Teresa’s family: “Teresa’s paternal grandfather was Juan Sanchez, a wealthy textile merchant who lived in Toledo. After converting to Christianity, he reneged and raised his sons in Judaism. Remember, this was the time of the Inquisition. Offered an opportunity for absolution, he confessed to heresy and apostasy. For penance he was compelled to walk each Friday for seven weeks, wearing the yellow tunic of the Judaiser. Teresa’s father at the age of four walked with him.”
After her baptism, Edith wanted to become a Carmelite immediately but agreed, under spiritual direction, to remain as a lay teacher. Because of prejudice in the universities against allowing women to be professors and later because of her Jewish ancestry, most of her teaching was done in a Dominican high school for girls. This environment provided her with much data in the formation of the powerful philosophy of woman she developed and spread as a speaker on the burning feminist issues of her day. In Europe, between the two wars, more and more women were forced by economic conditions to join the work force, and this often led to a crisis in the relationship between husband and wife. The type of Christian feminism Edith promoted is profound in its recognition that Original Sin affects both sexes by turning their original complementarity into wounded relationships with specific distortions that can only be healed through the redemptive power of Christ.
Oben provides a useful clarification of Edith’s views concerning women and the priesthood. Edith held two different views. One was to support more ministry for women in general, speculating that an increase in roles could be a first step toward the priesthood for women. (It is illegitimate for present-day feminists to quote her on the subject as if she were writing today, when the matter has been infallibly clarified by the Holy See and when feminism often includes concepts Edith would have totally rejected.) But Edith also presents the other side of the question: “Christ came as the son of man, and perhaps for that reason, He chose only men as His apostles.” Oben adds that Edith, personally, did not think that women would ever be priests.
During this period Edith Stein was to build a bridge between the phenomenological method of Husserl and classical Thomist philosophical truths. A delightful dialogue she wrote between Thomas and Husserl has recently been translated under the title Knowledge and Faith (Institute of Carmelite Studies).
Living in the Dominican convent as a teacher, Edith gave herself deeply to the Eucharistic presence of Christ: “He is not present for his own sake but for ours: it is his delight to be with the ‘children of men.’ He knows, too, that, being what we are, we need his personal nearness. In consequence, every thoughtful and sensitive person will feel attracted and will be there as often and as long as possible.”
When the Nazis insisted that no one of Jewish origin be allowed to teach, Edith gained permission to enter the Carmelites. In the Cologne Carmel she wrote her great book on metaphysics entitled Finite and Eternal Being. This work was not published until after her death.
When Edith’s presence as a Jewish convert in the Cologne Carmel became a danger to the whole community, she was sent to Holland. But the protest of the Dutch bishops against the Nazi transports of Jews from their country in 1942 led to a round-up of every Catholic convert from Judaism, including Edith and her sister, Rosa, who had also become a Catholic. Already in 1939 Edith joyfully accepted whatever death God foreordained. She offered this as an expiation for the unbelief of the Jewish people that they might accept Christ as their own, for the salvation of Germany and world peace, and that not one of her relatives would be lost. The phrase “the unbelief of the Jewish people,” was to cause much anger among some religious Jews during the canonization process. In the context of her self-offering in expiation, this phrase would certainly not have meant that all Jews didn’t believe in God, but it was, understandably, so taken by those who do not accept Jesus as their Messiah.
It has always seemed to me a beautiful dispensation of God’s providence that this great Hebrew-Catholic philosopher who wrote so much about the feminine should have spent her last days at the concentration camp tending to the children whose mothers had been driven to such despair that they were unable to wash and feed them.
The first part of Oben’s book is about Edith Stein’s life. The second part provides excellent summaries of her philosophy of the person and of the state, a description of the issues in the beatification process, the healing miracle, and concluding reflections about Edith and the third millennium. I found Oben’s style engaging and vivid. It is accessible even to readers with a minimal knowledge of technical philosophy. Highly recommended.
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