A book by Silvana Franco
Regrettably, there are parts of India, North Africa, West Asia and elsewhere, where switching from a nationally established religion to another can cost you your life. By contrast, in most of the New World and Europe, people give up one religious faith for another or for no religion at all without general uproar. We are used to such changes in personal loyalty: familial, political, in national identity or religious. We regard them as personal and a protected human right.
As one exception that proves the rule, there is nonetheless the case of Edith Stein (1891 - 1942). She was born Jewish, German-speaking and in the city of Breslau in Prussian-occupied Poland. In her teens she stopped praying and remained officially an atheist until baptized January 1, 1922 in a small Catholic church in Germany. So far nothing unusual.
Somewhat similarly, in 1942 a non-practicing French Jewish boy Jean-Marie Lustiger, future Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, was baptized. It happens. It generally pains the family "losing" the convert. But life goes on.
In the case of Cardinal Lustiger (1926 - 2007), he was baptized at age 13 in 1940. Two years later his Polish Jewish mother was deported to Auschwitz and died there a year later. For her part, Edith Stein, after early years as one of Europe's most promising young academic philosophers and ten years as a Roman Catholic laywoman championing women's rights in the professions, in Cologne in 1933 became a cloistered Carmelite nun. In 1938 she was transferred to a Carmelite convent in the Netherlands to escape Nazi persecution. Two years later Germany occupied the Kingdom of the Netherlands. And in August 1942 Edith and her older sister Rosa, along with scores of other Jews baptized as Catholics and resident in the Kingdom, were arrested, deported to Auschwitz and immediately executed by Nazis. This was in retaliation for Dutch Catholic bishops' denunciation one week earlier of German deportation of any Jews at all from the Netherlands. So far: huge tragedy, but no notable outcry.
Things changed dramatically in 1987, when a Polish one-time professor of philosophy in Cracow, Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John-Paul II, beatified Dr. Edith Stein as a Catholic martyr. And expressions of distrust by Jews in all parts of the world of Catholic intentions intensified again in 1998 when John Paul II canonized Edith Stein, under the name of Teresia Benedicta a Cruce, as a Saint and Christian martyr.
Edith Stein's story and the controversy over her canonization is told from many points of view by German Carmelite nun Waltraud Herbstrith's collection of the diverse thoughts and reminiscenses of several dozen writers, including Jews and Christians, in NEVER FORGET: CHRISTIAN AND JEWISH PERSPECTIVES ON EDITH STEIN (1990, English translation 1998).
One woman rabbi in Pennsylvania criticizes Saint Edith Stein for (so far as the records show) not having applied her towering intellect to the full intellectual riches of Judaism (e.g. Maimonides) before abandoning her family's faith for Christianity. A New York rabbi says that Stein was wrong to assert that Stein was both Jewish and Christian at the time of her execution. In Judaism, he asserted, you can be non-practicing or even an atheist and still count as a Jew, but not if you explicitly adopt another faith such as Catholicism or Islam or Bahai.
Edith Stein herself vigorously disagreed. Even her Jewish critics acknowledge that she did not discard or flee from her family's religion but was intensely proud to be of the race of Jesus. Even after her baptism, she continued to attend synagogue and pray beside her beloved mother in Breslau.
The New York rabbi spoke for many when he feared that the Vatican gave the appearance, through honoring a woman executed by Hitler as a Jew but canonized as a Christian martyr, of making Catholicism "comfortable" to any Jews who cared to convert, alluring, attractive, as if it was high time that Jews finally made amends, saw the light, and all became Christians.
NEVER FORGET: CHRISTIAN AND JEWISH PERSPECTIVES ON JEWISH STEIN probes Edith Stein's canonization and its significance for Jewish-Catholic relations. Can Stein be the bridge between her Judaism and her Christianity that she prayed to be? Is it even possible to be such a hybrid as a Jewish-Christian? If not, is there nonetheless a role that l'affaire Edith Stein can play in helping Jews and Christians understand and do justice to their perhaps irreconcilable differences as well as their admitted commonalities?
NEVER FORGET is a notably fair, even-handed, unemotional treatment of a sometimes heated topic. The large number of different perspectives weakens the book's unity. But that is a price worth paying for its objectivity and scope. -OOO-
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