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Lauren F. Winner


The Problem of Edith Stein

German Jew, Catholic nun, Holocaust victim, saint.

This is the fourth installment in a five-part series.

Part 1 [November/December 2000], "Living by Law, Looking for Intimacy," explored what Christians can learn from the debates that divide American Jews, taking as a point of departure Samuel G. Freedman's book, Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.

Part 2 [January/February 2001], "God of Abraham—and Saint Paul," focused on the pathbreaking "Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity" published last fall in the New York Times and the book of essays it occasioned, Christianity in Jewish Terms, edited by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer.

Part 3 considered medieval anti-Semitism and the Eucharist (via Miri Rubin's Gentile Tales).

Next, part 5 will conclude the series with Messianic Judiaism.

Reconsiderations of early-twentieth-century German Jewry are now fashionable. German Jews of this period were once portrayed by scholars as naive and overly optimistic. After the Enlightenment, so the story went, Jews threw off Judaism and embraced secular German culture with fervor. They thought that they could somehow become truly German, but the Holocaust proved them wrong. The secular, enlightened, philosophically minded Jews were marched to Dachau alongside the old-fashioned rabbis, with their beards and sidelocks and Yiddish.

The truth, historians now tell us, is far more complicated than that. In his eloquent book German Jews: A Dual Identity, Paul Mendes-Flohr makes the case, as the title of his first chapter suggests, that the German Jew had a "bifurcated soul." Yes, German Jews embraced German learning and culture, but they married it together, albeit uneasily, with Judaism. They didn't trade one for the other; they tried to have both. And at least one prominent German Jew of the period had what might be called a trifurcated soul, were there such a term. Edith Stein was a Jew, she was a leading philosopher of her day, and she became ...

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