In the opening paragraph of Beyond the Walls, Joseph Palmisano, S.J., advances a startling claim: Edith Stein’s forced removal from her Carmelite monastery in 1942 and her subsequent murder at Auschwitz stand before us as “a ‘prophetic sign of our times’” and a model for “interreligious dialogue.” He sees in Stein a courageous “movement from the familiar to the foreign” as she “goes to Auschwitz with her Jewish people.” In subsequent pages, Palmisano describes Stein’s life and death as a “kenotic self emptying,” a communion with others—especially with the “six million holy witnesses” (victims) of the Shoah.
By Chapter 7, the reader is relieved to hear Palmisano take up some of the serious controversies that come with presenting Stein as a model of Christian sanctity. Since 1983, when the cause for Stein’s canonization was promoted, many Jews and some Catholics have raised questions: Why would Catholics see her as a Christian martyr when she solely died like so many millions of others—because of her Jewish blood? Why would her story be held up as a model of interreligious dialogue, rather than a horrendous tragedy? Seeing how Palmisano still reads Stein—her life and ghastly death—in terms of Christological kenosis, courage and Jewish-Christian relations is one important impetus for reading Beyond the Walls.
At the center of Palmisano’s deeply affecting portrait of Stein as a model of sanctity is Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “interreligiously attuned philosophy of empathy.” Astutely, Palmisano perceives fundamental similarities between Heschel and Stein. Outside of Catholic circles, Stein is mainly known as a philosopher of empathy. Indeed, Palmisano is at his best in showing Stein and Heschel as a part of a shared intellectual culture in mid 20th-century Europe that pushed against the prevailing idealisms of their time in an effort to turn instead toward the givenness of the world, its grit and reality.
These intellectuals accused older systems of thought of evading “the real,” especially concrete persons in their otherness and need. They forged a powerful language to describe what others occluded. In Palmisano’s best pages, you can hear Heschel, for example, straining to articulate the evils of the 20th century as thoroughly and spectacularly as possible. Heschel’s sense of 1938 is when “Fellowmen turned out to be evil ghosts, monstrous and weird,” and one of Heschel’s parables of the modern world is about a group of climbers in the forest suddenly “set upon by a swarm of angry snakes. Every crevice became alive with fanged, hissing things. For each snake the desperate men slew, ten more seemed to lash out in its place.” For Heschel, empathy in reality had the power to subdue the snake pit.
Palmisano’s portrait of Stein comes alive as an equally vivid witness to empathy when he describes her continued allegiance to Judaism after her 1922 conversion to Christianity, and especially her empathy with Jewish suffering and her early critique of Christian anti-Semitism. He reproduces Stein’s powerful letter of 1933 to Pope Pius XI, a prescient document. Responsibility for the escalating violence against Jews in Germany, Stein tells the pope, “also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings.... For weeks not only Jews but also thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany and, I believe, all over the world, have been waiting and hoping for the Church of Christ to raise its voice to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name.” Stein also describes herself in this letter as a “child of the Jewish people” and also “by the grace of God...a child of the Catholic Church.” Much like Stein’s fellow convert and acquaintance Raïssa Maritain, Stein took up writing on Judaism after her conversion to Christianity, penning a deeply humane portrait of Jewish household piety in her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family.
Palmisano laces his narrative with detailed elements like these from Heschel’s and Stein’s lives and writings, and they make the book compelling. But elsewhere he falls victim to the temptation to offer a too quick theological reading of Stein as an overwhelmingly positive model for the contemporary present. The redemption in some places seems too quickly won. A few important difficulties are glossed over. While Stein’s own writings on empathy are moving and her critique of anti-Semitism laudatory, it is less clear how the “death of Stein (ital orig.), vis-à-vis her receptivity for the suffering of her people, is a lesson in kenotic witnessing for the entire Christian church,” as Palmisano writes.
German officers came to Holland in 1942 explicitly looking for all converted Jews, knocked at the door of the monastery for Stein and arrested her and her sister Rosa. A week later, they were sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Palmisano’s interpretation of her death as a free act of self-donation, an expression of solidarity and love, is more asserted than argued. He beautifully depicts Stein’s grace and calm in the midst of violence and highlights the fact that she never fled, but it is not clear that she could have. Likewise, by seeing her as a “model for interreligious dialogue” that “bridges sameness and otherness,” we hear too little reflection on why for Stein (and countless other converts like her) this dual allegiance to both Christianity and Judaism required conversion. Well-known facts, like Stein’s final written will and testament, in which she asked God to accept her life “for the atonement of the unbelief of the Jewish people,” never emerge.
Details like these render Stein a more complicated model for interreligious dialogue today. But they are precisely the details that offer a fascinating window into the complex, extraordinarily rich self-understanding of Jewish-Catholic converts in mid 20th-century Europe. There were many like Stein—French, German and émigré Jews—for whom solid religious (and national) identity was less than stable. This is not to make Stein and those like her less worthy of study—far from it. But we must do so from their own multivalent and often changing perspectives. Much in the book does this beautifully. But Beyond the Wall’s assertion that they speak to us straightforwardly as models for emulation today can evade the chasm that exists between their world—a world full of personal losses and the horrendous cataclysms that caused them—and our own.