In his book The Jewish Emergence from Powerlessness, Yehuda Bauer tells a moving story from Auschwitz that he was told by Holocaust survivor Yossel Rosensaft.

According to Rosensaft in December 1944 he and a group of Jewish Auschwitz inmates calculated when Hanukka would occur that year. Then they went outside of their cell block and found a piece of wood lying in the snow. With their spoons, they gouged eight holes in the wood and stuffed rolled up pieces of cardboard in them. Then they lit their makeshift cardboard “candles” and sang the Hanukka song, “Ma Oz Tsur Yeshuati”.

Having recounted this story, Bauer states,

None of the people who did this were religious.

And yet he goes on to say that, by their action,

on the threshold of death, and in the hell of Auschwitz, they demonstrated. They asserted several principles: that contrary to Nazi lore, they were human; that Jewish tradition, history, and values had a meaning for them in the face of Auschwitz; and that they wanted to assert their humanity in a Jewish way.

The version of the “Ma Oz Tsur Yeshati” they would have sung is the German version by Leopold Stein (1810–1882), based on a non-literal translation by Talmudic linguists Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil.

Imagine a beleagured little group of Jewish inmates huddled around their primitively manufactured menorah, in the midst of the utter hopelessness and desperation of a concentration camp, singing

Rock of Ages, let our song, praise Thy saving power;
Thou, amidst the raging foes, wast our sheltering tower.
Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us,
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.

Kindling new the holy lamps, priests, approved in suffering,
Purified the nation’s shrine, brought to God their offering.
And His courts surrounding, hear, in joy abounding,
Happy throngs, singing songs with a mighty sounding.
Happy throngs, singing songs with a mighty sounding.

Children of the martyred race, whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering that the time is nearing
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.

It is hard to imagine what Yehuda Bauer meant when he asserted that this little group of Jews in Auschwitz united in tragedy and joining their voices in song were not “religious”. If asserting the depths and richness of humanity in the face of the utter depravity of Auschwitz is not religious, it is hard to imagine what “religious” might mean. If affirming faith in the indestructible nature of life in the face of horrific forces intent on creating death, is not “religious”, the word has little meaning.

We are being profoundly “religious”, not only or even necessarily primarily, when we go to church. To be religious is to reach into the depths of our humanity and affirm that, human beings cannot be bound. Human freedom cannot be destroyed no matter how powerful the tyranny that works for its destruction. Religion is the act of affirming that, no matter how devastating the suffering humans may inflict upon one another, there is always a transcendent “saving power” to which we can appeal and in whom we will find strength to endure.

Whatever their formal institutional religious affiliations may or may not have been, Rosensaft’s little group of Jews in Auschwitz engaged in a profoundly religious act. Whatever their personal beliefs, by sharing in their improvised Hanukka celebration, they offered a powerful testimony to faith and made a deep gesture of opposition to the “raging foes” that sought their destruction. This sounds “religious” to me.