Jews and Tattoos
Not long ago I received a call from a grieving widow. Her beloved husband of 71 years had passed away. “Jake wasn’t all that religious,” his wife Arlene explained, “but I do know that he wanted a Jewish funeral in a Jewish cemetery. I was making arrangements when my brother-in-law phoned to tell me that Jake’s Jewish funeral was impossible.” Arlene was shocked. Then Jake’s brother explained. He said “Jake can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery because when Jake was in the Navy he got a tattoo.”
These days, tattoos are all the rage. Among the general public there are those who view the tattoo as an artistic or even a spiritual expression, yet others are opposed to any activity that permanently marks the body. For us Jews however, the tattoo issue has deeply historical an emotional significance.
Turning to the Torah in VaYikra (Leviticus) we find a specific prohibition regarding tattoos: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28). Even Maimonides, one of greatest commentators, had a tattoo opinion. He concluded that regardless of intent, the act of tattooing is prohibited (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11). Then there’s Professor Aaron Demsky of Bar-Ilan University who sites text from Isaiah and Job that suggests that tattooing was acceptable in biblical times.
A modern perspective comes from a tattooed rabbi himself. Rabbi Marshal Klaven of Congregation B’nai Israel in Texas got his first tattoo at 16 years of age and now boasts four more, each depicting a Jewish theme. Rabbi Klaven even wrote his rabbinic thesis on tattooing in Jewish history. “In the Torah, tattoos marking affiliation to the people of Israel and/or the God of Israel were accepted, if not encouraged, more times than not,” says Rabbi Klaven who adds, “In the classic rabbinic period, what bothered the rabbis was not the presence or the content of that mark, but its intended purpose. While a minority of sages believed that willfully receiving or giving a tattoo was a transgression, the majority objected only when the tattoo served an idolatrous purpose.”(Carol Kemp, “Rethink the Ink,” Jewish News Online UK 2017))
Regardless of the historical argument, the emotional impact of tattooing is not lost on Holocaust survivors, their children and even their grandchildren. Historians tell us that during the Holocaust, (1941—42) concentration camp prisoners received tattoos only at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, that included Auschwitz I (Main Camp), Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz and the subcamps). The procedure was brutal and dehumanizing. Eye witness accounts from survivors testify to a procedure that featured “a special metal stamp, holding interchangeable numbers made up of needles … which allowed the whole serial number to be punched at one blow onto the prisoner’s left upper chest. Ink was then rubbed into the bleeding wound. Later on a single-needle device was introduced, which pierced the outlines of the serial-number digits onto the skin.”(Tattoos and Numbers, US Holocaust Museum)
There is no record of a tattooed Holocaust survivor having been denied burial in a Jewish cemetery. In fact many modern rabbis including eight scholars polled for an article on the topic say that the burial prohibition for a tattooed Jew is an urban legend most likely started because a specific cemetery had a policy against tattoos. Even Chabad spokesperson, Chani Benjaminson states “The Torah forbids us from tattooing our bodies. Nonetheless, one who has had tattoos can still be buried in a Jewish cemetery,” So where did the prohibition come from? It’s likely that Jewish parents and grandparents, many of whom found tattoos distasteful, passed off the myth as Jewish law.
Indeed, Jake’s widow, the “Arlene” in our story, had no need to worry. Jake’s Navy tattoo would not prohibit a Jewish burial. That being said, our Holocaust history paints a horrifying picture of tattooing juxtaposed with the cultural phenomenon that nearly 40 percent of our adult children and 36 percent of our teenage grandchildren have at least one tattoo. What does this mean for us Jews? Beyond debunking the cemetery myth, a discussion of Jews and tattoos seems to be one that is quite timely, culturally appropriate, and indeed worth having. (NOTE: To learn more about denominational perspectives regarding Jews and tattoos see: http://www.momentmag.com/are-tattoos-and-body-piercings-taboo/
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