Q – I recall reading several years ago about a survivor’s son who had engraved a tattoo on his arm to match the one borne by his father at Auschwitz. I understand that he meant it as a gesture of solidarity, but doesn’t Jewish law prohibit tattoos?
A – Your recall correctly and the concerns are justified, but not simply on halachic terms.
Yes, tattooing is explicitly banned in the Torah primarily, according to Maimonides, because it was seen as a form of idolatry. One professor suggests that non idolatrous tattooing may have been permitted and certain types of tattoos used for medical procedures today are totally OK. There is also no truth to the rumor that those with tattoos can’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries. And of course, Holocaust survivors bearing tattoos are exempt from this prohibition because the engravings were forcibly administered.
The case you speak of involves Dr. Ron Folman, whose father was initially appalled at the idea but eventually relented. Yeshiyahu Folman actually went to the tattoo studio with his son and rolled up his sleeve so that an exact duplicate could be made. The father called it “an act of solidarity,” but a painful one that would burden his son for the rest of his life. No doubt it has added to the father’s burden as well.
As if there weren’t enough to burden him. In fact, to a degree, we all carry that burden – and we should. Just not on our arms.
At a time when so few survivors remain, I can sympathize with the Folmans’ thinking. A generation from now, we’ll need all the physical reminders we can find in order to convey the message “Never forget” in as powerful a manner as possible, and no visual is as powerful as that. In a strange twist of irony, this sign (“ot” in Hebrew) parallels the phylacteries that Jews wear daily, as a symbol of the binding nature of the covenant. When you take off the tefillin, it leaves a mark, almost like a temporary tattoo. I call it “tefillin arm” and it is a physical reminder that I have communed with God that day (but don’t wrap so tightly that you cut off circulation!). Here’s a case where the Torah of Sinai and the Torah of Auschwitz come into direct conflict. One commands us to aspire to the triumph of life, the other marks humankind’s deep descent to the realm of death.
One reason to forgo tattoos is that our bodies are divine gifts, fashioned in the image of God. What right do we have to abuse that gift? Doesn’t that diminish our humanity? Since God is ever evolving, so are we (we are more human “becomings” than human beings). But a tattoo is fixed; it never changes, and that runs counter to the Jewish message of always growing and embracing change. Branding people like cattle only serves to dehumanize us, diminishing the godliness within us. By imitating despicable Nazi practices like branding arms (and for that matter, cremating bodies) aren’t we perpetuating the evil rather than remembering it?
There are better ways to perpetuate the memory of the Shoah’s victims. And those young’ns who think tattoos are sooo cool, who plan to burn a butterfly on their back or a snorting bull on their arm, might pause for a moment first and think about what’s on Yeshayahu Folman’s arm…and who put it there.