Jews and Tattoos: ‘Rooted in Conflict’

Stefany Truesdell


When asked whether bodily modifications like tattoos are acceptable, many modern Jewish people will answer that these practices have been prohibited by Jewish law for centuries. The ban has had weightier implications ever since the Holocaust, when the Nazis tattooed identification numbers on the Jews enslaved at Auschwitz. Still, even in the face of an entrenched and deeply felt prohibition, the tattoo has emerged in recent years as a potent tool for some younger Jews to connect to their past and to express their identities.

Why did this stricture arise in the first place? Discussing Jews and tattoos requires a closer look at Leviticus 19:28, the text which forbids the act of tattooing: "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the LORD."1 The American Hebrew Bible scholar and rabbi Jacob Milgrom explains that non-Jews at the time, such as Babylonians, Egyptians, and pre-Islamic women, used tattoos in various ways.2 In the twelfth century, Maimonides explained that Leviticus prohibits the imprinting of any mark on the body because this was the custom of idolaters.3 Essentially, it seems, the verse exhorts Jews to set themselves apart from other peoples who did practice body modification However, this does not preclude the possibility that the Israelites were tattooing themselves prior to the law. The ban on bodily modification could have been an essential part of the formation of a culturally and religiously distinct group.

After centuries and centuries of this prohibition on tattooing, the Nazis forcibly tattooed the Jews held at Auschwitz. The Nazi regime used tattooing (primarily at the Auschwitz camp complex) because the previous method of assigning numbers and stitching them onto clothing that was later recycled upon the prisoners' deaths left the Nazis with no way to identify dead bodies. The Nazis, in their typical horrific, methodical fashion, created a complex system of numbering to streamline their records. It is estimated that "more than 400,000 prisoner serial numbers" were assigned and tattooed. The numbers were meant to demonstrate to the recipients that they were nothing more than numbers and were subject to a bureaucratic system that attempted to control every aspect of their lives.4

This deplorable history has led many to question whether it is morally or ethically acceptable for modern Jews to choose to tattoo themselves. In addition to the Levitical law, the tattoo has come to stand for this deeply painful past. This resistance to tattoos is linked to a cultural memory of forced conversion. The Nazis forced the Jews they tattooed to join the ranks of the "others" from whom Levitical law had set them apart. The Nazis at Auschwitz also caused their prisoners to become other from observant Jews without tattoos, other from Holocaust survivors not imprisoned at Auschwitz, and other from those who tattoo themselves by choice.

Today, websites such as Chabad.org and Aish.com see questions like the following on their Ask the Rabbi columns: "I have a tattoo on my left arm from the German Auschwitz camp. Since the Torah prohibits tattoos, should I get it removed?"5 This question shows how ingrained the prohibition can be; the tattoo in question was forcibly inscribed for the most deplorable reasons imaginable, yet its bearer is concerned over halakhic violation. The Aish rabbi replies: "Actually, in your case, the tattoo is not a Torah prohibition, since it was done under coercion. On the contrary, your tattoo is a symbol of your bravery and courage to remain Jewish, despite the evils you had to endure."

In an interesting turn, a small but growing number of Jews have begun to tattoo themselves with the Auschwitz numbers of relatives so that the world will remember the atrocities done to their loved ones. A recent New York Times article, "Proudly Bearing Elders' Scars, Their Skin Says 'Never Forget,' " tells the story of a young woman named Eli Sagir who, after a trip to concentration camps in Poland with her high school, decided to get a tattoo of her grandfather's Auschwitz number; her mother and brother followed suit. As the article explains, though they know it is seen as provocative, Sagir and her family consider it an act of solidarity with their loved ones, a way to "be intimately, eternally bonded to their survivor-relative."6 This phenomenon has disturbed observant Jews and others, many of whom do not understand or agree with this type of memorialization, regardless of its intentions. As the Times article states:

It is certainly an intensely personal decision that often provokes ugly interactions with strangers offended by the reappropriation of perhaps the most profound symbol of the Holocaust's dehumanization of its victims. The fact that tattooing is prohibited by Jewish law—some survivors long feared, incorrectly, that their numbers would bar them from being buried in Jewish cemeteries—makes the phenomenon more unsettling to some, which may be part of the point.7

I think the key word here is "reappropriation." Because Holocaust survivors are elderly and now dying, the descendants who memorialize them do so because they want to make sure that the world never forgets the suffering their family endured (one survivor's grandson told the Times reporter that his tattoo is "like an inheritance"). By forcing people to look at the numbers on the bodies of younger Jews, those who choose to be inscribed with the new tattoos believe they are creating a dialogue of inquiry.

In his essay "Kosher Ink: The Emerging World of Tattooed Jews," Andy Abrams points out that the Holocaust informed the cultural bias against tattoos in the Jewish community, stating, "the survivors have told the tales . . . [of] tattoo needles buzz[ing] as they were robbed of their individuality, marked with numbers as if they were cattle being branded. They were tattooed with those numbers as a way of dehumanizing them." He also writes that many older Jews whose children tattoo themselves with Jewish symbols worry that their children are putting themselves "at risk by having tattoos that call attention to their Jewish identity."8 All of these factors have led to "a rift about tattoos" in the Jewish community "that is deeper and more dramatic than on any other issue," according to Abrams.

Though no one should have to fear that their body art could make them an easier target for hate and terror, given the history of the Holocaust, this is a very real fear, perhaps more so for the older generations, though some younger Jews also point to evidence of growing anti-Semitism around the globe. Abrams writes that concerns about safety and discrimination "should not be taken lightly," but he explains that the people he has interviewed see the tattooing of Jewish symbols and remembrances as an act of standing up for themselves and their community; it is a way for them "to wear their Jewishness proudly on their skin" (95). But Jews who voluntarily decide to get tattoos find they are engaging in an act that, as Abrams puts it, is "rooted in conflict" (93). Though many Jewish people choose tattoos "as a new form of ritual identification, a new way to embrace and cement their identity and spirituality" (97), they find that they have marked themselves as other not only within the community at large but also within the Jewish community.

Marina "Spike" Vainshtein is a young Jew who has covered her body with tattoos as a form of inked memorialization. Abrams's article discusses her tattoos in textual detail, quoting Vainshtein as saying, "[my art] is a way to reclaim something. . . . It is a political act and it is a bold statement to have these tattoos. I want people to remember what happened there. . . . I've made my skin a canvas dedicated to remembering the Holocaust" (96). Her intricate and complex tattoos are, as Abrams states, "not for the faint of heart"; they include "a skeletal angel sitting on a coffin weeping, a train driving to Auschwitz, the open doors to an oven like the ones the Nazis used . . . , a field of gravestones, and a scene of a death camp being liberated" (96). The first-time viewer of Vainshtein's tattoos is likely to miss some of the more subtle elements, but she believes she is opening dialogues by looking so drastically different from everyone else around her.9

Those who engage in tattooing point out that the history of the Jewish people has included prohibitions on many practices that are no longer forbidden or denied to modern Jews; the historical prohibition against permanent alteration of the skin should also be part of this critical reevaluation of Jewish law. Of course, Orthodox Jews still follow the strictest interpretations of halakhah, but Reform Jews no longer follow many of those laws. Moreover, since tattoos are used by members of many of the world's religious communities, the presence or absence of tattoos can no longer reliably be used to identify one's religion. For these reasons, Abrams hopes that the law might "be interpreted to allow tattoos within certain limits." He notes: "The prohibition is open to interpretation, and Judaism is not a stagnant thing. We change and evolve with the times."10

In the religiously pluralistic United States, many people choose to express their religious, cultural, and ethnic identities through tattoos. It is understandable, then, that some Jewish people would want to proudly wear their own statements of identity without having to worry that this will be threatening to others either outside or inside their faith community.

But, the question remains: what is the reason for retaining the ban on tattoos today? From my own research and conversations on this issue, I think the ban's staying power derives mainly from the Holocaust. The issue is not simply that inmates at Auschwitz were forcibly tattooed and that to recreate those tattoos would be to recreate past violence. It is also that ethnically driven modern tattoos mark the bearer as "Jew" in a way that is too reminiscent of the way Jews could be identified as Jews in the past, and of the repressive actions to which those identifications could lead. As Abrams states in his piece, "Tattoos demonstrate an identity that is permanently etched in ink" (97).

Once tattooed, the bearer of ink enters a new, imagined community: a tattooed community. In the current reality, a tattooed Jew is triply other, in that he or she is other as a Jew in non-Jewish communities, is other as a tattooed Jew within his or her own community, and is other as a Jew in tattooed communities. As I have listened to the experiences of tattooed Jews, it is clear that some feel they have entered into a state of liminality because they can never again belong to only one group; rather, they will always exist on the fringes of communities that will not wholly accept them.

In my view, Vainshtein has a valid point about displaying her identity in this particular way. For her, "the most important principle of Jewish faith is . . . the concept of the mitzvah." Mitzvoth are generally understood as "good deeds," but they are also fulfilled by "performing an act which fulfills a commandment or precept" as explained in the Torah. Because tattoos are "irreversible and public commitment[s]" to having a Jewish identity, such tattoos "ironically constitute the performance of a mitzvah, because, according to the Torah, it is a mitzvah to be seen in the world as a Jew."11 Is not the etching of a symbol of one's people on one's body for all to admire an act of mitzvah? For some American Jews, tattoos can be a way to transform the emotional and physical scars of the past into something positive, while proclaiming a Jewish identity for all to see.

Notes

  1. Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus (Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 133.
  2. Ibid., 168.
  3. Maimonides, The Commandments: Sefer Ha-Mitzvoth of Maimonides, trans. Charles B. Chavel (Soncino Press, 1967), 39–40.
  4. "Tattoos and Numbers: The System of Identifying Prisoners at Auschwitz," Holocaust Encyclopedia (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC), www.ushmm.org/learn/holocaust-encyclopedia.
  5. "Tattoo – Holocaust," Ask the Rabbi, www.aish.com/atr/Tattoo_-_Holocaust.html.
  6. Jodi Rudoren, "Proudly Bearing Elders' Scars, Their Skin Says 'Never Forget,' " The New York Times, September 30, 2012. Rudoren notes that the number of Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem has dropped to 200,000 from 400,000 a decade ago; this generation is passing away, marking a transition "from lived memory to historical memory"—quoting Michael Berenbaum, who goes on to say that memorialization tattoos are "sort of a brazen, in-your-face way of bridging" this transition.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Andy Abrams, "Kosher Ink: The Emerging World of Tattooed Jews," in Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: Body, ed. Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman (Jewish Publication Society, 2008), 95, 93.
  9. In addition to her tattoos, Marina typically shaves her head or has a mohawk and dresses in the punk style.
  10. Abrams, "Kosher Ink," 94. Abrams suggests that "negative tattoos such as those that depict violence or nudity" should not be allowed, and says, "I think it is also reasonable to ban tattoos of God's name" (94).
  11. Dora Apel, Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing (Rutgers University Press, 2002), 175.

Stefany Truesdell is currently a master's candidate at Brandeis University, researching modern anti-Semitism. She plans to pursue a doctoral degree, also in modern Jewish studies, focusing her studies on the Holocaust as well as on current anti-Semitism. This essay was adapted from a talk she delivered at Harvard Divinity School on October 24, 2014, as part of "Ways of Knowing: The Third Annual Graduate Conference on Religion."

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