Monday, September 18, 2017

More Views on Tattoos

Last year I published a blog post here entitled "No Tattoos for Jews."

Since that time, I received lots of feedback. For sake of clarity, I'd like to follow up:

My article addressed the question of someone who was considering whether to get tattooed, so I responded with a resounding NO.

However, I did not intend to state that it is forbidden for a Jew to KEEP a tattoo once it has already been inscribed. There is no such prohibition. In other words, the Torah does not obligate a tattooed person to remove his or her tattoos, even in modern times when tattoo-removal is indeed possible. That's why survivors of German concentration camps in WWII are not required to remove the numbers that the Nazis tattooed onto their arms.

Several years ago, a dear friend of mine from Massachusetts, who returned to Jewish observance in his adulthood after a somewhat tumultuous youth, once attended a synagogue in New York City. It was a large synagogue with people of strictly observant backgrounds. My friend rolled up his sleeve to don tefillin. Several young yeshiva students couldn't help but notice the prominent tattoo on his shoulder, and stared at it conspicuously.

Needless to say, my friend felt ashamed and related the incident to me later. I shared the story I had once read in a book by Hanoch Teller. A returnee to Judaism was standing in the vestibule to a men's mikva and his tattoo was exposed. Onlookers stared at him silently. An older man, a Holocaust survivor, broke the silence and showed the numbers on his forearm. "See?" he said, "I also have a tattoo."

The story is telling indeed. Just as the survivor's tattoo was a testimony to his survival of a physical Holocaust, and the baal teshuva's tattoo is a testimony to his survival of a spiritual Holocaust of sorts. It serves as a constant reminder of how distant he had been from Torah observance, and how far he's come in his return.

The fact that others might view it with disdain or contempt is irrelevant to halacha. To the contrary, it ought to encourage the baal teshuva and embolden his resolve. It indicates that his return to Torah isn't because he seeks to conform or belong, but because it is the objective truth. Even if he will stick out like a sore thumb among other Jews of lifelong observance, that does not deter his conviction. That is something for which to be proud, and it's not to say that one is necessarily proud of his tattoo. Instead, he acknowledges that the tattoo is an undesirable consequence of his distance from Torah observance in the past, yet rejoices that it has absolutely no bearing on the present. His return to G-d is complete, irrespective of the scars that remain. A Jew's bond with G-d is quintessential, inherent and unalterable. Marks or blemishes on the outer shell that is the body are merely temporary, just as the body itself is temporary.

It's wrong and foolhardy to judge someone because of his or her tattoos, just as we do not blame Holocaust survivors for their numbers. Just as the survivor's tattoo was involuntary, so too a Jew who tattooed himself or herself due to lack of education, societal pressures, or just because of the yetzer hara (evil inclination), all that is considered involuntary, against the true wishes of one's Divine soul. 

Someone recently asked me, "What can I do to atone for the transgression of having gotten a tattoo? If there is no obligation to remove it, how else can I achieve a tikkun*?"

I recommended:
  1. Reach out to fellow Jews and encourage them to increase in Torah observance, especially mitzvot that pertain to the Jewish body, like the mitzva to not get tattoos, and the mitzva of brit milah, the indelible mark that truly reflects a Jew's bond and covenant with G-d.
  2. Tattoo is called "כתובת קעקע" in the Torah, literally "sunken writing." Since one erred with a prohibited form of writing (i.e. sunken in one's flesh), perhaps the tikkun is to add special emphasis in observance of positive mitzvot that pertain to the correct type of writing. For starters, there is a commandment for each Jew to write one's own Torah scroll. This is fulfilled nowadays by purchasing your own letter in a communal Torah scroll. Another important commandment that relates to writing is mezuza. The Torah states: "וכתבתם על מזוזות ביתך ובשעריך" -- "You shall write (these words) on the doorposts of your home and on your gates." For Jewish males, there is a daily mitzva to don tefillin, which contain parchments that are carefully handwritten by a qualified scribe. Lastly, one can purchase Torah books for one's home. In addition to increasing in all these mitzvot yourself, you can also encourage and assist others to do so.
  3. Maimonides (Laws of Idol Worship, 12:11) writes that the reason for the prohibition against tattoos is related to the Torah's prohibition against idol worship. In ancient times, it was customary for idol-worshipers to tattoo themselves as a sign of commitment to their deity or object of worship, much like an animal that is branded by its owner. The Torah forbids practices that emulate pagan customs like this one, since pagan rites such as these is a first step towards subscribing to their idolatrous belief and worship. So perhaps a fitting tikkun would be the reverse, to distance oneself from the slightest notion of polytheism. This is accomplished by studying chassidut in great depth, particularly the sections that deal with belief in the Oneness of G-d. "The Gate of Unity and Faith" by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, (שער היחוד והאמונה), which is the second section of the Tanya, is a great place to start.
The above relates to tattoos in general. However, if the tattoo depicts an image of something explicitly idolatrous, immoral or licentious, then a competent rabbi should be consulted as to whether there is an obligation to get it removed or keep it covered.

Also, it should be added that modesty is a virtue, and the less skin we flaunt to others the better. So while one may not be required by Torah law to remove a tattoo on one's shoulder, let's say, there's no mitzva to expose one's shoulders in public either. To the contrary, modest attire is always praiseworthy and appropriate when in public. But that's a topic for another time...

Wishing you a sweet new year!

(Click here for my original blog post, "No Tattoos for Jews.")

* tikkun, תיקון in Hebrew, means a rectification or expiation.