You shall not make cuts in your flesh for a person [who died]. You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves. I am the Lord.
וְשֶׂרֶט לָנֶפֶשׁ לֹא תִתְּנוּ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם וּכְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע לֹא תִתְּנוּ בָּכֶם אֲנִי יְהוָֹה:
And it’s a discussion I often have with teens, especially in light of the growing popularity of body art. A survey released one year ago indicated that 40% of Americans said that someone in their household has a tattoo, doubling the result of a similar survey in 1999.
A good, quick response can be found on Hillel’s website. Essentially there are three reasons that have been posited through the centuries: 1) that tattooing was originally a form of pagan worship; 2) that the human body is a holy vessel, a creation “in God’s image,” and who are we to desecrate a gift from God? The mutilation of the body isn’t entirely prohibited, though. Earrings are permitted, for instance, and anything that enhances or saves life, such as autopsies, organ donation and, yes, even some plastic surgery. If the Elephant Man came into my office and said he wanted “a different look,” I don’t think I’d chase him out as a vain narcissist. While he could have technically lived without it, his self image may be so low that in fact, such surgical enhancement could in fact keep him from taking his own life.
I must add, however, that the worship of the body should have its limits - and if such physical enhancement also causes a serious risk to health (e.g. tanning salons or breast implants), we’ve got to wonder if it isn’t just another form of pagan worship. Some have made the claim that circumcision is mutilation, but the prevailing Jewish view is that it is a finishing touch to the miracle of birth, symbolizing a partnership between parents and God. And in fact, in Greek times it was the painful operation to reverse circumcision that was considered the most reprehensible form of body mutilation, since it was done in order to assimilate into Hellenistic society, which was so focused on the exposed - and exalted - human body.
So it’s a complex subject, but the third rationale, he most recent. is the most relevant here. One reason I advise teens to avoid the temptation of tattooing is precisely because the Nazis did it to us. (It’s similar to the argument that I make against cremation). The Nazis did it to dehumanize human beings, to brand them as they would brand cattle, to take away their individuality and freedom of choice. Some claim that in the current context, tattoos are freely chosen and are a means of expressing that very freedom and individuality. But the very indelibility of a tattoo demonstrates the opposite. If it cannot be reversed, we forfeit the choice to not have it! And if the only permanent choice we should be making is to devote our lives to God, rather than a lesser object of devotion (read: idolatry), then that explains why circumcision can be the only indelible bodily change that is granted blanket approval.
But what of this survivor’s son, who wishes only to preserve the memory of the evil - itself a mitzvah (“zachor”) - rather than to perpetuate that evil form of dehumanization. Is this a fitting tribute to a generation that will soon be gone? Or is it a clumsy distortion, a visual aid that may succeed in shocking people but can’t come close to duplicating the real thing?
I tend to think the latter. There are many avenues of remembrance out there. Why choose to imitate the evil rather than stamp it out? The son’s desire is well intentioned, but if it didn’t even bring comfort to the father (who lived his whole life hoping his children would never have to live in such shame), how is this act not more than an example of the very self flagellation and mutilation that the Torah prohibits.
The Torah implores us to choose life. When we leave a cemetery, we wash our hands. Why, as we leave the smokestacks of Auschwitz behind us, should mark our hands so that the stain will never come out? Auschwitz will never fade from history. It is seared into our consciousness. The pain will never completely go away. But that doesn’t mean that we have to wear it on - or inside - our sleeves.