Jews, Tattoos & Holocaust Taboos: Some Possible Implications

Posted on: October 10th, 2012 by Hayim Herring
Jews, Tattoos & Holocaust Taboos: Some Possible Implications

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My daughter and I were discussing a story that recently appeared in the New York Times about younger Jews inventing new ways to remember the Holocaust and communicate its history to people who either don’t know it or want to forget it. Some have decided to have their forearms tattooed with the same number of surviving older family members. They’ve done so in the spirit of zakhor-remembering Nazi genocide and making sure that horrific atrocities are not perpetrated again. (No comment now about democratic nations standing idly by the blood of Syrians being massacred.) This imperative is even more essential as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles while the prominence of Holocaust deniers increases.

I’m going to leave the Jewish legal issues aside on the question of permanent tattooing. If you want to learn more about them, just search online for “Jews, tattoos, rabbis and Jewish law” and you’ll see the opinions. The bottom line: the weight of Jewish legal precedent is against permanent tattooing and has generally viewed tattoos as desecration of the body and not “body art.” Note-there is a minority view, never adopted, that prohibits only those tattoos used for idol worship, a view that some rabbis are now re-examining to reconsider their stance against this practice.

My daughter’s thoughts moved my needle from “opposed” to “uncertain” about how I feel about Jews taking tattoos with the numbers of Jewish Holocaust victims. I do think this phenomenon should awaken us to the feelings about tattooing that younger generations have and their admirable response to taking up the challenge of remembering the Holocaust in their way, in an age when there will soon no longer be living survivors. But I also think that we need to think further into the future about possible implications. For example:

  • How would we feel if a celebrity, like Madonna, who already has a Hebrew tattoo, decided to tattoo a number of a Jew murdered in the Holocaust?
  • Should the feelings of remaining Holocaust survivors who are offended by this action be taken into account?
  • What if other peoples who experienced genocide, like Rwandans, wanted to adapt the idea and put tattoos on their arms to memorialize the numbers of their victims?
  • The Mormon Church has a notorious history of converting Jewish victims of the Holocaust posthumously. What if some Mormons decide to adopt the practice of tattooing victims’ numbers on their forearms? Would that affect our thinking about doing so?
  • Are there other ways to act within the spirit of this younger generation, and remember the victims by creating home wall plaques or obtaining drivers license plates with victims’ numbers?
  • Should every Jewish institution purchase an electronic sign with names and numbers of victims continuously scrolling?

What’s your thinking on this issue? Please respond- remembering Holocaust genocide in a post-survivor era, when governments still brutalize populations, is a pressing matter.

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