CULTURE WATCH: A Worthy Tattoo










By Wendell Cantrell

One cannot be an observer of contemporary culture without noticing that tattoos are trendy these days. From teenagers to housewives, they are everywhere and on every appendage, even among Christians. Everyone reading this has likely discussed it in your very own family. In this issue, we will look at a current trend that would more nearly fit the title of “A Worthy Tattoo” than anything I have seen. Next we will look at how tattooing fits within the religion where it is being practiced. Finally, we’ll briefly discuss both sides of the evangelical stance on tattooing.

I was recently intrigued by an article in the New York Times called “Proudly Bearing Elders’ Scars” that related to younger members of Jewish families wishing to graphically remember the suffering of their elders, whose numbers are rapidly diminishing.1 Jodi Rudorin writes:

Mr. Diamant had the number 157622 permanently inked on his own arm by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Nearly 70 years later, Ms. Eli Sagir got her number at a hip tattoo parlor downtown after a high school trip to Poland. The next week, her mother and brother also had the six digits inscribed onto their forearms. Ms. Sagir, 21, shares her reasoning: “All my generation knows nothing about the Holocaust. You talk with people and they think it’s like the Exodus from Egypt, ancient history. I decided to do it to remind my generation. I want to tell them my grandfather’s story and the Holocaust story.”

Rite-of-passage trips to the death camps, like the one Ms. Sagir took, are now standard for high school students. “We are moving from lived memory to historical memory,” noted Michael Berenbaum, a professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles who is among the foremost Holocaust scholars. “We’re at that transition, and this is sort of a brazen, in-your-face way of bridging it.”

Tattooing was introduced at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1941, and at the adjacent Birkenau the next March. They were the only camps to employ the practice, and it is unclear how many people were branded, briefly on the chest and more commonly on the left forearm.

The tattooed descendants interviewed for this article echoed a common motivation; they wanted to be intimately, eternally bonded to their survivor-relative. And they wanted to live the mantra “Never forget” with something that would constantly provoke questions and conversation.

For these descendants, it is certainly an intensely personal decision that can provoke ugly interactions with strangers offended by this graphic reminder of the profound symbol of the Holocaust’s dehumanization of its victims. Jewish law prohibits tattooing, and many survivors incorrectly feared that their number tattoo would bar them from being buried in Jewish cemeteries.

So you may be wondering where the Jews got the law prohibiting the tattoo. If you guessed the Old Testament, you are correct. Before looking at some scripture, we should note that contemporary Jewish literature makes it clear that only voluntary, permanent tattooing is forbidden. The victims of the reprehensible practice of the Nazis, who marked the arms of Jews with tattooed numbers, are blameless. The scripture most commonly used in forbidding the practice is, “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:28). One additional point raised by Conservative Jews is that tattoos are often desired by young people whose parents object, making it a possible violation of the precept to honor one’s parents.

It is great to reflect on our forefathers, but by now you are wondering about the Christian and his or her tattoo.  In the Old Testament, tattooing is mentioned in the context of ancient pagan practices. Does this mean that tattooing is bad thing to do just because pagans did it? This reasoning could fall under the logical error known as the genetic fallacy. This error says that something is false because of its origin. To stick with our holocaust context, is the Volkswagen Beetle a bad car since it was developed during the Nazi regime? Therefore, just because unbelievers get tattoos, does not mean Christians should not.

The Old Testament laws dealing with morality are clearly reiterated in the New Testament and are to be upheld. We also see no New Testament commands related to the keeping of the sacrificial system, work on the Sabbath, forbidding the shaving of beards, or forbidding tattoos. We have died to the law and all things are lawful (excluding, of course, sin). So, the Christian is not obliged to keep the Old Testament command not to get tattooed. We need to remember, if tattooing is a sin, then so is shaving the beard.

I will go out on a limb and say that each of us is free to choose what he or she should do in this matter. The Christian should seriously consider the ramifications of a permanent marking upon the skin – which often includes a social stigma. The Christian should ask whether or not it is a good witness and this is something only that individual Christian can decide. I personally haven’t gone down the tattoo pathway, but I’m not saying I wouldn’t if I had a parent or grandparent who survived the holocaust and had a number to prove it. I am a big proponent of “never forgetting.”

Questions or comments about this article may be directed to

1)    The New York Times Sept. 30, 2012
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