What the Biblical Prohibition on Tattooing Says about Human Dignity and Holiness

Oct. 21 2021

While the claim that tradition forbids those with tattoos from being buried in a Jewish cemetery is without merit, it is indeed true that Leviticus, and rabbinic law, strictly prohibit tattooing. According to Moses Maimonides, the proscription is a response to the pagan practice of inscribing the names of deities on one’s flesh. Menachem Levine suggests some additional explanations:

Historically, slave-owners tattooed their slaves to prove ownership, just as cowboys branded their cattle. Perhaps that was a reason that the depraved Nazis tattooed human beings at Auschwitz. In addition to a practical solution that enabled them to keep track of prisoners, it also served to dehumanize their victims and strip them of their unique identity. The formerly-free individual was now nothing more than a number, mere property of the Reich. As human beings we have a desire for freedom and an innate sense of our uniqueness. Tattooing the body does not reflect that ideal.

Our lives, [moreover], are given to us for a purpose, and our time is meant to be used to accomplish our unique mission. Similarly, our body is on loan from our Creator to fulfill our job with it. Self-inflicted gashes, excessive body piercings, or tattoos all bespeak a lack of respect and reverence for the body, and hence, for the body’s true Owner and Designer. Tattooing one’s body can be compared to etching a name onto someone else’s freshly poured cement. It is defacing property that does not belong to us.

The latter explanation is brought into stark relief by the situations in which contemporary halakhists have permitted tattooing. These, Levine explains, involve not just “pressing medical needs” but also cases where a tattoo can serve to “preserve human dignity,” such as “scar removal, reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy, or blemish corrections.” Thus rabbinic thought understands the body, and its appearance, not as a material shell to be transcended, but as an expression of the sanctity and majesty with which God has endowed mankind.

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More about: Halakhah, Hebrew Bible, Judaism, Leviticus

Why the Leader of Hamas Went to Russia

Sept. 30 2022

Earlier this month, the Hamas chairman Ismail Haniyeh and several of his colleagues visited Moscow, where they met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Russian officials. According to Arabic-language media, Haniyeh came seeking “new ideas” about how to wage war against the Jewish state. The terrorist group has had good relations with the Kremlin for several years, and even maintains an office in Moscow. John Hardie and Ivana Stradner comment on the timing of the visit:

For Moscow, the visit likely reflects a continuation of its efforts to leverage the Palestinians and other issues to pressure Israel over its stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia and Israel built friendly relations in the decades following the Soviet Union’s dissolution. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Jerusalem condemned the war, but made sure to tread carefully in order to preserve working ties with Moscow, lest Russian military forces in Syria disrupt Israel’s strategically important air operations there.

Nevertheless, bilateral tensions spiked in April after Yair Lapid, then serving as Israel’s foreign minister, joined the chorus of voices worldwide accusing Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine. Jerusalem later provided Kyiv with some non-lethal military aid and a field hospital. In response, Moscow hardened its rhetoric about Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories.

The Palestinian issue isn’t the only way that Russia has sought to pressure Israel. Moscow is also threatening, on seemingly spurious grounds, to shutter the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency.

Moscow likely has little appetite for outright conflict with Israel, particularly when the bulk of Russia’s military is floundering in Ukraine. But there are plenty of other ways that Russia, which maintains an active intelligence presence in the Jewish state, could damage Israel’s interests. As Moscow cozies up with Hamas, Iran, and other enemies of Israel, Jerusalem—and its American allies—would do well to keep a watchful eye.

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More about: Hamas, Israeli Security, Russia