I have two tattoos. I got them when I was younger (of course). I would like to do what I can to be forgiven by G-d for such a sin. Since I am not a practicing Jew (but deeply believe in my religion (sounds hypocritical) I do not know what it is that I can do. Remove them? There is no guarantee that they would be totally removed. I feel as if a tattoo is a worse sin than others. If you grew up eating bacon, you can stop. Guidance would be appreciated.
Although you don’t ask about burial, the information provided concerning tatoos is still relevant.
Let me start by offering you some reassurance: having a tattoo is not a worse sin than others, and does not outweigh them. I think that if you weigh it in balance against the sins of murder, adultery, or theft, thinking clearly, you will see that the scale of seriousness is tilted far more to the others than to having a tattoo.
More: what you will find on consideration of the issue is that the error you committed in Jewish terms is the choice to get the tattoo; the tattoo itself, once placed, is not a recurring trespass (though it may be a continual ongoing reminder of your mistake/error). You only get a tattoo one time: the choice to acquire it is made at that point in time. You do not make that choice every day you have a tattoo.
If the view that having a tattoo in itself is a violation of Jewish law were true, then all Holocaust survivors who have tattooed numbers on their arms would be obliged to try to eradicate them, and clearly no such thing is the case – they bear no fault for having been forced to have a tattoo: simply having a tatoo is not in itself a ‘sin’. Similarly, if a non-Jewish person has multiple tattoos, and then converts to Judaism, it is not obligatory for that person to remove the tattoo(s) on conversion. The choice in that case to acquire them was not subject to Jewish restrictions or law (the person was not Jewish at that time), and simply having tattoos is not in itself a significant transgression (though it may offend sensibilities).
In your case, you were self-identified as a Jew (though not practicing religiously); you consciously chose to get tattooed (violating a mitzvah, or commandment). Now, you have the tattoos, and you are concerned about the trespass you committed by getting them.
It would seem to me from what you say that you are in the process of Teshuvah (repentance) for the transgression you committed in deciding to acquire a tattoo. You have identified the act that you committed as being ‘wrong’, you have grown to be sorry for having committed it.
If you have done what you can to minimize the injury it may have caused others (perhaps parents, siblings, or other relatives), sought their forgiveness (and your own), and you have resolved not to do so again, then you have taken the necessary and sufficient steps for the process of Teshuvah. The upshot is that now that you have completed the steps of Teshuvah, you may ask G-d for forgiveness for any trespass this action was against G-d.
Further, since removal of a tattoo is painful, uncertain, and can pose significant dangers to your health (removal is, after all by burning the tattooed skin away, albeit with a laser), there is no obligation in Jewish law to undertake that as part of Teshuvah for having gotten a tatoo.
If you feel so badly about having the tattoo that it causes you to want it gone despite the possible danger, cost, and pain, you can decide to proceed with a removal attempt. If you choose this option, please do consult a qualified physician about the process, and attend to all the precautions and safety advice given to minimize the danger and pain.
I wish you well, and hope that you will find it possible to forgive yourself.
Your question is both easy and hard, in different ways. The easiest part is how I, as an Orthodox Jew, would counsel you to react to your tattoos, because there, the question is not so different from the bacon example. The sin in getting a tattoo is in the getting of it, not the having of it. Since the Torah and the Sages thought of tattoos as pretty permanent (as they pretty much are, as you note), they never contemplated insisting on removal of the tattoo.
So that, in one sense, the only reaction to your tattoo that you need is repentance. Repentance, let us recall, has four steps: recognizing the sin, regretting the sin, determining never to return to that sin, and vidui, articulating that sin. That last step means, at some point, saying out loud something like, "Oh God, I have sinned before you and done such and such (gotten a tattoo, in this instance), and I am embarrassed and ashamed of my actions and resolve never to return to them again."
This is a little more complicated in your case because you note that you are not a practicing Jew. While repentance absolutely is effective for individual sins even in the presence of other sins, there is something a little bit off about someone who is comfortable being nonpracticing still repenting this particular sin. I can imagine God wondering at your comfort with violating Shabbat or other more serious commandments, but killing yourself over your tattoo. Nonetheless, that's really between you and God, and no penitence (other than hypocritical or insincere) is rejected. I hope you come to fuller observance one day, but as for the tatoo, all you really need is to repent fully of those acts and you should be done.
Except, obviously, it won't really be done, since you'll have to see those tattoos every day for the rest of your life. I used to exercise in a gym where there was a fellow, now somewhat Hasidic, whose body had several large tattoos. I understood immediately what had happened, but still empathized with the poor man's having to be confronted by his past every time he took off his shirt. In fact, though, there is some religious value in this. There is a debate about whether someone who has repented a sin one year on Yom Kippur, and stayed away from it the whole year, would again articulate his repentance for that sin the next year.
The discussion revolves around a verse in Scripture "ve-hatati negdi tamid," my sin is before me constantly, and both sides agree that the verse should be taken literally. They only disagree as to whether that extends to saying vidui for that sin repeatedly. But each of us should, ideally, always be remembering our many past missteps, regretting them, and using them to fuel the humility and care about our relationship with God that would lead us to grow ever better at it.
So that, for you, your tattoos can provide a valuable service, one we all really need, keeping our sins before us constantly, reminding us to always work to be better and better at serving God.
I have two tattoos. I got them when I was younger (of course). I would like to do what I can to be forgiven by G-d for such a sin. Being that I am not a practicing Jew (but deeply believe in my religion (sounds hypocritical) I do not know what it is that I can do. Remove them? Still there is no guarantee that they would be totally removed. I feel as if a tattoo is a worse sin than others. If you grew up eating bacon, you can stop. If you used to cut your hair short, you can grow it out. Guidance would be appreciated.
1. The Masorti/ Conservative stream of Judaism agrees with the questioner’s judgment that the two tattoos s/he has represent sinful behavior—assuming that the decision to have the tattoo was made voluntarily. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (the professional association of Masorti/ Conservative rabbis) adopted a responsum by Rabbi Alan B. Lucas on the subject in 1997:
Tattooing is an explicit prohibition from the Torah… While no sanctions are
imposed, the practice should continue to be discouraged as a violation of the
Torah… At all times a Jew should remember that we are created “In God’s
Image.” We are called upon to incorporate this understanding in all our decisions.
That decision is still the broad consensus of the movement today, despite the growing popularity of tattoos as a cosmetic adornment in secular American society.
2. On the other hand, from our perspective, we would seek to reassure the questioner that a tattoo is not a worse sin than most others. The questioner’s logic rests on the immutability of the tattoos, their continued visibility even when the person regrets that earlier action and wishes not to have them. However, the essence of teshuvah, repentance, is not the success in totally removing the tattoos, but rather the regret itself, coupled with the restitution of the damage caused, to the extent possible, the firm decision not to repeat the sinful behavior, and the successful avoidance of that behavior when faced with the temptation to relapse (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah (Code of Jewish Law), Laws of Repentance, 2:1). While the consequences of certain other sins are less visible than the tattoo, they are no less permanent. For example, a person guilty of a breach of faith with a spouse or a significant other can never undo the past, and will have to live with the damages caused by that sin, both intra-psychic and inter-personal, forever, even in the absence of visible scars. Nonetheless, Jewish tradition allows and encourages repentance to whatever extent attainable. One should never despair of the possibility and the transformative power of repentance.
Should the questioner seek to remove the tattoos? Removing them is an understandable act to undo the previous behavior. But since it is not necessary for divine forgiveness, as our tradition understands it, the questioner is encouraged to proceed without religious anxiety. It would be good to seek the unbiased opinion of professional medical practitioners regarding the likely efficacy and risks of such treatment. As dermatology and plastic surgery progress, the benefit may outweigh the risk in the future, if it does not at present. Nonetheless, if the best medical advice is that removal of the tattoos will not be successful, the questioner may still take many other steps to put the sin firmly in the past.
Therefore, the answer to the questioner’s desire to do whatever is possible to obtain divine forgiveness for having had the tattoos is to carry on in the exact, contrite spirit as is expressed in the question, to desist from further tattooing and to continue to grow in one’s life-long relationship with God’s teachings.
3. The questioner speaks of being a believing, although not a practicing, Jew. This subject is indeed worthy of further exploration, and the questioner is earnestly advised to find a rabbi with whom to discuss the possibilities of incorporating Jewish practice into his or her life. The details of such an exploration are necessarily individualistic, but it is important to stress that Jewish practices are not an “all or nothing proposition”. Incorporating some of the commandments into one’s life is already valuable. In the language of the Mishnah, the basic Jewish code of law:
Rabbi Hannaniah son of Akashiah says: The Holy One wished to
give merit to the people Israel, and therefore, gave them many
instructions and commandments… (Tractate Makkot, 3:16)
4. The visibility of the tattoo raises the subject of the social dimension of the sin. Will a tattooed individual be shunned by an observant community? In this author’s own experience in serving as a rabbi within Masorti/ Conservative congregations, I can assure the questioner that several individuals, bearing tattoos, some quite prominent, have found full and non-judgmental acceptance by their fellow congregants. Jews are strongly cautioned not to remind people of past sins, of which they have repented, and it is gratifying to see the rank and file of my congregations fulfilling that mitzvah admirably.
In conclusion, the questioner is to be commended for seeking to atone for past indiscretion and encouraged that the gates of repentance remain open to every sincere soul.
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