The Implications of the Sub-Dermal, Manipulatable Tattoo Device in Regards to Judaism

This article is unlike the other articles in obvious regards and perhaps needs some preface. It is a response to the recent development out of the University of Pennsylvania, wherein scientists have been able to create a silicon-silk based device that could be affixed with LEDs, effectively turning the skin into a screen. A tattoo capable of being changed or turned off, capable of functionally displaying information from medical monitors or connectivity devices: it holds some amazing implications for the coming generation. The position of this article, due to my upbringing, takes the Judaic perspective, which has traditionally forbidden tattooing. Due to the nature of this article, which is somewhat academic in a very niche sort of way (though attempted to be accessible and meant for lay-theologian-types), I include this preface and suggest perhaps a different article if biblical exegesis isn’t your thing.

After the jump, for your consideration, is the piece in its entirety.

“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” – Leviticus 19:28

The Judaic Law against tattooing was formulated by this source sentiment, written at a time when the act was exclusively a cultist rite of passage that indelibly associated itself with a particular clan/deity; the statement affirming the first Commandment given to the Hebrews (completely ignoring for the moment the utilization of ritual scarification via the Commandment of circumcision). Makkot 20a[1] discusses the semantics of this statement: the sages of the Mishna differentiate between scarification and the application of ink into wounds, claiming that if one is done but not the other, then the person with the markings is not culpable for punishment. Rabbi Simeon son of Judah proclaimed in the name of a former rabbi, Simeon, that the only culpable act for tattooing is printing the name of God.[2] There continue discussions as to whether that includes the true names of God or if the names of idols would also cull punishment[3], which seems somewhat circular when the passage is pretty clear in referencing the 10 Commandments (e.g. “You shall have no other gods before Me”) and putting another god’s name on you would seem sort of…well, heretical.

What might any of this this have to do with the technology tag? Well, it has everything to do with technology. As Phillips will soon introduce to the world, tattooing will take on an entirely different dimension when LEDs are placed sub-dermally, allowing one to toggle one’s tattoo into different designs or entirely off at a whim. Sure, applying this device purely for cosmetic purposes would undoubtedly deal some halakhic questions, but then there are other applications for this technology, beyond being the coolest tattoo ever.

These devices are silicon and silk implants, physical objects surgically inserted into the body, initially being used for medical applications. And the text of Leviticus reads “You shall not make any cuttings for the dead,” but one can do anything to save a life[5] and how many lives would be saved by a digital registry implanted in the skin of one’s medical records, of a built-in glucose meter, a display for respiration, of temperature, of blood pressure. The ramifications for good are too great to be denied, these will be a great boon to health maintenance (for everyone who can afford one).

But what about the commercial applications? Is it okay for the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish communities to use such devices? Once implanted for the medical application – it could surely be utilized for the latter purpose too; is this a violation of the ancient code that speaks of printing and markings for the dead? Would even the Name of God be considered “in print,” when it can be argued that a digital representation of anything is not considered “written?”[4]

To imprecisely transcribe Maimonides in Misneh Torah, The Laws of Idolatry, 12:11, regardless of the intent (speaking of the former practice exclusively for idolatry, and even if it is fashionable {or life-saving?}), it is forbidden for a Torah Observant Jew to have markings on the skin. Would not the trivialities that could be produced from this subcutaneous transplant be accountable to this position? Just because it is possible, does that mean that it should be done? The Orthodox Union released this announcement in 2002 in regards to cloning, which could definitively be applied to stem cells, and presumably this issue:

The Torah commands us to treat and cure the ill and to defeat disease wherever possible; to do this is to be the Creator’s partner in safeguarding the created. The traditional Jewish perspective thus emphasizes that maximizing the potential to save and heal human lives is an integral part of valuing human life.[…] [I]f cloning technology research advances our ability to heal humans with greater success, it ought to be pursued […][6]

I suppose the real questions I’m really trying to ask is whether or not I could show it to my mother (may she rest in peace) or would it have killed her? Would she have ever known? Could this device have saved her life if she had it measuring her blood’s potassium level?

Undoubtedly there is much to be considered here from the the Torah Observant Jew’s perspective, and there are sure to be opinions on both side of the spectrum. Personally, I am of the opinion that the subcutaneous Electronic Tattoo will be a major benefit to health care, both personally and to practitioners, and when they become available, I intend to get one.

[1]Babylonian Talmud, trans. MICHAEL L. RODKINSON; Chapter III, Pg. 47
[3]Torah Academy of Bergen County, Student Publication
[4]Rabbi Reuven Ibragimov, discussion 2005.
[5]Leviticus 19:16, King James Version



Filed under Literary, Moving Pictures, Science, Technology

8 responses to “The Implications of the Sub-Dermal, Manipulatable Tattoo Device in Regards to Judaism

  1. Pingback: Scumbag Style » Weekly Titty Bar Review #4: Bada Bing, Las Vegas.

  2. Fantastic, I did not heard about this topic up to the present. Thanks!

  3. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post

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  6. Howdy – Wow, what a great blog.

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