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Emor 5782 - Jews and Tattoos

Saturday, May 14, 2022 - Iyar 13, 5782

I’m not quite sure where this myth originated, but I know I heard it in my childhood - Jews with tattoos may not be buried in Jewish cemeteries. This myth is entirely false. Just as any Jewish person who orders chicken parmesan at a restaurant may be buried at any cemetery they and their family pleases, a Jew with a tattoo may be buried anywhere, as well. Just as you will be allowed to attend services next Shabbat if you spend this Shabbat shopping on Amazon, having or getting a tattoo does not invalidate anyone from participating in any part of Jewish communal life. In fact, I have more than a few halakhically oriented rabbi friends who proudly display their tattoos. While I don’t agree with their reasoning, I believe it is important for us to talk openly about the religious and cultural context of the Jewish aversion to and historical prohibition of tattoos.

The tattoo taboo originates from today’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor. After speaking about specific haircutting regulations, God commands:

You shall not make gashes on your flesh for the dead or incise any marks on yourself - I am Adonai (19:28).

My focus is immediately drawn to the repetition of the command. Why might the Torah mention its command twice? Perhaps, to let us know that we are not only speaking of marks left for the sake of the dead, but also, of any permanent marks incised on the body. While my interpretation, that any permanent marking of the body, may be the dominant halakhic opinion, doubt about the focus of the command began in the Mishnah, two thousand years ago:

One who imprints a tattoo [is liable to receive lashes]. If one imprinted but did not carve, or if one carved but did not imprint, he is not liable. [He is not liable] until he imprints and carves with ink, with kohl, or with any substance that marks. But Rabbi Shimon ben Yehuda says in the name of Rabbi Shimon: He is liable only if he writes the [holy] name there, as it is stated: “And an incision you shall not make upon yourself - I am Adonai (Makkot 3:6).

For the first voice of the Mishnah, any incision with a permanent marking is forbidden. However, for Rabbi Shimon ben Yehudah, such a tattoo is only forbidden if it is a tattoo of God’s name. Unlike surrounding cultures in Biblical times, the Israelites and later generations of their descendents are taught not to use tattoos as a means towards worship of God. According to the initial verse itself, “you shall not make gashes on your flesh for the dead,” the Torah teaches that tattoos or self-harm should not be used as memorials for people who have been loved and lost.

Even two of our most trusted medieval halakhists disagree on the interpretation of our verse. Rambam (also known as Maimonides), writing in 12th-century Egypt, believes that any marked incision counts as a forbidden idolatrous practice, while R. Yosef Karo of 16th-century Tzfat, believes that a marked incision is only forbidden if it is done in the name of idolatry or the dead. In the hundreds of years between the two and since then, the dominant halakhic thread has remained with the idea of all voluntary tattoos as forbidden. The only official Conservative Movement statements on tattoos, made by Isaac Klein in 1979’s A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, by Rabbi Alan Lucas in 1999’s responsa “Tattooing and Body Piercing,” and by Gordon Tucker in 2012’s The Observant Life, all frame voluntary tattoos as unequivocally forbidden. Even so, for good reason, modern rabbinic discourse has returned to the disagreements present in the Mishnah and among our medieval halakhists.

Personally, my halakhic opinion falls on the side of the dominant discourse; I do believe that tattooing for aesthetic purposes alone goes against Jewish law and values. Just as Rambam states the source of the Biblical prohibition as a counter to other culture’s practices, and just as kashrut sets us apart from our neighbors in concrete ways, that mindfulness about what we do with our bodies reminds us of our specific Jewishness whenever we look at ourselves in the mirror. We are made in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim; the skin that we’re in now is a sacred reminder of our creative power in the world. There’s no need to change something so beautiful, so capable. The skin that we’re in is not ours alone; it comes from that ever-present Divine who gives us free will, and yet, guides our actions. When we refrain from unnecessary pain towards ourselves, we refrain from unnecessary hurt to this vessel created by God.

Regarding the specific prohibition against using tattoos in remembrance of the dead, without putting their names on our bodies, we are pushed to remember our loved ones through the ways in which we tell their stories in words and actions. At the end of our lives, when we are buried, they will be, too; our words, actions, and hopefully, the plaques and stones we inscribe to remember them, will continue to live on. Similarly, regarding the specific prohibition against tattooing God’s name or other religious symbols onto our bodies, we are pushed to acknowledge the Divine through our deeds and song, rather than our incisions. While the experience of God may require a whole lot of sacrifice, it should never involve physical pain. 

No discussion on Jews and tattoos can be complete without the historical reality of tattoos as used in the Shoah. For the last couple generations, Jewish avoidance of tattoos took on new meaning as a statement against the numbers involuntarily tattooed on European Jewish arms throughout the Shoah. Along with the halakhic and the spiritual, the discussion of whether or not to tattoo holds elements of the still-recent historical and emotional as well.

Of course, there are caveats to any statement against tattoos among Jews. First, any tattoo that is medically necessary is permitted and encouraged; pikuah nefesh, saving a life, ranks high above almost any other mitzvah, especially one so contested as ours. The same can be said about plastic or reconstructive surgery; anything medically necessary should be seen as permissible, even encouraged. And yes, medically includes psychologically. Second, if a person already has a tattoo and then converts to Judaism or decides that it no longer goes along with her Jewish values, there is no need to bring on the additional pain of removal, unless that tattoo causes significant psychological harm.

I come to this conversation with the significant bias that I have never felt the need to get a tattoo. I am aware that for some, tattoos are an integral mark of identity; I cannot personally understand that, but I can respect it. At the very least, however, looking purely from the lens of halakhah, I have to maintain the prohibition of tattoos for remembrance of the dead, for Jewish symbolism, and for display of symbolism from other religious traditions.

In our synagogue space now and at the end of life, in our cemetery, we allow all Jews to be present, regardless of physical choices. The beauty of being a Conservative congregation is that we exist within a movement that respects and questions halakhah through textual and historical knowledge. When we choose what to eat, wear, and do on a Saturday afternoon, we do so with the knowledge of our rabbis’ thoughts and of the textual basis behind them. Every day, we practice our Judaism on the basis of informed choice. I would imagine we have people in this room who have ingrained opinions about Judaism and tattoos from all sides of the spectrum; I would imagine that more than a few people here felt uncomfortable about some aspect of the last ten minutes or so. In this ideologically diverse Conservative Jewish space, whether whispering throughout services or healthily disagreeing throughout Kiddush lunch, I hope we can inspire each other to think differently, even critically, about our Jewish choices, from what we’ll do after services to how we physically express ourselves. Shabbat Shalom.

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784