This is a guest post by Dierdra Rutherford Fein
“You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord”
– Leviticus 19:28
The wording of the Torah is important, and we are commanded to study it.
From an historic perspective, the prohibition against tattooing and, by extension, branding and scarification, was intended to prevent ancient Israelites from following the religious practices of non-Jews in general, and Baal worshipers specifically. In biblical times the Tribe lived in close proximity to non-Jews who practiced ceremonial tattooing to honor their gods and their dead, a form of idol worship and something which absolutely must be forbidden for Jews as a way of insuring a strong, enduring, Jewish identity.
In Talmudic times Leviticus 19:28 was widely debated and, in fact, the Babylonian Talmud questioned whether it might be only the names of various foreign gods or even Hashem’s name that should not be tattooed, rather than all tattoos as some were beginning to claim. More than 650 years later, Maimonides repeated, in his Mishnah Torah, the idea that the prohibition was intended to prevent idol and ancestor worship, but gave the opinion that it should be wholly prohibited, whether a tattoo was created specifically as a part of idol worship or not, on the grounds that it appears to be idol worship. This expansion of the ban was maintained in the Shulchan Aruch nearly 400 years later, and so it has remained.
While it is true that tattoos have been considered completely forbidden, regardless of intent, for nearly 1,000 years, there were at least 2,000 years of Jewish life and culture that did not completely ban tattoos, as well as a fairly significant period of time between the two opposing viewpoints where the meaning and effect of Leviticus 19:28 was rigorously debated, an argument that continues to this day. It has even been suggested by a number of archaeologists that ancient Jews practiced tattooing themselves, within a Jewish framework and completely free of the taint of idolatry.
And so the question is not, and never has been, what the original intent of the ban was, but rather what we should do with it today. Torah is never irrelevant, it was given to us in timeless language that grows and stretches with our increasing generations, we will never need to set it aside as each generation builds on the understanding of the last, finding new meaning and new interpretations. In this age, as in all of the ages that came before, we have to ask: what does this mean for us? If a person finds meaning in a tattoo of a magen David, or hamsa or depiction of the Kotel, should we forbid them to have that mark placed on their body?
In our zealous eagerness to prohibit all tattoos, an attempt to insure the greatest level piety and conformation with the laws of the Torah, we may have lost sight of our original mitzvah, to simply not tattoo as idol worship in order to foster a strong, lasting Jewish identity. In the process of increasing our piety and stretching the possible meanings of the mitzvah, we may have prevented others from expressing their Jewish identities in a way that was acceptable for the majority of Jewish history, tattooing. Can we justify prohibiting this practice and, given Judaism’s struggle with identity and pride in the face of assimilation in the diaspora, should we?
If you had to interpret the halacha for all of the Jews in the world what would your response be?
(Photo by Jennifer Slate Grischkan)
In our zealous eagerness to prohibit all tattoos, an attempt to insure the greatest level piety and conformation with the laws of the Torah, we may have lost sight of our original mitzvah, to simply not tattoo as idol worship in order to foster a strong, lasting Jewish identity.
I think this very succinct phrase can be applied to virtual every issue facing modern Jewish people. There is lots of not being able to see the forest for the trees.
I like to think of a more practical, tangible, and far more recent reason why Jews should think twice before getting a tattoo – it’s called The Holocaust.
The Nazis knew it was against Jewish law to tattoo one’s skin, so it became part of their methodology. So, against their wills, millions of Jews were tattooed. Today, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those Jews volunteer and pay for the same treatment. I always thought it was disrespectful for that simple reason.
The same goes for cremation – again, the Nazis knew that it was forbidden by Jewish law, so it became part of their system. Adding insult to death one could say.
But today, plenty of Jews not only ignore the law and choose cremation, but also ignore what happened to so many Jews who were put into the ovens.
Absolute agreement here. Besides- it would kill my Mom and there’s some kind of law against that.
Jeff, I agree that the horrible history of Jews being tattooed against their will during the Shoah cannot be ignored. Regardless of the halacha, tattooing a person against their will is a terrible crime. I would, however, argue that some young Jews are not tattooing despite the forced marking of the Shoah (in ignorance or denial) but absolutely because of it.
I have spoken to a number of young Jews who are tattooed who said that they took strength from having the ability to choose to tattoo themselves. They chose to be tattooed, based on their understanding of halacha, and to show that Jews can decide for themselves what happens to their bodies.
Those same young Jews have told me, on more than one occasion, that getting a tattoo with a clear Jewish meaning made them proud, that they were saying that marking a Jew permanently as a member of the Tribe does not have to shame and humiliate, but can show pride and determination.
All of this is not to say that there are not valid, cultural, arguments against tattooing, but rather to say that the halacha was not always seen as inherently prohibiting tattoos, and that even with the backdrop of the horrible acts perpetrated during the Shoah, there is room for others ways of thinking about tattoos.
I agree with Jeff.
For me as a mother of a Jewish person I feel it is the person’s decision. If it strengthens and enhances the belief then no one has a right to deny them. I feel that way no matter whether or not a person is Jewish. I would not agree with someone’s decision hundreds of years ago if I had given time and thought to what I need to do for myself and MY belief. I too know young people who feel the tattoo is a I AM AND YOU CANNOT DENY WHO I AM. A tattoo strengthens the feelings that you have when you get the tattoo.
On a lesser note, don’t you think the last sentence is redundant?
Dierdra thank you for writing. I always enjoy your thoughts.