Thursday, April 28, 2011

Debunking The Myth


One of the great myths of American Judaism has been the decades-long assertion that a Jew with tattoos can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. (Have you heard that before?) I imagine that most of you probably have.

I have no idea where that story came from. But we should begin today’s posting by acknowledging that that myth has no basis in fact. There is no Jewish text in existence (that I am aware of) that prohibits burial in a Jewish cemetery because of this issue.

Where did the myth come from? And what can we learn from the traditional Jewish prohibition against tattoos?

Let’s begin with this week’s Torah portion: Parshat Kedoshim from the middle of the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus 19:28 reads: ”And do not put tattoo marks (more literally: permanent inscriptions) on yourselves: I am the Eternal.”

Based on the other prohibitions of Lev 19, some historians have suggested that the Torah doesn’t have anything against tattoos per se (indeed other parts of the Bible seem to embrace the practice!). Rather, Lev 19 could just be a list of things that the Israelites weren’t supposed to do because the practices were associated with their enemies (neighboring Ancient Near Eastern civilizations).

Concern about imitating neighboring Canaanite idol worshippers is obviously not a high religious priority for us today.  It’s also clearly not a matter of concern for the whopping 40% of Americans aged 25-40 who have at least one tattoo.

Yet, there is a part of me that is still sympathetic with the traditional Jewish prohibition against them.

My thoughts about tattoos aren’t just derived from this week’s Torah portion. I am also heavily influenced by the traditional Jewish notion of respecting our bodies: of treating our bodies with care and dignity because they are representations of God (we’re created in the Divine Image, after all). Or: to put it another way, our bodies don’t belong exclusively to us. They are gifts to us, from God. And throughout the duration of our lives, we should humbly see ourselves as stewards of those bodies…intent on returning them to God in as close to pristine condition as possible.

This might be an uncomfortable thought for some of us. After all, we live in a day and age where American culture/society empowers us to do virtually anything we want to our bodies. Alcohol or drugs? Not that big a deal. Controlled substances to affect our athletic performance – or our performance in the bedroom for that matter? No problem – everyone’s doing it! Deciding what we do to our bodies is a freedom that our secular culture celebrates. Judaism, on the other hand, argues for limits and boundaries. Part of being in a relationship with God (a covenant) means forgoing some of those freedoms.

How does that sit with you? Do you feel like your Jewishness gets in the way of you getting to do what you want to do? And if so, is that a difficult/frustrating/bad thing? Or is it something that you’re happy to accept as part of your Jewish identity?

There’s another side of the Jewish tattoo debate. If we return to the original text from this week’s Torah portion (see above), you’ll note how the verse ends with the words “I am the Eternal.” Some of our rabbis over the centuries have suggested that the tattoo prohibition is limited to TATTOOS OF GOD’S NAME! They read Lev 19:28 as saying “Do not tattoo yourselves with the words ‘I am the Eternal.’”

According to this reading, tattoos are only Jewishly dangerous if they are disrespectful of God (or Judaism).

This interpretation would suggest that it is OKAY for Jews to tattoo themselves, so long as they are choosing tattoos that go out of their way to be pro-God or pro-Jewish.

Indeed there is a whole new expression of Jewish identity going on among a certain segment of the American Jewish population, where people are choosing to express their Jewishness by getting JEWISH TATTOOS!

What do you think about these? I am fascinated by them…particularly the one of the words tzedek and shalom (justice and peace) inscribed on someone’s knuckles. There is something beautiful about taking a part of the body that we sometimes associate with violence (fists) and inking them with words of peace instead.

These people should also get points for creativity, irony, and satire: all essential elements for an amazing tattoo.

This new brand of Jewish tattoos still doesn’t address the value of respecting our bodies (unless you want to argue that choosing such pro-Jewish messages is automatically respectful of our bodies but I wouldn’t go that far). And it doesn’t do anything to address my concern about the issue of permanence either. (Tattoos are dangerous because…what if you grow to dislike the image that you chose for yourself??)

Nonetheless, I am curious to hear from you about whether you feel like they are an authentic vehicle toward the expression of our Jewish identities. CHECK OUT THIS RECENT ARTICLE WHICH SUGGESTS THAT THEY ARE.

As for our parents and grandparents and their concerns about the cemetery….tell them that I explained to you that tattoos are a sin (according to traditional Judaism) – but that we all sin. We all make different kinds of mistakes over the course of our lives. If cemeteries were to turn away any Jew who had ever sinned, I can assure you that our cemeteries would be completely empty. While I’m not behind the idea of tattoos 100%, let your parents know that tattoos are no better and no worse (according to Jewish law) than any other “sin” you might commit over the course of your lives.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, April 8, 2011

Passover: An Ode to Karpas

SPOILER ALERT: I WILL BE EXPLORING THIS MATERIAL IN THE CONTEXT OF MY REMARKS DURING THE SHABBAT MORNING SERVICE OF 4/16/11.'s that time of year again.  Jews around the world are actively preparing for the arrival of Passover.

To begin, a little Passover treat:

One of the challenges in navigating the holiday - and especially the seder itself - is keeping track of all of the symbolic foods, and the multitude of meanings that each one of them carries.

In this posting, we devote ourselves once again to the mysterious karpas: the ritual of dipping a vegetable (commonly parsley but you can use potatoes or celery too!) into something bitter like vinegar or (more commonly in America) salt water.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, offers a culinary interpretation about the importance of karpas in his recently published commentary on the Haggadah.  He notes the paradoxical mixing of tastes and the metaphoric application to our lives today.  He writes:
  •  The karpas, itself sweet, is dipped in salt, and [later in the seder] bitter maror [is dipped] in sweet charoset [...] What is the connection between these contradictions and freedom?  Human beings are deeply conditioned to crave the pleasant and the sweet and avoid the unpleasant.  This is a natural tendency.  However, to be free means relating fully to all experience and choosing how to act because we wish to realize our values and commitments.
Taste is an important component of our Passover experience.  Sacks' suggestion that we understand karpas as a ritual that brings different tastes together is a beautiful segue into a larger discussion of our Jewish responsibility to deal [via tikkun olam] with everything that is unpleasant in the world.

But the beauty of Judaism is that there are always a multiplicity of voices: competing ways of understanding the traditions that have been passed down to us.  Here's an alternative (and poetic) exploration of the meaning of karpas from the landmark feminist haggadah published by Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project in 2000:
  • Long before the struggle upwards begins,
    There is tremor in the seed.
    Self-protection cracks,
    Roots reach down and grab hold.
    The seed swells, and tender shoots
    push up toward the light.
    This is karpas: spring awakening growth.
    A force so touch it can break stone.

    And why do we dip karpas into salt water?  To remember the sweat and tears of our ancestors in bondage.

    To taste the bitter tears of our earth, unable to fully renew itself this spring because of our waste,
    neglect, and greed.

    To feel the sting of society’s refusal to celebrate
    the blossoming of women’s bodies and the full range
    of our capacity for love.

    And why should salt water be touched by karpas?

    To remind us that tears stop.  Spring comes.
    And with it the potential for change.  
According to this interpretation, karpas is a ritual that is filled with the potential to heal: our earth, our relationships, and ourselves.

Which interpretation speaks to you? Why?  I'd love to hear your thoughts here on the blog or privately over email.

Please do feel free to print out either/both readings and share them with the people you'll be spending your seder with!

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, April 1, 2011

Looking Into The Mirror


On the surface, this week's Torah portion (Parshat Tazria) is fixated on everybody else.  What are the people around us doing?  Do we see anything out of ordinary?  Does anyone look strange?

The Torah is especially concerned about that last question - because our text this week revolves around the question of tza'ra'at - a mysterious leprosy-like skin disease that was common in ancient times.  According to this week's Torah portion: the disease was dangerous!  Community members had to be constantly monitoring each other in order to identify an outbreak as soon as possible.

On one level, the sense of danger was connected to the community's physical vulnerability.  The disease was easily spreadable.  In order to protect the community, those afflicted with the disease had to be isolated, so as to insure that others couldn't get sick.

But our rabbis have never read these passages as being limited to communicable disease.  According to their worldview, the illness was a physical manifestation of a more serious phenomenon: Divine punishment from God for a moral lapse.  (And not just any lapse.  The rabbis zoomed in on the Hebrew word for 'one who is afflicted with tza'ra'at': metzorah.  They read metzorah as code for one who gossips.)

Obviously, our tradition is strongly opposed to gossip, slander, and libel - in all of their insidious forms.  You can click here for a number of different Jewish resources if you are interested in learning more about the Jewish position on gossip.

What I am most fascinated by, however, is not the Jewish prohibition about gossip itself...but rather this notion that the Torah seems to be encouraging us to police each other about it.  If someone in the community notices an outbreak of tza'ra'at - other people are supposed to report it immediately.  For the rabbis of the Talmud (who insisted that a person with tza'ra'at was a gossip), that meant that they were basically codifying the Jewish obligation to be a tattletale.  (Like children, we are supposed to report to the teacher if a peer of our's has been gossiping!)

There is a story about Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the 19th century Musar movement, which offers us a different perspective:
  • In 1848 there was a cholera epidemic in Vilna.  As usual in times of calamity, the Jews began to examine what sins of theirs might have brought this about.  One person came to Rabbi Israel Salanter and told him that a certain person was violating the Torah.  Rabbi Israel said to him: “A person with tza’ra’at was sent outside of the camp in the desert, because, as our Sages tell us, tza’ra’at is caused by the slandering of others.  But the sin of slander does not consist of spreading lies about others.  Rather it is caused by seeking the faults in others, rather than in oneself.  Thus the one who slanders is told: if you are so good at finding fault, go out of the camp, remain isolated by yourself, and search for your own faults and sins.  Thus Rabbi Salanter taught: The reason a person who finds fault with others is committing a sin is because he should have used that time to find fault in himself. 
The passage is damning to both the slanderer AND to the person who was reporting the slanderer to Rabbi Salanter!  

According to Salanter, and the movement of Musar that he helped to establish, we should avoid the usual human pitfall of judging others.  Instead, we should be using that time and energy to look into the mirror and identify shortcomings in an attempt to begin a process of ethical improvement of the self.

Musar is a formal method of studying ethical texts in our tradition, as well as implementing a process of self reflection which enables us to become more aware of the ethical decisions that we are all constantly making.  Musar provides a framework for evaluating those decisions, and then empowering us to make better ones in the future.  To learn more about that approach you might consider reading Alan Morinis' "Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar".  If you just want to become more familiar with the ethical texts and traditions of Judaism, you might read "The Jewish Moral Virtues" by Borowitz and Schwartz.

But you don't have to be formally "doing Musar" to get connected with these values.  All you have to do is teach yourself to be a little more self aware and self reflective.  Consider using a journal, and just begin to keep track of the things you do, and how they make you feel.  If your conscience indicates that you might have just made an error, write about it.  Over time, your journal will become a baseline for you to return to - to become better acquainted with who are now.  Ideally, your journal can become like a mirror: enabling you to see yourself in new ways: some that you're proud of - and others that you'll be motivated to change and improve.  (If the idea of a journal doesn't sit well with you, consider beginning/continuing a relationship with a counselor, therapist, or trusted mentor.  Sometimes it takes another person to help us see who we are/how we are behaving.  They too can motivate us to become better people.)  That's what Musar is all about.  

Wishing you a Shabbat - and a lifetime - of self reflection,
Rabbi Brown