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

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