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Branded

I’d always wanted a tattoo, but believed, following this week’s parasha, that it was categorically prohibited. Before making the commitment, I had to wrestle with the text.

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My Rose Tattoo

To honor her body, the writer visits a Tel Aviv tattoo parlor

In this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, sandwiched between an injunction forbidding a man from shaving the edges of his beard and another that discourages fathers and brothers from turning their daughters and sisters into harlots, is the verse that has made Jewish parents everywhere rejoice for generations: the prohibition against getting tattoos. And it was with full knowledge of this commandment that, over Hanukkah, I went to a Brooklyn parlor with a friend and got my first tattoo.

As I sat in the chair with my leg elevated on a stool, the artist went to work with his motorized needle. My friend hovered nearby, squeezing my hand in support as waves of nausea and sweat rolled over me. The artist, a young man in his 20s whose epidermal surface area was almost entirely tatted up, asked if I needed a break. “No,” I moaned. “Just finish it.”

I wanted it to be over with as quickly as possible, and not just so my blood pressure would return to normal. After 10 years of wrestling with the decision to get a tattoo, I didn’t want to waffle at the last possible moment. I just wanted it done.

I chose a bumblebee, which is the literal translation of my Hebrew name. It was also a symbol for female leadership in the ancient Near East.

To those without a working knowledge of Hebrew, my tattoo seems devoid of an explicitly Jewish meaning. But as Rabbi Rochelle Kamins, the assistant director of youth programs at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, Calif., noted in a study of Jews with tattoos, mine falls under the heading of “tattoos with symbolic Jewish meaning that don’t at first glance look ‘Jewish’ to an outsider.”

My desire for physical self-modification first surfaced back when I was a student in yeshiva high school, but was quickly quashed by studying the following verse in Leviticus: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, nor incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.” My teacher merely explained that this sentence was the root of the prohibition against tattooing. He told the class that scratching and marking the body were things that idolaters did to mourn the dead and worship pagan deities. None of us peppered him with the obvious follow-up questions: What about tattoos that aren’t connected to mourning rituals? What about a tattoo of a flower or something similarly innocuous? Were these also off limits?

“The verses in Kedoshim were understood rabbinically not to mean a tattoo that says ‘Mom,’ ” Rabbi Joshua Gutoff, a Conservative rabbi and former director of the University of Minnesota Hillel, told me recently. Had I known this as a high-schooler, I still doubt I would’ve run to get marked up. I was still under the impression that getting a tattoo would preclude me from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. So, I settled for altering my appearance in less permanent (though by no means less fun) ways. Like the leaves, my hair hue changed with the seasons. I pierced my ears multiple times. I dressed wildly. And for a time, that was enough.

For those who don’t have the need to show off, my urge might be difficult to comprehend, and Jewish tradition certainly does not help to bridge the understanding gap. As Jews, it sometimes feels like we only value our bodies from the neck up. “Traditional elite Judaism is a verbal culture,” Gutoff explained. As a youngster, I encountered this bias when I tried to enroll in gymnastics lessons. After being introduced to the sport at a birthday party, I began to pester my mother, a history teacher quick to call herself terribly uncoordinated, to take me for classes. At first, she rebuffed me, and I had to resort to traditional Jewish means to train: checking out all the gymnastics-related books from the library. After a year spent teaching myself skills from diagrams in books and crashing into our living room furniture, my mother finally found a gym for me to practice in. Though my mother was eventually supportive of my participation in the sport and my subsequent involvement in break-dancing, she never understood why I had to do it, and, as a child, I could scarcely articulate my reasons.

Not that I’ve done much better as an adult. Sure, like any overeducated Jew, I can intellectualize my compulsion with the best of them. I even wrote an entire master’s thesis about the relationship between Judaism and gymnastics. But no matter how hard I try, I feel like I’m always just missing the mark.

So it also was with tattoos. I readily acknowledge that it is highly irrational to brand your body permanently with an image you could just as easily (and less painfully) hang on your wall, yet I felt that was an inadequate substitute. The image, I felt, simply had to be embodied.

In 2007, the New York Times published a piece about tattooed Jews and burial rites, calling the whole claim that the inked-up were shunned from Jewish cemeteries a bubbemeiseh. I told my hair stylist, who at the time was touching up my brown roots with fuchsia paste. She has a sleeve full of ink that I’ve often admired, a painting of the beautiful night sky, reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. “You should definitely get one,” she said.

And still, I waited. Knowing that I could be properly interred even with a tattoo was important but by no means the only barrier to my getting one. I’ve crossed many halakhic lines in my move away from Orthodox Judaism, but there seemed to be something so final about marking one’s body permanently even if it ranks below violations of the Sabbath and the laws of kashrut (two areas where I’ve transgressed). I wasn’t sure if I was ready to make that sort of statement.

There were also other reasons not to get inked. Though it is not difficult to redefine the verses in Kedoshim to permit the type of tattooing that is popular today, or to point to sentences in Isaiah that seem to allow or even encourage marking one’s body with the name of God, pointing to biblical verses only gets you so far. It is impossible to turn the legal clock back to biblical times and simply wrestle with the text; in the millennia since, rabbis have added their interpretations, and in a rare moment of consensus, every denomination—from Reform to Orthodox—has ruled against permanent body art regardless of intention. More modern opinions often cite that we’re created b’tzelem elokim, in the image of God, and who are we to mess with perfection? Of course, this doesn’t seem to apply to plastic surgery, which is permitted.

But who’s to say that b’tzelem elokim must refer to our physical beings? If the fact that we’re embodied is what makes us godly, then the way we treat animals, who are also made of flesh and blood, is even more shameful than it already is.

“The Torah itself seems to tie to humanity’s ability to make moral judgments, that is, to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. There’s really no way of knowing for sure what, if any, we possess of the Divine’s body. Maybe we got his eyes. Or maybe we simply received his winning personality. I sure got his temper.

Of course, rationalization works both ways, and just as I’m motivated by an irrational desire, so too, perhaps, are the rabbis who are repulsed by the act and come up with easily deconstructed reasons to forbid it. Which begs the question, why? Why did the Jewish distaste for body art result in a myth that forbade burial and seemed so plausible that it was believed by so many for so long?

I think that to understand this we must return to the original prohibition, which revolves around death. The pagans to whom the Torah refers, both in Leviticus and in Deuteronomy, were using markings that were used to commemorate the loss of a loved one, which the sages saw as sinful since it signified an inability to accept the divine will. We Jews rend our garments, which are fixable. But perhaps the tattoo taboo has everything to do with how scared we are of doing something to ourselves that is as permanent and irreversible as death.

When you reveal to a person that you have a tattoo, the first question they ask (after they look at it) is whether you think you’ll regret it in five, 10, 15 years’ time. “I don’t know,” I respond. “Maybe I will,” and for a moment they seem vindicated in their disapproval, imagining me as 65-year-old grandmother bemoaning the image I branded onto my ankle in my late 20s. “But,” I add, “even if I don’t like it in the future, I’m sure I’ll learn to live with it.” Just as I accepted the bump on my nose and the scars on my abdomen and spine from surgery, I’m confident that I can find the humor in the bumblebee on my ankle even if I eventually wish that my younger self had shown better judgment.

And that’s advantage the living—even the tattooed living—have over the dead: We can move on from illness, injuries, and even a regrettable tramp stamp.

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JCarpenter says:

Ancient context aside, it’s as much about personal vanity (“expression”) as anything else: a hipster’s tattoo is the same as cosmetic surgery.

Gary G says:

I certainly have no issue with tattoos on Jews, though I have none.
I just have a question: Wasn’t the piercing of the ears considered a defilement of your body even before you got the tat? GG

I found your comments quite intriguing, even tempting to consider. Yet, even as an artist and an illustrator, while many of my friends and colleagues have decorated their bodies, I have no regrets about not getting inked. Religious prohibitions/interpretations aside, it’s because my tastes in art are always in flux and the art style that I was enamored with in my 20’s have undergone paradigm changes in the past 40 years of my career as has my once-smooth skin. In my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), you might find my own interpretation of Parashah Re’eh in Devarim of interest, too.
Here is the link to it @ Amazon:
Between Heaven & Earth:An Illuminated Torah Commentary: amzn.to/gZSp5j


Ms. Meyers writes: “More modern opinions often cite that we’re created b’tzelem elokim, in the image of God, and who are we to mess with perfection? Of course, this doesn’t seem to apply to plastic surgery, which is permitted.”

True, though circumcision is often rabbinically rationalized on the grounds that G-d’s creation is incomplete until the hand of man has made the final, perfecting mark; the Divine-human partnership, if you will. Getting inked, therefore, could be defended on the same grounds.

Jeff says:

Forgetting the Torah or any ancient rules for a second, how about a more recent and practical reason?

Millions of Jews were branded against their wills during The Holocaust. Why a Jew would volunteer (and pay for) a tattoo after that is beyond me.

I imagine 6 million of our people collectively rolled their eyes at the moment that needle hit your skin.

People can do whatever they want, but for this Jew, it’s a slap in the face to the 6 million. Same goes for Jews who choose to be cremated. Slaps in the face.

howard says:

Circumcision is the one permitted mark… Obviously female genital mutilation is out… horrible evil … but labial tatoos?

The mark we are allowed to make is a mark on our genitals as a sign of God’s covenant… for men.

So if we wanted to be egalitarian about it, what is the analogous mark of God at the place of pleasure and procreation and power?

If men are marked on the symbol of male sexuality, how would a woman be marked at the symbol of female sexual power?

Maybe, if we believe that men are genitally focussed but women are “whole body sexual” then the entire female body is open for a tattoo?

But is that theory of differential male and female sexuality true?

Hell if I know, and, sure, you weren’t wanting this out of brit milah envy. I understand that. I’m just saying that brit milah is the paradigmatic Jewish tatoo. So how would you do that humanely as a woman?

Julie says:

Jeff, that’s actually not very practical at all, and is more kneejerk than rational.

Would you extrapolate that because women, children, and men are raped around the world, that nobody should ever want to have consensual sex?

If I read one more self-conscious rationalization for extranominal Jewish behavior, I’m going to convert.

Aaron says:

As a tattooed Jew, I have spent years defending my choices to “traditionalists” or “purists”… I can’t even count the number of times i have received scornful looks, at the sight of the Star of David tattoos on one bicep or the Hamsa on the other, from the un or mis informed.

Why is being tattooed look upon so poorly in most Jewish circles, but the concept of plastic surgery is accepted and even applauded?

I ask you, what is more of a desecration to the body:

A representation in ink of a Star of David, a Bumblebee or even a Heart with “Mom” inside it?

OR

Having sections of your nose chiseled off?

Finally, to respond to you James:

You are certainly entitled to your opinion, as reactionary and narrow minded as it is, but, let me assure you, the Star of David that is tattooed to my arm, for the world to see is a CHOICE, not a brand that was forced upon me.
With respect to the millions of our people who were murdered in the Holocaust, I wear my tattoo proudly as a statement that those atrocities will ever befall us again. No one will ever brand me or force me to hide my Judiasm to survive… My tattoo is a statement of pride in being a Jew. My hope, is those millions of people didn’t roll their eyes, but were proud that we live in an age where we are strong and don’t have to hide who we are.

David says:

Without even considering the prohibition of tatoos in the Torah, I always did (and still do) consider them a bit low class. It must be the way that I was raised. Tatoos, like alcoholism, spousal and child abuse were for the goyim and not the Jews.

howard says:

I think Rabbi Fey said it well recently:

“First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches.

May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it’s the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the Beauty.

When the Crystal Meth is offered, May she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half And stick with Beer.

Guide her, protect her

When crossing the street, stepping onto boats, swimming in the ocean, swimming in pools, walking near pools, standing on the subway platform, crossing 86th Street, stepping off of boats, using mall restrooms, getting on and off escalators, driving on country roads while arguing, leaning on large windows, walking in parking lots, riding Ferris wheels, roller-coasters, log flumes, or anything called “Hell Drop,” “Tower of Torture,” or “The Death Spiral Rock ‘N Zero G Roll featuring Aerosmith,” and standing on any kind of balcony ever, anywhere, at any age.

Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes And not have to wear high heels.

What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery? Golf course design? I’m asking You, because if I knew, I’d be doing it, Youdammit.”

Extremely well written, Dvora!!! One of my favorite things you’ve ever written.

I’m no Rabbi, but if it alleviates a lot of Jewish guilt I will pretend to be (for the right price). Tattoos are kosher. It’s just that old Jewish men, stuck in their ‘traditional’, risk-free ways will always be unhappy with anything remotely ‘goyish’. Boo-fricken-hoo.

Hell, now I’m going to get a tattoo of an old bearded Jewish rabbi yelling and cursing at another tattoo of a non-existent family crest.

For the record, I read Torah, celebrate Shabbat, and try to love my neighbor as myself every day. I’m a 56-year-old grandmother. And I also happen to have a tattoo of the Hebrew word “emet” (truth) inked on my arm — both one of the names for G-d and a powerful reminder of how to live my life. It feels pretty dang Jewish to me. If you’d like to see my take on this question, visit my blog, Awkward Offerings, where I discuss Torah, tattoos, and truth on a regular basis.

Ellen says:

I think the vast majority of tattoos are ugly or at the least foolish in appearance. And yes, Jews wore forced tattoos as a result of the Holocaust.
I have some scars on my skin and they are quite enough.

Sandra says:

The article, while interesting,seems to me a long-winded excuse for behavior that is more appropriate for an rebellious adolescent, than a mature adult. In fact, if you examine the Hebrew, as it is written in the Torah, the word for tattoo (kakua) is, in fact, used on modern hebrew for tattoo. This is the beauty of the Hebrew language and its ability to bring light into modern interpretations. (And in fact the newer translations of the Torah use the word tattoo) A tattoo now is prohibited in the same way it was in the Torah. Of course, it’s your choice if you want to follow the commandments, which ones, and to what extent.

Sorry, but irrespective of the pilpul I saw too many tattoos on the arms of people around me in shul when I was growing up that it is simply a turnoff.

But, good luck with it. Now that you have it for life.

Orthodox Orientated Jew says:

Dear Writer,
I must tell you that I never felt the urge to get a tattoo, but one day I did in fact at age 19 get a ‘brand’, ever so minor while being in a fraternal organization. I can tell you that today, I am completely reconciled with the experience and perhaps more insightful on this topic. That said, I must tell you that your Creator does not wish this to be our future and I will tell you that there is a thing called Tzuris (like what happened to Miriam) that I most certainly found my life to be experiencing for a many years after this experience. I am not going to tell you that you will suffer mental anguish of that you “should not be buried with a Jewish Cemetery burial”. You should be buried with your people. But that said, I can only tell you that my own mental health declined in many ways since that time only to fully recover in recent years. One is forbidden from marking ones body if you are Jewish becuase we have a covenant with God. We are held to a higher standard and we must acknowledge that our destiny is to be a leader of humanity. One will weaken one’s covenant with this sort of body design art and one must consider that it is not the purpose that we were created as holy beings to decorate a blemish free skin with blemishes that are not pleasing to Hashem. That said, I recommend this in your future. 1. remove the tattoo. and 2. you may like this one, buy stock in Chlrox. You may even want to make some charatable donations to jewish organizations and quite possibly the humane society as well. (as you are treating yourself like people treat animals). If you buy stock in Chlorox, you will create an angel that will testify for your behalf that you “invested in companies that function to remove stains from society.”. This will in turn counter the angel that was created who is testifying that you are “staining humanity” with yout tattoo. Be it as permissive and likely pacifistic as you may be. This is not True to your Leadership.

Doc says:

I received Ilene’s book (mentioned above) as a gift. It is magnificent and I treasure it. Her drawings are so beautiful and full of symbolism that I was motivated to start studying Torah every week with my rabbi so that I could understand her pictures better.

Hello Doc! Thanks for your kind comment! I am very happy to know my book has found a good home and inquisitive mind to live in! Do contact me if you’ve any questions.

M. says:

Really intriguing thoughts! (Especially given that I stumbled on this by accident!) I consider myself a traditional Jew, and occasionally struggle to square contemporary practices and expectations within our community with the actual sources and bases of legislated Jewish law. For example, if one grows up in an orthodox community, doffing ones kippah is regarded as a sign of rebellion, despite the fact that traditional sources of Jewish law do not mandate always wearing one but instead regard it as a custom of the pious. Like you, I’m not bitter about these occasional disparities between cultural practice and Jewish law, as I realize that the exigencies of different eras, times and societies sometimes call for extra safeguards of tradition to augment traditional legislation. I especially enjoyed how you describe the dialectic of the rational and irrational, and your take on the tzelem elokim (which, by the way, is supported by Maimonides’ claim that this refers to the human intellect). Do you live in Tel Aviv?

Lyon Hamburg says:

This increased interest in body ink today’s is really quite pathetic. Those who tattoo themselves always try to give some deep and profound explanation how the tattoo is symbolic and completes them in some new way. There are many more meaningful and respectful ways to express yourself.

For those interested in a more academic treatment, I just came across this fascinating article in Jewish Bible Quarterly while looking for something else:

http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/381/381_ketovet.pdf

lzr says:

I’m just happy that there’s a chance Liel isn’t writing the weekly drash anymore…

ahad ha'amoratsim says:

Typical self indulgence. Judaism is not Burger King, and you don’t get to have it your way just because you want it badly enough. This is simply a recasting of Woody Allen’s joke that the Torah did not prohibit pork but simply recommended strongly against eating pork in certain restaurants. Except that Allen was not rationalizing his departure from Torah norms but satirizing the rationalizations that people use to recast any Torah norms that they find to be inconvenient.

You wanted a tattoo, you got a tattoo. My friend wanted to eat chazar so he ate chazar. Your justifications for why the tattoo is consistent with Torah are no more convincing than pointing out that the chazar has a cleft hoof.

Orthodox Orientated Jew says:

Didn’t Jimmy Buffett say it the best when he called it a “permanent reminder of a temporary feeling”?

Dear Lyon
My pursuit of a tattoo bodysuit makes me happy. Happiness must be meaningless.

tami says:

i am a jew with tattoos. to me, it is art.

@lyon hamburg – first, i just want to say that i find it quite distasteful that you are passing judgement on people that you dont know (saying they are pathetic). second, i dont have any deep meanings associated with my tattoos. my tattoos are first and foremost asthetic art. second, they are representative of times in my life that i want to always remember. for instance – i have an armful of flowers that remind me of my wedding and honeymoon – two of the happiest times of my life. what is so wrong with that, and furthermore, why do you even care what others are doing with their bodies so long as it does not harm you?

Flo says:

Meaning, schmeaning. What about what G-d wants? He said, “No tattoing.” You did anyway? Have the decency to be honest and say, “I broke that law,” not try to finagle it around to mean, “tattoes are great – if they add meaning to your life.” Make enough changes, and at some point, it’s a different religion.

Shemayah says:

Go Flo. No drash, just my real feeling based on my feeling, like those who want a tat. My daughter first showed up some little tiny “prison” tatoo her damned goy boyfriend did on her ass. (Yeah, well….)and I was furious and cried in a parking lot where I saw it as she lifted something into the car and her blouse raised up. He branded her, and she let him.Later she got another, a pro job for a “tramp stamp” that covered the other. She is embarrassed now. I love art, have worked in art, artsy-craftsy, the whole schmear. But when I saw it she was first branded as a goy possession, and later as “like them.” Sorry. I don’t like it and I don’t like them. And seeing her act and look like them is not textual discomfort, but in the heart.

philip windsor says:

Proscribed or not by halacha, I consider tattooing on men, and especially women, in the worst possible taste. It is the ultimate
vulgarism and indicative of a low mentality, although quite acceptable when seen on drunken sailors!

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Branded

I’d always wanted a tattoo, but believed, following this week’s parasha, that it was categorically prohibited. Before making the commitment, I had to wrestle with the text.

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