Tattoo This: The Jewish Body Is No Longer Off Limits

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One of the most wonderful things about the Jewish tradition — the encouragement to ask questions — also makes it hard, sometimes, to get a straight answer.

But when it comes to tattoos, there’s definitely a consensus: It is expressly forbidden to get a tattoo. The foundation for the prohibition appears in Leviticus: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”

“That is the proof text,” said Rabbi Philip Warmflash, executive director of Jewish Learning Venture.

The rationale for the text, however — and the way in which we interpret it now — has of course been subject to debate.

“The reason for the ban is not given in the text,” said Warmflash, but “many commentators consider it an act of idolatry.”

According to Maimonides, it was a pagan custom to mark oneself with the name of a chosen deity, so the law evolved out of a desire to avoid behavior that resembled that of idol-worshippers. Some commentators believed the law prohibited all tattoos; others believed it applied only to tattoos that invoked God’s name.

“You can’t tattoo the Canaanite God Baal, Jesus, YHVH or God’s name,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, or “anything that represents cultic practices of the ancient world.”

But even if you interpreted Leviticus to prohibit only tattoos of idolatry — in which case that butterfly on your lower back might be OK — there are additional reasons that tattooing is discouraged in the Jewish tradition.

“Others trace the ban [against tattooing] from the concept that mankind was created in b’tzelem elohim, [in God’s image] and tattooing changes that image,” said Rabbi Warmflash.

Wernick put it more poetically: “If our bodies are a canvas, then God is the artist. We wouldn’t paint teeth on the Mona Lisa.”

And yet plenty of Jewish people do alter their bodies: They get their ears pierced, they get facelifts, they dye their hair, they go for teeth whitening, Botox and nose jobs. And they get tattoos.

In the past 10 years or so, Jews have gotten tattoos in increasing numbers, such that the trend has occasioned numerous public commentaries, including a symposium on the subject in Moment Magazine, and a documentary film called Tattoo Jew.

Some American and Israeli Jews have confronted the issue of forced tattooing during the Holocaust by getting tattooed with a relative’s concentration camp number. Tattoo parlors have sprung up all over Israel, and in the United States, there is an increasing number of Jewish tattoo artists.

Shawn Dubin, who moved from his native Philadelphia to New Orleans two years ago, has been a tattoo artist for 19 years. He got his first tattoo when he was a rebellious 18.

“I knew it was forbidden in Judaism,” he said, “which kind of drew me to it more, of course. I tried to hide it and failed miserably. My family wasn’t too keen on it.”

Since he started in the business, he’s seen an increase in the numbers of Jewish people both getting tattoos and giving them.

“With overall broader acceptance of tattooing, a lot of Jewish people are loosening up about it,” he said. “When I first started, you didn’t really hear about [Jewish tattoo artists]. Now it’s not uncommon.”

Rebecca Frank, a theater director and classroom teaching artist who also lives in New Orleans, grew up in Atlanta and attended an Orthodox high school. She got her first tattoo, of Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire cat, at 18.

But her second tattoo, which she got the same year, addressed her heritage specifically: “It’s of barbed wire and the Hebrew word Zachor! (remember!).”

This one, she said, was partly a result of her “youthful questioning” about God.

“I didn’t think that a higher power would care about a rule so ensconced in human-ness,” she said, “or allow good people to not be buried in a particular cemetery because of a tattoo. Does God really spend time thinking about these things? Was God that petty?”

The short answer is no. While we can’t answer all of Frank’s questions, we did reach out to a number of experts in Jewish burial to ask if having a tattoo precludes someone from being buried in a Jewish cemetery.

“No, that’s not true,” said a representative from Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks Inc., Philadelphia’s oldest Jewish funeral home. “How could a Holocaust survivor be buried then? I cannot tell you where this came from, but many Jewish people have tattoos.”

The folks at the National Association of Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial societies) think the idea probably comes from an episode of the sitcom The Nanny from the 1990s, which promulgated this idea.

Wernick, of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has a different theory about the misperception: “The notion that people with tattoos can’t be buried in a cemetery,” he said, “was pushed by Jewish mothers.”

From a strictly religious standpoint, Warmflash said: “There is no prohibition against burying someone with a tattoo in a Jewish cemetery or denying them participation in any Jewish ritual.”

Yet the notion is pervasive, even among non-Jews.

“I have non-Jewish friends who tease me about not being able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery,” said Michelle Harrison, a woman who got her first tattoo at 50.

Broad Street Review Editor Wendy Rosenfeld, who has multiple tattoos and would like to get more, said, “Once I got my tattoos, my mom decided she wanted them, and she’s since gotten two and pierced her nose. My grandmother would have fainted if she were alive to see it.”

On the flip side, some Jewish children are inspired to get tattoos because their parents have them.

Philadelphia’s Mark Greenstein grew up with a dad who had tattoos from his years in the U.S. Air Force.

“He hates them,” said Greenstein of his father. “I loved them.” When he was old enough, he got several tattoos himself, including one in Hebrew that says “Winter is coming.”

“It reflects my Jewish identity to a real degree,” Greenstein explained. “That phrase was written on a sign at a protest during the 2011 Israel elections. It sums things up for the Jewish identity quite nicely, aside from being a pop artifact taken out of context and subverted.”

Like Greenstein, Aviva Kaminsky was influenced by parental ink.

“My mother has tattoos so when I was little, I wanted them, too,” she said. “I got my first two tattoos in Israel. I have a piece of Israeli street art tattooed on my right arm. I like the idea that our bodies are temples, and tattoos are adornment.”

Still, Kaminsky did hide her tattoos from her paternal grandmother, who disliked them — an issue many Jews with tattoos have to confront.

Rich Wexler, a West Philadelphia artist and teacher, has several tattoos he’s had to hide.

“My first tattoo is chofesh, which is the word for freedom, recess, vacation and permanent vacation, which I think sums up my life very well,” he said. “I also have a Jewish star. My tattoos definitely have to do with reclaiming the use of them from the memory of the Holocaust.”

But when Wexler worked at a Jewish Orthodox school, he hid his neck tattoo with Band-Aids and stickers. And as an employee at a Jewish Orthodox day camp, he said, “I worked in a kiln room. I had to wear a black turtleneck all summer. I’ve never been thinner.”

Philadelphia native Johanna, who now lives and works in New York (and didn’t want her full name used because her grandmother reads the Exponent), has also become practiced in the art of hiding.

“I wear a lot of long sleeves — even in the summer,” she said. “I am aware of how much my grandmother will freak out if she ever finds out.”

Yet her tattoos have deep meaning to her: “The second tattoo I got — a  quotation by Walt Whitman — was kind of a personal revolutionary act,” she said. “After having lost myself in an abusive relationship, I had finally started to be me again — and the quotation I selected was, in many ways, reflective of that point.”

Jewish hospice nurse Ashley van Wart, who has a full back tattoo that stretches from her neck all the way down to the middle of her thighs, also has complex feelings about her body art.

“In a way, the tattoo is about being seen, and truly showing up in the world,” she said. “For much of my life I’ve been ambivalent about life. Here on this earth, but not in any way embracing it. Not exactly hiding, but always on the periphery. Being covered in ink is not something that most people miss (when it’s visible) and it offers an opportunity to connect, rather than remain disengaged.”

Mark Greenstein agrees: “There’s something seriously empowering about Hebrew permanently written on my skin in a place where I can’t hide,” he said. “I guess that’s my way of both refusing and accepting assimilation.”

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