Ask a Jew: Can Jews have tattoos?

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Can Jews have tattoos?

SPO_Ask-a-Jew-ad_042114This is a timely question, at least for Reform Judaism magazine: Its latest cover story explores the issue of Jews with tattoos in depth. Among the tattooed Jews featured is hip Texas rabbi Marshal Klaven, whose skin bears multiple symbols and words that declare his devotion to Judaism. As far as whether Jews in general are supposed to have tattoos… well, as with most questions I answer, there doesn’t seem to be a foundational policy that all Jews are expected to follow. In doing his own research, Klaven debunked some conventional wisdom, including the oft-repeated notion that tattooed Jews can’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries. An Orthodox rabbi told him that nothing in Jewish law actually prohibits the burial of a Jew with body art among his or her fellows. However, the rabbi added that “certain burial societies — not the majority of them,” nonetheless refuse to inter a tattooed Jew.

Other Jews profiled in the article have various reasons for getting — or not getting — tattoos. A young man with a stutter, which he compares to Moses’s, has “Be Heard” inked on his left bicep. Another young man, Joseph Metz, took the controversial step of having his grandfather’s concentration camp inmate number tattooed on his wrist as an homage. I found it interesting that Metz’s father told him that, many years before, he himself had considered (but not gone through with) getting a similar tattoo. Perhaps, for grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, two generations is just enough distance to allow for riskier, edgier responses to that unthinkable horror.

In true progressive Jewish style, even the Jews who tell the magazine why they’re not tattooed refuse to make sweeping generalizations about what’s right for all Jews. Miriam Hopper, a 29-year-old Brooklynite, acknowledges that tattoos aren’t much different from piercings or plastic surgery. Still, she considers the body sacred and thinks body modification “should not be taken lightly.” Similarly, Missy Goldstein references the Nazis’ use of tattoos to dehumanize Jews, but the main reason she remains uninked is personal: She believes tattoos “cover up the complexity of one’s identity by reducing it to a simple sign or statement.” I would imagine that for many other American Jews, the tattoo question is as much about individual philosophy and aesthetics as about theology. In other words, it’s more a cultural Jewish issue than a religious one.

But what about Leviticus? Yes, Leviticus 19:28 forbids “incised marks,” a phrase commonly taken to mean tattoos. But this sole verse is heavily outnumbered by seemingly pro-tattoo statements in the Old Testament. From the mark of Cain to the Xs on the foreheads of righteous people prophesied in Ezekiel 9:4, “incised” symbols that tie someone to Judaism and God are depicted in a positive light. According to Nili Fox, professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Levitical ban may apply only to tattoos that connote vanity or idolatry— which would give today’s Jewish tattoo seekers a whole lot of leeway.

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