My sister Meirav recently called me from a business trip and announced she was getting a tattoo. I, of course, gave her all the reasons this was not a good idea, to quickly realize it was not my decision to make. Meirav did listen THIS TIME, but it also had me wondering whether or not a tattoo can be kosher in today's Judaism.
My sisters and I were always told that tattoos were not allowed. Not only frowned upon by our Iraqi father, like short skirts and revealing tops, but by Judaism. We believed Jews with tattoos on their bodies would be denied burial in a Jewish cemetery. One modern reason cited by many is the holocaust and its close association with branding, which I fully understand and respect, but if that were true did it mean that those who have survived the holocaust could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery? That couldn't be true and needed some more research.
Not surprisingly, I found out that the views differ widely, as is true with so many other things in Judaism. Different rabbis hold different opinions, and the old adage about tattoos in a Jewish cemetery also appears to be not so true. So, what's a Jew to do?
Like many other practices and customs, the prohibition is rooted in the text. Leviticus 19:28 states, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead nor incise any marks on yourself: I am the Lord.” Clear as day, right? There is widespread discussion on whether this is simply a prohibition of tattoos that refer to G-d or all tattoos. In addition, back when the text was written, tattooing was done to mark slaves, often the name of a slave’s owner would be tattooed or branded on his hand or forehead. Some now argue that as tattooing has evolved, Leviticus is no longer valid.
And what about the Jewish symbols, Hebrew words, and other Jew-ish tattoos that one could argue help tie Jews together as a community? in recent years, the tattoo has emerged as a tool for younger Jews to connect to their past and express their personal identify, and many very talented tattoo artists have dedicated their work to do just that.
Some Jews have even begun to tattoo themselves with the Auschwitz numbers of relatives so that the world remembers the atrocities done to their loved ones. Because Holocaust survivors are now dying, the descendants who memorialize them do so because they want to make sure that the world never forgets the suffering their family endured.
Once again, as is often the case, we, as Jews, have the opportunity to adopt the halachic interpretation that most relates to our family and lifestyle. Most who know me well know I'm very much a traditionalist, but I'm also a realist: we live in a world where some of the rules for Judaism, especially non-Orthodox Judaism, have evolved, and will continue to evolve. If we want to be seen as a modern religion where all Jews feel welcome, we need to continue to ask questions, rethink, read between the lines, and try our best to include, not exclude, others.
Hannah, Zach, and Mia, if you're interpreting this as an invitation to go and get inked, read again. But I'm happy to discuss and debate it with you around the dinner table if and when you're ready to do so.