Tattoo Jew: The Definitive Guide to Jewish Thought and Law Regarding the Practice of Tattooing
What follows after this introduction is an interview I conducted with Henry Harris, an Orthodox Rabbi who is the Educational Director of the Aish Center in Manhattan. His credentials in the Jewish world are quite remarkable and it is important to note that he comes from an observant and traditional community.
However, do not allow the term "traditional" (or the beard) to be limiting here. In the midst of this interview process as well as in preceding and follow-up conversations, Rabbi Harris or, as he prefers to be called, Henry proved himself a worldly and thoughtful individual, open to learning just as much as he is to teaching.
Since I first approached him, Rabbi Harris has been respectful of my personal tattoo choices and eager to share his thoughts with a community of curious individuals. There is a lot of misinformation about the Jewish beliefs regarding tattoos. Some of what follows was news to me and I was, personally, corrected of mistakes in my understanding.
Learning is a proud, Jewish tradition and I am happy to be a conduit between the Rabbi and the readers.
Greetings, Rabbi Harris. Let's begin at the ending. If you are tattooed, can you be buried in a Jewish cemetery?
Absolutely. Getting a tattoo in Jewish wisdom is viewed as a no-no, a lack of awe of the masterpiece called our body. It's not grounds for divorce [from Judaism]-- especially not from the Jewish people.
Will the cemetery have to cut out the tattoo or the portion of the body bearing the tattoo?
Absolutely not. Judaism considers the human body to be a perfect creation. We do not want any of it cut or removed for any reason if it can be avoided. The exception is if removing a body part would save a life, such as in certain cases of organ donation.
Then, why do parents react so strongly against this topic? I mean, most non-practicing Jewish parents will adhere to this rule, but may not follow other religious rules. Any idea why this one is so scandalous? As a youth, the only reason my mother gave was "you can't be buried in a Jewish cemetery."
It is a shame that the idea of exclusion was used to express their opinion. Truth is, Judaism is a very welcoming community. As I said before, tattoos are not grounds for a divorce, or for a split between the Jewish community and her children.
As for parents, I think this is a value that speaks to folks on several levels. On the most basic level, the Torah tells us not to tattoo because it undermines our awe for the gift of life and the human body. We just wouldn't stomach a tattoo on the Mona Lisa or a Rembrandt. To us, the body is created perfect, so any addition or subtraction for that matter would, automatically, be considered a lessening of that perfection. That is not to say that tattoos are not beautiful pieces of art. I would just display them on a different canvas.
But, the anger from parents extends beyond this conception of "undermining our awe for the gift of life." There must be more to it.
Once upon a time, tattoos were just not so common. Someone wearing a tattoo was making a statement of rebellion and rejection of a perceived wholesomeness, and to some extent a perceived hypocrisy in that "wholesomeness." Old School Jews, even non-observant ones, still feel that tattoos are an affront to that wholesomeness.
So, it is a perception thing or, is it against Jewish law to be tattooed? Can you point me to a specific passage that forbids tattooing?
Leviticus, 19:28 -- "You shall not make a cut in your flesh on account of the dead, and a tattoo you shall not place upon yourselves - I am Hashem (the Creator)."
I find it difficult to believe that the Bible actually references tattoos.
The word tattoo was not in use at the time, but the passage I mentioned literally describes the act of cutting yourself and inserting ink into the skin. All translations use the word tattoo as it is exactly the process being described.
What attracts many to Judaism is the intellectual and spiritual interplay allowed within. So much of Jewish thought encourages and allows personal interpretation of the law. Is there room for that here?
Judaism absolutely affirms the concept of interplay, dialogue, and pluralistic thinking -- within boundaries. Ultimately, there are some parameters. If someone wanted to murder in the name of the Jews, No. That's not a legitimate definition of Jewish thought and practice.
So what are the boundaries? They're contained within a powerful, sophisticated, yet precise body of wisdom revealed to a nation of Isrealights at Mt. Sinai and maintained through an exceedingly rigorous transmission process.
We Jews are the only people in the world who maintain that an entire nation heard a Divine revelation. Other religious beliefs rely upon the claim of one individual, most often a man, to have heard a revelation, and then interpret and deliver its message. In Judaism, men and women, poor and rich, educated and not all heard revelation.
I am proud to say that Judaism has an unbroken tradition of Oral Teaching going back thousands of years. Within that wisdom, tattoos have always been considered forbidden.
Someone with such concern for a history of story-telling and community should appreciate tattooing, which is, itself, a form of story-telling within a specific community.
I do very much appreciate the art and skill of tattooing and understand that most tattooists are also gifted artists in other mediums and am always open to seeing new art work. There is much that I can appreciate but do not wish to partake in for spiritual, personal, health or other reasons. Like, for instance, eating too much chocolate cake. I gain so much from my connection to Hashem and the history of my people, that, in cases like this, I do not consider it a loss.
What is the inter-connection between other Jewish laws regarding dress and appearance and the tattoo forbiddance?
Appearance in Judaism is about accepting our physical and bodily dimension. Unlike other belief systems, we do not consider the human body to be evil or gross. Instead, we choose to emphasize our soul/value dimension.
We aim to dress in a way that is attractive and put-together, but not attention-getting for the sake of attention getting. I, my life, and my self-esteem work better when I am not associating myself and placing heavy attention on physicality per se.
It takes courage and conviction to speak through the dignity of my actions and words and I, for one, see that the Jewish values associated with dress nudge me down that "courage" road. Tattoos are an example of focusing on the body in a way that your words can be less emphasized. And more to the point, the Creator -- who knows life better and loves me more than I do -- says it's a no-no.
Judaism encourages the arts, correct? How does this relate to that?
Similar idea. Art is creating something authentic and unique that moves people - but not anywhere. There are certain things that are artistic in nature but undermine some of the ideal values we're looking to celebrate.
Similarly, Judaism encourages personal agency. How does this relate to that?
Personal agency for personal agency's sake doesn't work. This might be controversial to many, but my overwhelming experience of life bears out one main conclusion -- Jewish wisdom is real; it's changed the world for the better; it changes the life of anyone who takes it seriously. If Jewish wisdom says that there's a Creator who gave us instructions for living, it behooves me to investigate that claim.
Check it out for myself - Judaism doesn't ask for leaps of faith. It demands, "Know there is a Creator."
If Judaism allowed tattooing, would you consider it?
Sure! (but I'm a wimp, so I think the discomfort would require it to be a commandment before I'd do it).
What tattoo would the Rabbi get if he could get one?
King David with book in one hand and sword in the other?
What becomes of one who is tattooed but chooses to live a more traditionally religious life? Can he just stop getting tattoos? Would he be accepted into the religious community?
Absolutely. This happens hundreds of times every year.
Most Jews who get tattooed, seem to get Jewish symbols tattooed on themselves. Can you offer an analysis as to why?
Every Jew, in his soul, has a connection to their people and their heritage. Out loud and proud, baby!
Is is worse to get a Jewish tattoo? Is it better?
It shows a greater love of Jewish identity, which is great (the Jews of Egypt were doing all kinds of problematic things, but they identified outwardly with Jewish identity and destiny, and they became "Team Jew"). That doesn't change that it's still not allowed.
Rabbi Henry Harris is the Educational Director of the Aish Center. Having "graduated" from Judaism at his Bar Mitzvah, he went on to study history at Columbia University, freelance for the Washington Post, and teach inner city youth in New York. Traveling in Israel before grad school, he unexpectedly fell in love with Judaism, traded a PhD program for the rabbinate, met his wife Tzipora, and a year later joined the Aish Center in Manhattan where they live and entertain with their children.
The Aish Center's mission: "To create a renaissance of Jewish pride in New York City."