Jewish and Tattooed: Prohibited Ink

Jewish and Tattooed: Prohibited Ink

Being a Jew with tattoos comes with its own specialized set of contradictions

I got my first tattoo my second year living away from home. I’d always wanted tattoos as a kid, loved the look of art permanently inscribed on people, and knew it was just a matter of when. My first tattoo was very carefully crafted. I designed a starfish in basic black ink, and photocopied the image several times over so I could look at it everywhere, in case I wanted to change my mind. I asked around to dear friends, and found a female tattoo artist I respected and admired, and who did justice putting my own art on my body. It was a thoughtful process and a decision that ripped open some floodgates that only the internet makes possible — a friend documented my fresh, new body art and posted it to Facebook.

“You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28).

This is the line in the Torah that dictates that you don’t damage your own flesh. God isn’t just reminding us he’s the Lord — whenever he makes a decree in the Torah, he ends said decree with the phrase “I am the Lord” as a means to say, Follow my rules. And all of this is up for debate.

According to Professor Aaron Demsky of Bar-Ilan University, non-idolatrous tattooing (remember: idols are a huge no-no in Judaism and Islam — there are no idols as they could take the place of God himself) may have been permitted during biblical times, especially if those tattoos were in honor of God.  “See, I have engraved You on the palms of my hands…” (Isaiah 49:16).

Starfish (photo by Katie Vidan of the author) #Jewish #Tattooed #Jewwithtattoos #torah

A few days after getting my tattoo, I got a long, nasty call from my mother: “Why would you desecrate your body like that?!” She was furious. We got into a heated debate over the phone while I paced back and forth in front of my local coffee shop.

“Well, it’s my body and my choice, wouldn’t you agree?” I was a snarky college student who had just learned how to politicize everything.

If you’re at all familiar with Judaism, you might have gotten wind that Jews love to argue. It’s not a stereotype — it’s actually the way we want to do things, and we’ve dedicated large parts of our cultural free time to debate. There’s a whole faction of Torah study where Talmudic (the central text that guides Rabbinical study) scholars debate, question, and argue over the meaning of certain passages, and those arguments further the study of the roots of Judaism. We even center our Passover seders (the big meal around one of our biggest holidays) around asking questions and answering them, and leaving the floor open to any debate and interpretation of age-old Haggadah (the book that guides the Passover seder) verses.

Nautilus on the shoulder (photo by Katie Vidan of the author) #Jewish #Tattooed #Jewwithtattoos #torah

“You can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery!” My mother railed.

“You shouldn’t have your ears pierced then!” I snapped back. I had been sent to Hebrew School from age seven to 13. I knew my Torah law.

“That’s DIFFERENT,” my mother argued, but it didn’t matter to me. I saw her argument as hypocritical, and by the strict sense of Jewish law, it was. We wound up hanging up on each other that day and, as was the case during most of my college years, didn’t speak for a little while. We’ve gotten much better at communicating since, and I’ve gotten much, much more tattooed. I’ve never been worried about being buried in a Jewish cemetery — will there even be space for me in this twisted world, anyway, and maybe cremation is better or one of those tree-burial-seeds? — and my Reform Jewish heritage doesn’t cause me any grief.

There are arguments throughout all levels of Jewish culture for and against tattooing, from wildly conservative to wildly liberal. The more directly, aggressively practicing among us argue that we are made in God’s image and we essentially shouldn’t mess with that. The permanent, voluntary act of tattooing should be forbidden, according to some, but it’s okay to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, as we all have probably sinned a little bit at some point. Does death equal atonement? There are a number of young rabbis with tattoos now, and they have plenty to say about what’s a mitzvah (a good deed) and an aveira (a bad one), and how Leviticus is also the Torah / Bible verse that demands we only wear linens and not shave our beards or sow different seeds in the same field. We all must grow with the times, basically, and tattoos have become a part of our current time and place.

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