Ask the Rabbis // Are Tattoos and Body Piercings Taboo?
The Torah’s proscriptions of tattoos applied to imitating religio-cultic ways of peoples who don’t exist anymore, such as Hittites and Yevusites, and later to any peoples with antithetical ways. However, they do not include socio-cultural customs. The late ultra-Orthodox halachic authority Rav Moshe Feinstein made this point on Jews and jeans based on the injunction “You shall not walk in the statutes of the nations,” which he said addressed religio-cultic practices, not social customs, and therefore, Jews could wear jeans. A decorative tattoo is a social custom. The second-century Rabbi Shim’on ruled that a tattoo is only forbidden if it’s a god’s name and thus related to worship. The Talmud also quotes Bar Kapara, who went further: “…only if you tattoo the name of a deity other than God.” Same with piercings. The Torah describes piercings as common among Jews, making no distinction between ear or nose rings. We circumcise and pierce. If Hittites pierced their elbows in four places and wore tattoos of a fox chasing a rabbit, then those cultic actions would be disallowed. Any community that refuses to bury Jews in a Jewish cemetery because they have decorative tattoos or nose rings is practicing what I call “erroneo-outta-contexto” Judaism, which is a far worse violation of Torah than a Hittite tattoo.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler, Walking Stick Foundation, Thousand Oaks, CA
As secular and cultural Jews, we embrace the idea that mitzvot are self-imposed commandments that we place on ourselves. Although guided by our heritage, we recognize that Judaism is ever-evolving. We have the freedom to break from tradition and make decisions that are compatible with modern sensibilities. On occasion, however, cultural Jews who have otherwise rejected rabbinic edicts fall back on traditional teachings to argue a position that may counter contemporary choices that they normally defend. A case in point is tattoos. Ironically, while countless rabbis have punctured the misconception that burial of a tattooed body in a Jewish cemetery is prohibited, some secular Jews misquote them when objecting to these practices. They resort to an old-time defense, namely, “Jews don’t do these things.” But many Jews do, and not just young people, but older ones, too. They do so for all sorts of reasons, including marking a significant birthday, commemorating a rite of passage, asserting pride in identity or simply using the body as a canvas for art. If Jewish teachings enter the picture at all, they are welcome lessons that promote personal expression. In the end, whether or not one views tattoos and body piercings as taboo is entirely an individual matter.
Rabbi Peter Schweitzer, The City Congregation for Humanist Judaism, New York, NY
A lively congregation will attract young adults—some with fashionable tattoos and body piercings. Parents and their teens will grapple with what Judaism teaches us about these kinds of body modifications. Most parents grew up when cosmetic surgery was dangerous. The only tattoos many saw were on the arms of Holocaust survivors. Any teen serious about the mitzvot of honoring parents and protecting bodily integrity should know that tattoos and some piercings contradict these mitzvot. Torah clearly forbids tattooing and self-cutting as ways of mourning or memorializing. However, Torah also implies that piercings can be opportunities for good or bad. The Israelite men donated their earrings to build the golden calf, but the Israelite women donated theirs to build the mishkan (sanctuary). Similarly, the piercing question offers teens an opportunity to develop their middot (inner qualities). A group that impulsively visits a piercing parlor to see who is most daring cultivates peer pressure and irresponsible spending habits. But a teen who spends months researching the pros and cons of fashion versus safety while consulting the Internet, her or his parents and the youth group leader, is learning to act with intelligence and integrity.
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, Or Shalom Synagogue, Vancouver, British Columbia
“Reconstructionism is a method, rather than a series of affirmations,” said founder Mordecai Kaplan. How we decide is as important as what. Piercing and tattoos offer a concise example. We say, “The past gets a vote, not a veto,” so what does tradition say? In Exodus 21, a pierced ear means you rejected freedom, but in Ezekiel 16, a nose ring is God-given “finery.” Tattoos are historically prohibited—maybe all, maybe just those with the name of God, or with death themes. In our American context (which also gets a “vote”) piercing is no big deal, and once-rebellious tattoos are now on every other twenty-something. What your community thinks, today, matters much. Discuss it with family and friends first. What core values are at stake? Body art either honors or diminishes the divine gift. It boils down to honoring one’s body, which is inherently subjective. Content and intent matter: A faddish “Mary Mom and Hell’s Angels” won’t make the cut; a considered chai might. What might we affirm? Don’t over-focus on appearance (yours or another’s). Keep priorities straight (are piercing/tattoo parlors not wrong, just bitul zman, a misuse of precious time?). And respect bodies in ways that count: Jewish burials happen, tattooed or not; they happen later if you exercise and eat right!
Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD
The problem isn’t that these practices violate some ritual prohibition (isur) in the Torah. True, Leviticus 19:28 forbids “tattooing.” But the tradition explains this as a measure to keep us from imitating the ways of pagans whose religious cults involved tattooing. Those in our community who tattoo themselves for reasons of personal adornment are certainly not engaged in pagan worship (avodah zarah). And the Torah even tells us that our ancestors wore nose rings (Genesis 24:47, Ezekiel 16:12). The problem is that tattooing and piercing may violate our tradition’s demand that we treat our bodies with reverence and that we not inflict unnecessary physical damage (chavalah) upon ourselves. This standard, of course, is far from objective; how, precisely, does one define “reverence” and “unnecessary damage”? Many might argue that their tattoos and piercings express deep respect, rather than contempt, for their bodies. Maybe, maybe not. But this is the proper conversation for us to have: We ought to consider what we mean when we talk about “respect for the body” and “adornment” as Jewish values. To put it another way, how can we as Jews best express our reverence for the sanctity of the bodies that God has provided us?
Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Professor of Jewish Law and Practice, Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, OH
Jewish tradition teaches that when a human being mints a coin with a mold, all the coins are identical, but God coined every person out of the first human being and each one is unique. This simple text movingly articulates the Jewish approach to the body: We are each God’s own exquisite, beloved creation and should inhabit our bodies in a manner that celebrates this sacred relationship. Tattooing is prohibited explicitly by the Torah (Leviticus 19:28). However, to characterize the issue, especially to young people, in terms of “taboo” misses a crucial opportunity to convey Jewish affirmations of the fundamental dignity of the human being, of religious aspiration to achieve wholeness, and permission to take joy at being in the world. The Conservative position on tattooing states that while we discourage the practice, no sanctions are imposed. The person may be buried in a Jewish cemetery and participate fully in Jewish life and ritual. We live in a society of immense stress. Many, including—tragically—many young people, struggle to manage themselves with abuse of food, drugs, tobacco, alcohol, cutting…the list is troublingly long. We need to remind each other that we are indeed God’s “currency” in the world, unlike man-made coinage, in that we are of immeasurable value.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, The Rabbinical Assembly, New York, NY
A taboo is a practice that a particular culture avoids because it evokes frightening or unpleasant psychological associations. Judaism categorically rejects the primitive notion of a taboo system. The Torah’s commandments and prohibitions address the rational and moral dimension of human existence and, therefore, cannot be classified as taboos. That being said, tattoos are indeed forbidden by the Torah, although violation of the prohibition does not (contrary to the prevalent misconception) ban one from burial in a Jewish cemetery. The human body in its natural state is a wondrous manifestation of God’s master design. We are creations of the Almighty with a transcendent purpose to fulfill in this world. Hijacking the body and transforming it into an artistic canvas or a vehicle for expression distorts these fundamental principles and leads us to believe that we can cast aside the divine image and fashion ourselves after the image of our choice. This attitude is summed up in the common pro-tattoo slogan, “Be Art”—in other words, define yourself as you wish to be rather than as you were meant to be. Wearing jewelry, on the other hand, is considered a beautification of the body rather than a misappropriation for artistic ends.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof, Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Rockville, MD
Ever since Biblical days, tattooing the body was associated with idolatry and magic— in particular with the worship of chthonic (underworld) deities (Leviticus 19:26-31). The specific objection was that tattooing defaces the body that (like the soul) is considered an image of God. Maybe tattooing as permanent defacing is also connected to the ways that slaves were marked as inferior beings. And Nazi behavior should put the practice beyond the pale. When Nazis tattooed numbers on Jews, the message was: You are things, to be used and liquidated for Nazi profit. Tattooing seems to be in some vogue today as a cosmetic/artistic way to individualize the body. For some Jews, this may be fashionable. Yet I read once that most women who remove tattoos eliminate the name/sign of a former husband/lover/boyfriend, which suggests that tattooing often still indicates that a person belongs to someone else. Jewish faith is not opposed to beautifying the body because there is a covenantal partnership between God and humans to improve God’s world (tikkun olam). By restoring tradition and memory to every Jew, Jews could serve as a role model to all on how to beautify—not deface—the precious body every person is given to live a unique existence beautifully.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, New York, NY
Human beings are naturally social creatures who create clubs, form teams, build nations, even become mobs. These social structures give us a collective identity: “Together We Stand.” But to reap these benefits we must dress alike, eat alike, speak alike, think alike. When conformity goes too far, there’s a need to assert individuality. The result is rebellion. Sometimes, a non-conformist refuses to be lost in the crowd. Eventually he needs social connections and encourages others in unconventional behaviors. The result is fads. The divine purpose behind this human trait is G-d’s desire that we take responsibility for the world’s development. Adam and Eve were created last to be responsible for all that came before, including each other. Hence, to have an effect on others one must be in close touch with the other—to be influenced. Tattoos and piercings are having their day like bell bottoms, cabbage patch dolls and extreme hair styles. Tattoos serve as a means for group identity and non-conformity, but are only skin deep. Better to belong through shared faith, philosophy, or a vital cause. Better to be an individual through innate natural gifts that make you who you are. Tattoos are not kosher. The laws are detailed in the Shulchan Aruch and in Rambam under idolatry.
Rabbi Manis Friedman, Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies, St. Paul, MN